How Does Mark Making Affect Your Paintings?

Artist painting on paper with a fine paintbrush

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As you explore painting, you might hear art professors, painting instructors, or book authors talk about 'mark making.' While it may seem like some complex, philosophical term used by artists, it is actually quite simple. 

Every time your brush hits the canvas or your pencil makes a line, you are making a mark. It is a fundamental element in making any type of art and it is how we begin to express emotion, movement, and other concepts we wish to convey in an artwork.

What Is Mark Making?

Mark making is a term used to describe the different lines, patterns, and textures we create ​in a piece of art. It applies to any art material on any surface, not only paint on canvas or pencil on paper. A dot made with a pencil, a line created with a pen, a swirl painted with a brush, these are all types of mark making.​

Mark making can be loose and gestural, or structured and controlled such as hatching. Most artists work with a variety of marks in every painting, but there are some styles, such as ​Pointillism, where just one type of mark is used.

It is easy to think of a mark as a building block for whatever you choose to create:

  • A single mark creates a dot.
  • An extended mark becomes a line.
  • A cluster of marks become a shape.
  • A series of repetitive marks become a pattern.

Marks can also be splashes and drips as seen in Jackson Pollock's work or they can be scratches in a potter's glaze. Abstract, realist, impressionist, and every other style of artist use marks.

How Are Marks Used in Painting?

Marks are not just used to form the pictures that artists create, they are also used to add expression to the work. Some marks may express movement while others express stability and strength. Artists can use slashes as marks to express anger or curves as marks to express calm or peace.

Marks can be descriptive, expressive, conceptual, or symbolic. They may be bold and clearly state the intention or they may be so subtle that the concept is only perceived by the viewer's subconscious.

As you study art, you will notice that artists often develop a style that is based on their signature marks. Both Pablo Picasso and Wassily Kandinsky used solid lines and distinct shapes in much of their artwork. Yet, despite the fact that they used the same style of the mark, the two artists have distinctly different styles. Even their paintings that have more flow and less of the Cubist influence incorporate their distinct marks.

Vincent Van Gogh has one of the most distinct marks in the art world. You can see this in paintings like "Starry Night" (1889), which is filled with swirling brush strokes that became a signature to his style. In works like "The Bedroom" (1889), the marks have less curve, but each brush stroke is still distinct and we can recognize it as a Van Gogh.

Henri Matisse is another painter with distinct marks and an almost immediately recognizable style. If you see a painting with blended but almost splotchy color, distinct shadows and highlights, and lines that have a refined sketchy look, it might just be a Matisse.

The point is that every artist uses marks and the more you paint, the more you will find yourself developing a mark making style. Quite often, it is what you are most comfortable with and one that you practice most often. Over time, you will refine your marks — whatever they may be — and soon you will develop a style based on the marks you make.