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Expressing Yourself With Marks

February 8, 2011

I first wrote about the use of line and marks in paintings in a previous post titled “Drawing on Inspiration.” That post shows some examples of lines used in an abstract way in several of my paintings. In the comments with yesterday’s post, a couple of readers expressed the desire to read more about lines and marks in paintings. So I’ll expand on this a little bit.

Sometimes I like to enclose things with a line . . . not exactly outlining, just encircling, or enveloping, or accentuating  . . .

KW8 - Acrylic on Canvas, 4 x 4 x .75"

Spirits - Acrylic on Paper, 5 x 7"

Sometimes I like to let the little kid come out to play . . . (yes, you have one too!)

Safari, Acrylic on Canvas, 7 x 5 x 1.5"

And create automatic drawing or scribbles in response to the colors . . .

Rising, Acrylic on Canvas, 5 x 5 x .75"

I love to make big, fast sweeping strokes on a large surface.

Untitled - Acrylic on Canvas, 36 x 60"

Untitled - Acrylic on Canvas, 36 x 60"

Untitled - Acrylic on panel, 30 x 30 x 2"

Tools for making marks in paintings can be:


If you want a large sweeping stroke, you can use a soft brush with long bristles the width of the desired stroke. The black and white painting was created with a very soft,  long-bristled house painting brush.

If you want a stroke that is more like a drawn line using a brush, you can either use a worn-out bristle brush or trim off the bristles. Try this with a very long-handled brush for a very delicate sensitive line. It will not deposit a controllable amount of paint, but this will give it a very random, spontaneous quality.

Alternative Tools

A firm, fast stroke can be drawn with something other than a brush, like a piece of rag or paper towel.

An irregular, random line can be made with a drawing instrument or brush attached to a long stick.

Markers may be used, but they should be light fast and protected with a coat of clear acrylic afterward.

Paint pens, paint markers, and tubes of fabric paints are other things that can be used.

Strokes can be drawn right on top of the dried paint. Or they can be scratched through a coat of wet paint, using a pencil, toothpick, or even a stick.

Pastels and charcoal can be used with good effects. If you paint over them with clear acrylic, that will allow them to smear slightly with interesting results. If you want them to stay intact, then spray them with clear acrylic.

Even oil pastels can be used on top of acrylic paint. Once they are down, you can’t ever successfully cover them up. But that can be used to your advantage. Imagine a line made with oil pastel over acrylic. Then imagine another coat of color partially covering that line and then wiping the paint away from the line after it is dry.

Those are some possibilities! I’ve probably forgotten some. I hope this gets the gears turning for some new experiments.

22 Comments leave one →
  1. February 8, 2011 1:17 pm

    I love your marks. They accentuate the beauty of your pieces.

    Thanks for all the great ideas for mark making tools.

    I met someone at an art show who uses charcoal to draw on oil. I was a little worried as I had been taught that the oil would eventually eat the charcoal but he didn’t seem worried about it at all. As a fellow mixed-media artist, what are your thoughts?

  2. February 8, 2011 1:22 pm

    Awesome post Martha!! Thank you for sharing these mark making tips with us all. Am I correct in assuming that the first 4 paintings and the marks on them were created with the Ebony Pencil you talked about in yesterday’s post?

    I got so excited about the Ebony Pencil and possibilities with it that I started checking around in my area to see who carries it so I could have it right away. Turns out Michaels craft store has it! They at least have the 2 pack and I’m going by there shortly and see if they have the 12 pk too. Can’t wait to play with it! 🙂

    • February 8, 2011 3:48 pm

      Itaya, the pencil marks in the two “scribbled” paintings are regular #2 graphite pencil, I believe. At the time I did them, I was afraid I wouldn’t like them and would need to erase them!! So I find that a regular pencil is way easier to erase than the ebony one is. But since I liked them, I just glazed over them.

      The ebony pencils I bought were in a 2-pack as well. They last like for-EV-er!

  3. February 8, 2011 1:33 pm

    Great post, as always…thank you for all that you share…best to you, Sondra

  4. Ian Foster permalink
    February 8, 2011 2:32 pm

    Thank you for this information on making marks, it is just this kind of information that I need in order to progress my painting. Stunning!

    • February 8, 2011 3:49 pm

      Ian, I’m just happy you got something of value from it. I hope I get to see what you’re working on!

  5. Terry permalink
    February 8, 2011 3:33 pm

    Hi Martha. Great post. Thanks for sharing your info. Can’t wait to get my hands on an ebony pencil. In the meantime, I’m going to make friends with the spray can and have another go with the charcoal. The piece I started with charcoal and then smeared, is working out quite well as something completely different than I had planned. I just love it when “art happens”.

  6. February 8, 2011 4:28 pm

    Ooh, what a great post Martha! I love that you explain why you put the marks on…I know that I used to think that everything in art had a “real” reason that was just not apparent to me, an untaught lover of abstract art. Your explanations are wonderfully demystifying….and speak to what I try to do with my sewng machine!

    • February 10, 2011 7:50 am

      Candy, I always think things are a mystery until I just plunge in and do them for a while. And I say “for a while” because often it takes a lot of doing for me to “get it.” I’ve always loved kids’ art, and I guess that’s my inspiration. Just the freedom to put something down without judging it.

      You do them with your sewing machine; I do them with pencils and brushes, but it’s all the same adventure!

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