Mark making: an exploration

searching I mentioned to my compadres at our weekly Mixed Media Circle that I wanted to develop my "mark making vocabulary". Instantly, the others wanted to know more. What is mark making? What do you mean by vocabulary? So we decided to give ourselves an assignment to research mark making and bring in examples to our next meeting. I was very surprised with what I learned...

First, a definition:

Mark making is a term used to describe the different lines, patterns, and textures we create in an artwork. It applies to any art material(s) we use on any surface(s), not only paint on canvas or pencil on paper.

Ok. So mark making is what artists do—but it’s also what humans do. Children naturally make marks to communicate, and adults who may never consider themselves artists doodle, graph, chart, sketch ideas…even if they long ago stopped drawing and painting.

The marks we make are personal and telling.

We each make marks differently as we can see in all of our unique signatures. A drawing teacher once said something to our class a while back that stuck with me. She said: “Marks are sacred.” I think she meant that as an expression of our very selves, our marks should be respected.

I think it’s very common not to respect our own marks. I never liked my handwriting, for instance. I hear a lot of people feel the same way. And how many of us are critical of what we draw or create?

As I mentioned before, I had the wonderful opportunity to take a class with Julie Balzer recently. She made a very important point. She said (and I’m summarizing), we all have a style. Just throwing paint on a paper shows the hand of the artist who made that mark (and it’s true, even when just laying down a background, we each did it differently from one another)! The trick, she said, is to accept it. “Get out of your own way” and let your style be your style.

Let your mark be your mark.

So I hear that. I’m trying. But in the meantime, can I learn how to make different kinds of marks (in my own style)?

Sometimes I feel like I generate a limited set of marks when I sit down to create an art journal page (or anything else). Often my inner critic jumps in with a jeer: ‘You always make the same marks—same old lines, circles, squares…‘

That actually isn’t true, inner critic being anything but objective. But still. It would be so nice to know all the options. So I looked for a definitive list.

What I wanted was a dictionary-like list, a textbook or hey, an encyclopedia listing that outlines a "complete list of marks".

No surprise, I couldn’t find one. (Nothing on Wikipedia? Hey, what's going on here...)

Instead, I found students and artists online who explored mark making and who taught me something important about it. Here are two examples:

This student created 40 different marks, each a mix of different mediums:

And here, a student came up with over 100 marks, all different.

What I learned from them—which I believe is the intended lesson of these kinds of exercises—is that no definitive "mark making list" exists.

Because, of course, mark making is infinite.

I also learned that rather than try to expand a repertoire of marks, just dive into the subconscious, as this artist explains, "develop visual sensitivity" and the marks will come.

marks exercise

I tried her first exercise and it's true!

Mark making is in fact an inside job.

Why I’m continually surprised by the obvious I do not know.