Finding the Value in Mark Making
What do you do? This question I know can make some of us hesitate, I’d rather talk of many other things; pets, recipes, the latest good telly, not to hide anything, just because it’s easier. I scan the asker’s face and consider what details to share. What I often say is, ‘textile design’ or that ‘I design and make scarves’. Which is true, but perhaps like many professions it feels like the tip of the iceberg. It’s a broad stroke of a sentence that still conceals the basics: I make marks, I collect marks with my camera, I’m obsessed with irregular shape and have ongoing curiosity to rearrange and repeat variations of a mark for ever more. It can be hard to talk like this if you can’t see examples. I think I’m writing this post to make up for my lack of mark making small talk. So I’ll make the big talk here and give some attention to my occupation.
You might call it drawing and painting, I call it mark making, I’m not sure when that began, but it feels a more accurate description for me. I’m often treating marks in isolation and certainly in the abstract. Mark making conjures up the moment to moment of the creative activity, focusing in on the act itself rather than a final outcome.
During my textile degree I found myself in discussions about ‘quality of mark’. Terms like this became my new world and vocabulary. What is it about a mark or a group of marks that suggests ‘quality.’ Do not all marks have equity? Do they not all just bring up the proverbial five year old comparison? I haven’t read it myself, but noticed in a bookshop the title, ‘Why your five year old self could not have done that – modern art explained.’ Reading the cover made me smile, what would be the arguments put forward I wondered and would they convince anyone? I decide to offer my own thoughts here, on the value of mark making.
Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Written and directed by Werner Herzog, History Films, 2010
If I ever feel my vision narrowing while creating new work, or wonder unhelpfully about what I’m trying to achieve, I think back to the eerie documentary by Werner Herzog about the oldest known cave paintings in the world. Cave of Forgotten Dreams shows how humans have used mark making to communicate a mind blowing 32,000 years ago, on the walls of caves in Southern France. I use the word eerie, because as I watched the film unfold, the marks in these paintings felt strangely familiar to me, gestures and use of layers I enjoy today. I’m bolstered by the historic scaffolding my ancestors have built – I feel akin and connected but also humbled. Finding myself declare – what more can I offer? It’s all already here! When my mind embarks down this road, I try to relax and just start. Getting inside the act of mark making is always transcendent, absorbing and heartening. It can be like a ritual, a practice to trust and return to regardless of expectation.
Practicing Mark Making
If the act of picking up a paint brush or pen is frightening, then I recommend an approach that could compare to the musician’s practice of scales. One can ‘practice’ a mark away from composition or context. We can get to know our own language by using repetition and variation. Repeat the same mark across a page. For each new row, vary the mark by changing the scale, the texture, the tool, the pressure and the shape. Keep going with new rows of marks until the whole page is filled and we start to exhaust our ideas of original mark making. It is a mind clearing activity. Forced to tune into the physical and concentrate on the ways of a pen or brush or pencil.
Image from Roanna Wells Instagram of The Tracing Process exhibition at Yorkshire Arts Space
The artist Roanna Wells recently led a collaborative exhibition called The Tracing Process at the Yorkshire Art Space. It was all about the mark, inviting the audience to add their own repetitive brush stroke across the gallery wall. The sum of these many parts created a set of unique hand made marks in an exquisite order. The participatory nature of the exhibition made me wonder if the term mark making may have a different meaning or impact for the practitioner compared to the audience. Is Wells offering the audience a new way of looking at making marks now they have played a part in their creation? I’m sure the use of repetition and clear direction was encouraging and perhaps soothing to a first timer.
Physicality of the Mark
Jackson Pollock at work, image by Life Magazine
‘Behind the scenes’ of mark making got me thinking about the biopic Pollock, based on the abstract artist Jackson Pollock. Ed Harris plays the artist, sweating and heaving heavy tubs of paint across the floor, creating the famous drip paintings. It is the close up depiction of making this work that helped me imagine the physical energy spent to create these seemingly chaotic paintings. What exhausting work to attain such harmony and rhythm from his ‘throwing of paint’. Attention has been much directed to the radical act of his dripping paint on the canvas floor. Pollock himself said “It doesn’t make much difference how the paint is put on as long as something has been said. Technique is just a means of arriving at a statement.” For me, understanding his technique does play a part in appreciating the outcome. I know Pollock would prefer us to to focus on the painting itself, but I find the experience of his work is enhanced by holding on to the human effort involved.
