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? Explore the different ways artists use marks and expressive qualities.

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  • Robert Mapplethorpe, 'Grace Jones' 1984
    Robert Mapplethorpe
    Grace Jones 1984
    Black and white silver gelatin print on paper
    support: 374 x 375 mm
    ARTIST ROOMS Acquired jointly with the National Galleries of Scotland through The d'Offay Donation with assistance from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the Art Fund 2008
    © Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation. Used by permission.
  • Frank Auerbach, 'Jake' 1990
    Frank Auerbach
    Jake 1990
    Etching on paper
    image: 178 x 147 mm
    Presented Anonymously 1994© Frank Auerbach
  • Philip Wilson Steer, 'Figures on the Beach, Walberswick' circa 1888-9
    Philip Wilson Steer
    Figures on the Beach, Walberswick circa 1888-9
    Oil on canvas
    support: 610 x 610 mm
    frame: 780 x 790 x 110 mm
    Purchased 1947© Tate
  • Ellen Gallagher, 'Bird in Hand' 2006
    Ellen Gallagher
    Bird in Hand 2006
    Oil, ink, paper, polymer, salt, gold leaf on canvas
    support: 2383 x 3072 mm
    Presented anonymously 2007© Ellen Gallagher
  • Patrick Heron, 'Azalea Garden: May 1956' 1956
    Patrick Heron
    Azalea Garden: May 1956 1956
    Oil on canvas
    support: 1524 x 1276 mm
    Purchased 1980© The estate of Patrick Heron
  • Jean Fautrier, 'Large Tragic Head' 1942
    Jean Fautrier
    Large Tragic Head 1942
    Bronze on marble base
    object: 385 x 210 x 215 mm, 11.9 kg
    Purchased 1992© ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2002
  • Cy Twombly, 'Quattro Stagioni: Autunno' 1993-5
    Cy Twombly
    Quattro Stagioni: Autunno 1993-5
    Acrylic, oil, crayon and pencil on canvas
    support: 3136 x 2150 x 35 mm
    frame: 3230 x 2254 x 67 mm
    Purchased with assistance from the American Fund for the Tate Gallery and Tate Members 2002© The estate of Cy Twombly
  • Frank Auerbach, 'Working Drawing for 'Primrose Hill'' 1968
    Frank Auerbach
    Working Drawing for 'Primrose Hill' 1968
    Drawing on paper
    support: 251 x 311 mm
    Purchased 1971© Frank Auerbach
  • Niki de Saint Phalle
    Shooting Picture 1961
    Plaster, paint, string, polythene and wire on wood
    object: 1430 x 780 x 81 mm
    Purchased 1984© The estate of Niki de Saint Phalle
  • Gerhard Richter Forest 3 Wald
    Gerhard Richter
    Forest 3 (Wald 3) 1990
  • Eva Hesse, 'Untitled' 1967
    Eva Hesse
    Untitled 1967
    © The estate of Eva Hesse, courtesy Hauser & Wirth, Zürich
  • Jean Dubuffet, 'Large Black Landscape' 1946
    Jean Dubuffet
    Large Black Landscape 1946
    Oil on board
    support: 1551 x 1186 mm
    frame: 1575 x 1210 x 57 mm
    Accepted by H.M. Government in lieu of tax and allocated to the Tate Gallery 1996© ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2002
  • Robert Mapplethorpe, 'Smutty' 1980
    Robert Mapplethorpe
    Smutty 1980
    Black and white silver gelatin print on paper
    image: 341 x 341 mm
    Acquired jointly with the National Galleries of Scotland through The d'Offay Donation with assistance from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the Art Fund 2008All Mapplethorpe works © Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation. Used by permission.
  • Harold Cohen, 'Untitled Computer Drawing' 1982
    Harold Cohen
    Untitled Computer Drawing 1982
    Ink and textile dye on paper
    support: 575 x 765 mm
    Presented by Michael Compton 1986© Harold Cohen
  • Archives and access: Open data blog Jim Davenport data visualisation
  • Jem Finer Everywhere, All the Time 2005 Graphic Trace
    Jem Finer
    Everywhere, All the Time 2005
    Graphic trace from chart recorder

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.

Explore mark making:

Capturing life

Willem De Kooning, 'Untitled' 1966-7
Willem De Kooning
Untitled 1966-7
Charcoal on tracing paper
support: 476 x 610 mm
Presented by the artist through the American Federation of Arts 1969© Willem de Kooning Revocable Trust/ARS, NY and DACS, London 2002

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.

In this video, musician Johhn Squire of the Stone Roses gets up close and personal with Cy Twombly’s paintings.

Abstract and intuitive

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
Oil and tempera on canvas
support: 2438 x 2438 mm
Purchased 1965© 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

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 (taken by Robert Mapplethorpe) of singer, actress and model Grace Jones.

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
Oil, acrylic, charcoal, cellulose on metal and plywood
unconfirmed: 3350 x 7000 mm
Purchased with assistance from the Millwood Legacy 2009© 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, Tate Collection
Mark Bradford
May Heaven Preserve You From Dangers and Assassins 2010

Digital marks and making your mark using sound

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.

Related art terms and movements

You might also find these Tate glossary pages helpful…