Student Resource

Mark Making Exam Help

Explore the different ways artists use marks and expressive qualities

Robert Mapplethorpe, ‘Grace Jones’ 1984
Robert Mapplethorpe
Grace Jones 1984
Tate / National Galleries of Scotland
© Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation
Frank Auerbach, ‘Jake’ 1990
Frank Auerbach
Jake 1990
Tate
© Frank Auerbach
Philip Wilson Steer, ‘Figures on the Beach, Walberswick’ c.1888–9
Philip Wilson Steer
Figures on the Beach, Walberswick c.1888–9
Tate
Ellen Gallagher, ‘Bird in Hand’ 2006
Ellen Gallagher
Bird in Hand 2006
Tate
© Ellen Gallagher
Patrick Heron, ‘Azalea Garden : May 1956’ 1956
Patrick Heron
Azalea Garden : May 1956 1956
Tate
© The estate of Patrick Heron
Jean Fautrier, ‘Large Tragic Head’ 1942
Jean Fautrier
Large Tragic Head 1942
Tate
© ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2017
Cy Twombly, ‘Quattro Stagioni: Autunno’ 1993–5
Cy Twombly
Quattro Stagioni: Autunno 1993–5
Tate
© Cy Twombly Foundation
Frank Auerbach, ‘Working Drawing for ‘Primrose Hill’’ 1968
Frank Auerbach
Working Drawing for ‘Primrose Hill’ 1968
Tate
© Frank Auerbach
Gerhard Richter, ‘Abstract Painting (726)’ 1990
Gerhard Richter
Abstract Painting (726) 1990
Tate
© Gerhard Richter
Eva Hesse, ‘Untitled’ 1967
Eva Hesse
Untitled 1967
Tate
© The estate of Eva Hesse, courtesy Hauser & Wirth, Zürich
Jean Dubuffet, ‘Large Black Landscape’ 1946
Jean Dubuffet
Large Black Landscape 1946
Tate
© ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2017
Robert Mapplethorpe, ‘Smutty’ 1980
Robert Mapplethorpe
Smutty 1980
Tate / National Galleries of Scotland
© Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation
Harold Cohen, ‘Untitled Computer Drawing’ 1982
Harold Cohen
Untitled Computer Drawing 1982
Tate
© Harold Cohen
Howard Hodgkin, ‘Rain’ 1984–9
Howard Hodgkin
Rain 1984–9
Tate
© Howard Hodgkin
Eileen Agar, ‘Head of Dylan Thomas’ 1960
Eileen Agar
Head of Dylan Thomas 1960
Tate
© The estate of Eileen Agar

What is mark making? Does it just mean dots, scribbles, and brushstrokes? What do expressive qualities add to the look and feel of an artwork?

What is mark making? Why use gestural qualities?

Mark making describes the different lines, dots, marks, patterns, and textures we create in an artwork. It can be loose and gestural or controlled and neat. It can apply to any material used on any surface: paint on canvas, ink or pencil on paper, a scratched mark on plaster, a digital paint tool on a screen, a tattooed mark on skin…even a sound can be a form of mark making. Artists use gesture to express their feeling and emotions in response to something seen or something felt – or gestural qualities can be used to create a purely abstract composition.

Capturing life

Willem de Kooning, ‘Untitled’ 1966–7
Willem de Kooning
Untitled 1966–7
Tate
© Willem de Kooning Revocable Trust/ARS, NY and DACS, London 2017
Armand Guillaumin, ‘Moret-sur-Loing’ 1902
Armand Guillaumin
Moret-sur-Loing 1902
Tate

The impressionists used mark making – in the form of separate brush marks or dabs of paint – to add life, movement and light to their paintings of the things they saw around them. Later artists working in an expressionist style such as Willem de Kooning also created representational artworks using mark making. In his Untitled drawing of 1966–7 de Kooning uses rough charcoal lines, marks and smudges to suggest the movement of the people he draws.

Expressing emotions

Artists often use mark making and gestural qualities to express their feelings or emotions about something they have seen or experienced. Patrick Heron’s Azalea Garden was inspired by the effervescence of flowers ‘erupting’ in his garden. The vicious clawed and battered marks used by Jean Fautrier in creating his sculpture Large Tragic Head seem to directly communicate the horror and fear he experienced during the Second World War. Cy Twombly developed gestural mark making into a form of personal handwriting. In his series of paintings based on the seasons, he uses this ‘handwriting’ of marks to express what the different seasons mean to him.

Cy Twombly, ‘Quattro Stagioni: Inverno’ 1993–5
Cy Twombly
Quattro Stagioni: Inverno 1993–5
Tate
© Cy Twombly Foundation
Cy Twombly, ‘Quattro Stagioni: Estate’ 1993–5
Cy Twombly
Quattro Stagioni: Estate 1993–5
Tate
© Cy Twombly Foundation
Cy Twombly, ‘Quattro Stagioni: Autunno’ 1993–5
Cy Twombly
Quattro Stagioni: Autunno 1993–5
Tate
© Cy Twombly Foundation

Abstract and intuitive

Jackson Pollock, ‘Number 14’ 1951
Jackson Pollock
Number 14 1951
Tate
© Pollock - Krasner Foundation, Inc.