Blue Poles by Jackson Pollock, 1952
I wonder if there is a natural break or distance between practitioner and audience that occurs once work is edited, framed, mounted into it’s ‘viewing’ rather than ‘making’ state. I think we have come to expect it as consumers, judging the work in our clean gallery attire, a world away from the studio. I think we assume we will see this level of presentation. However, I also believe there is a power held in the act of making marks that dissipates by the time it reaches the gallery wall. I think there is huge hunger for understanding how work is created, permitting us to be involved somehow. Attending the Giacometti exhibition recently at the Tate Modern, I couldn’t help but observe the very attentive mood of the crowds gathering and lingering for the video of the artist at work in his studio. The dual presence of his completed work and fly on the wall of work in progress is perhaps one way to tackle the distance.
Giacometti’s world through the photographs of Ernst Scheidegger
Hierarchy and the Unseen Mark
CreditRob McKeever/Gagosian Gallery
Scale and intention I’m sure play a huge role in carrying the power of the mark over this cavernous space between maker and viewer. Walk into a room of giant Twombly paintings and dare to question ‘why bother?’ before simply uttering ‘wow’. Feel the weight of the marks towering above you. His enormous works help us imagine an artist at large – a looming presence in the art world, impressed upon us by his verve to use such scale. It makes me think about the idea of hierarchy of mark alongside the quality of mark. What is is that makes some marks more visible and more important than others?
We cherish and marvel at the large pieces by the likes of Pollock, Twombly or Monet. We celebrate their brave and gestural energy. I propose we all have these bold marks within us and carry them out more routinely than we realise. Imagine if there was invisible ink attached to every cleaning cloth in our home. When darkness descends and a torch shone, consider the furious, chaotic and aggressive marks scrubbed over floors, cupboards and surfaces. Imagine the window cleaner with paint instead of soap in her bucket, travailing the vast glass tower block. What display there would be of bold, uninhibited mark making to be seen from afar. In fact now I’m thinking about the mural making duo Gilleard and Garner who have created the UK’s tallest street art project in Leeds this year.
These are the marks I like to think about, actions carried out by all of us, the technical abilities we hold of which we are unaware. What would be the impact for us if we could clearly see our own ‘works’? Maybe that’s why people talk about the satisfaction found in cleaning, the manual labour of paint to canvas not so far away from the movements towards a squeaky clean kitchen.
Athena Rising by Joy Gilleard and Hayley Garner (Nomad Clan), 2017
Learning Through Copying
Olive Orchard, Vincent Van Gogh, 1889,Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo
It’s not a surprise to me now looking back, that my early favourite artists were Post Impressionists – the time of innovative painting, a new personal freedom of making marks to capture a scene and mood, moving art on towards expressionism. I wrote an essay about Cezanne’s trees and painted replicas of Van Gogh olive groves. The act of studying pre-existing marks on canvas at an early age still remains vivid. I was immersed in Van Gogh’s lyrical, jubilant upstroke. “Swirling clouds in violet haze” writes Don McLean in his beautiful song Vincent. I knew an olive tree through the eyes of Van Gogh before seeing one in real life.
Paul Cézanne (1839–1906), La Montagne Sainte-Victoire vue de Montbriand (Mont Sainte-Victoire, View from Montbriand) (1882–85), oil on canvas, 65.5 x 81.7 cm, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY. Wikimedia Commons.
Of Cezanne, I loved how his strokes required a different sort of paint brush – square, to best copy his angular marks of natural forms. These two masters distinct and teaching me the power of repetition and consistency of mark. They showed me how emotion within whole vistas can be governed by the direction and scale of mark.
Mark as the Meaning
Antoni Tàpies, Matèria rosada (Pink Material), 1991. Collection Fundació Antoni Tàpies, Barcelona.
In my twenties I was drawn towards Tapies and Rauschenberg. Artists who made marks look like a hurried simplicity. Loose and large and sometimes aggressive. I like the way their marks become the composition rather than background texture or suggestion of form. Tapies uses a mark as symbols and messages, playing with cross and line within space. Rauschenberg is master of control in combining the hand made mark with found image and object. His way of using paint most closely resembling for me what those window cleaning paintings might look like in real life.