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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. Sherrill Pearson permalink
    February 8, 2011 8:39 pm

    Thank you, thank you, Martha! You have answered so many questions I have had for a long time, on making marks.

    When I first started looking daily at your blog several years ago, I always was so admiring and intrigued with those lovely marks you made on those gorgeous large paintings you used to make.

    Cheers, Montreal

    • February 9, 2011 5:54 am

      Sherrill, I’m still learning and discovering. I’m grateful and honored that you’ve been along for the ride!

  2. February 8, 2011 9:25 pm

    Thanks Martha for valuable lesson… always open my mind to possibilities.

  3. February 9, 2011 9:55 am

    It takes courage to work like this. The stroke is done, there is no trying and no way back. No reset click. Just like life.
    I admire that.

  4. February 9, 2011 9:53 pm

    Martha your posts are always an excellent inspiring read but this one – well I think you have out done yourself in providing a splendid tutorial for making marks. Thank you for sharing as always. Terrill

    • February 10, 2011 7:51 am

      I’m so happy you enjoyed that, Terrill! And I appreciate your taking the time to stop by and comment.

  5. February 9, 2011 10:11 pm

    I love the idea of turning simple marks and scribbles into a wonderful art. Plus, the color combination is good – it gives life to the marks. I had a funny thought of letting my 3-year old nephew draw lines on a paper and I’d be the one to use color palettes and do the experiment. They’re the ones that I see on coffee shop; they give a relaxing mood to any place.

    • February 10, 2011 7:54 am

      Kat, I agree that it is relaxing to look at free and spontaneous marks. They can convey a very upbeat mood.

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