Artists also use expressive mark making to create purely abstract artworks which do not necessarily refer to anything in the real world but are intuitive or respond to a defined set of rules.

Action painters such as Jackson Pollock (who dripped and splashed paint onto his canvases) and Niki de Saint Phalle, who in her shooting pictures found a novel way of mark making, by firing a gun through bags of paint which then exploded onto a canvas creating explosive marks, splashes and drips. An important influence on this kind of improvised mark making was the surrealist doctrine of automatism – which meant accessing ideas and imagery from the subconscious or unconscious mind.

Gerhard Richter experiments with lots of different ways of applying paint in his paintings. One technique he has adopted is using a homemade squeegee to smear and scrape paint across the surface of his paintings. The resulting marks look almost digital in their effect.

Bernard Cohen, ‘In That Moment’ 1965
Bernard Cohen
In That Moment 1965
Tate
© Bernard Cohen

Mark making doesn’t always have to be gestural and ‘uncontrolled’. Eva Hesse created beautiful serene drawings such as Untitled 1967 by systematically filling in the squares of graph paper with tiny marks. Bernard Cohen’s use of mark making in work such as In That Moment 1965 is similarly methodical. A single unbroken line winds its way systematically over the canvas, this way and that, crossing and re-crossing itself, only stopping when the whole surface is filled.

Well known for her repeated dot patterns, Yayoi Kusama is another artist who systematically mark-makes. She creates paintings, sculptures and installations that immerse the viewer in her obsessive vision of endless dots. For her interactive Obliteration Room an entirely monochrome living room is ‘obliterated’ with multi-coloured stickers, transformed from a blank canvas into an explosion of colour, with thousands of spots stuck over every available surface.

Making your mark: Graffiti and graffiti inspired art

Robert Mapplethorpe, ‘Grace Jones’ 1984
Robert Mapplethorpe
Grace Jones 1984
Tate / National Galleries of Scotland
© Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation

By tagging or making signature marks or images on surfaces in outdoor public spaces graffiti artists are also mark making.

New York graffiti artist Keith Haring applied his characteristic symbols and decorations to the human body as seen in this photograph of singer, actress and model Grace Jones, taken by Robert Mapplethorpe.

Jean Dubuffet, ‘Large Black Landscape’ 1946
Jean Dubuffet
Large Black Landscape 1946
Tate
© ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2017

The expressive qualities of graffiti has inspired many artists. Jean Dubuffet was interested in the marks and images he saw in graffiti scratched onto walls. In paintings such as Large Black Landscape and The Busy Life, graffiti-like figures, buildings and shapes are scratched into surfaces of thick paint. Mark Wallinger uses graffiti-like text in his mixed media work Where There’s Muck, a comment on class in British society and the urban unrest of the 1980s when the work was made.

Mark Wallinger, ‘Where There’s Muck’ 1985
Mark Wallinger
Where There’s Muck 1985
Tate
© Mark Wallinger

Mark Bradford compares his process of making paintings using materials he finds in his local urban environment to ‘those tagged up, repainted, tagged up, sanded, and repainted walls you pass everyday in the street’. In paintings such as May Heaven Preserve You From Dangers and Assassins he uses layers of ripped advertising posters to create richly textured surfaces of marks which to him are like ‘reading the streets through signs’.

Mark Bradford, ‘May Heaven Preserve You From Dangers and Assassins’ 2010
Mark Bradford
May Heaven Preserve You From Dangers and Assassins 2010
Tate
© Mark Bradford

Digital marks and making your mark using sound

Harold Cohen, ‘Untitled Computer Drawing’ 1982
Harold Cohen
Untitled Computer Drawing 1982
Tate
© Harold Cohen

Digital artists often create shapes or patterns that are produced automatically by programmed computer software. Artist Harold Cohen was an early pioneer of computer art, and the abstract shapes of Untitled Computer Drawing 1982 were created automatically by using such a programme. More recently artists have used data visualisation programmes to create digital images made up of marks and shapes that are generated automatically from a range of data. For The Dumpster 2006 Golan Levin with Kamal Nigam and Jonathan Feinberg, plotted the romantic lives of teenagers, through a dynamic visualisation that draws its data from live blog entries. Picture editing tools can also be used to create digital images or change existing ones into a series of marks.

Some sound art can also be considered a type of mark making. Artist’s have been experimenting with sound art since the early twentieth century when dada and surrealist artists used sound as an art form. Marcel Duchamp’s composition Erratum Musical featured three voices singing notes pulled from a hat. Jem Finer creates images from noise and static produced by radio waves and television signals. Finer has taken the idea of making your mark using sound to a new level with his sound piece Longplayer, a computer generated sound piece designed to play for 1000 years.

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