The Intention of Marks


waiting-woman-detailWhat is a Mark? How does it function? What is its purpose? I have been asking these questions for as long as I’ve been using them to create my images. These considerations go far beyond a simple analysis of technique or style, but go to the core of what is involved in making paintings. Notice I did not say making art, for that presupposes that every painting is art, or that I could even begin here to dissect the “art” question.

My good friend Stuart Shils once said to me, “We’re just old dinosaurs. . . ”  He, in his usual way, was ranting about what is the painters role in this day and age, when “virtual” is the norm. What is it we do, us painters, but smear pigmented oils on various surfaces in  a six hundred year old tradition. To do what? To emote,  express, decorate, illustrate, conjure, impress, earn a living? Not happy with those descriptions? OK then, lets bring this to a higher level. How about to inspire, to connect, to elevate, to evolve, to touch . . . one or any combination of these might be the painters motivation, but in terms of process, ultimately it always  gets down to the mechanics, creating marks on surfaces for whatever end. And so to this simple but all encompassing vehicle of communication, I would like to elaborate on the power of its magic.

The first image posted here is a detail of a colorful throw that is put over a woman’s lap in my painting, Waiting Woman, 1993. This painting was done from life on birch panel and was executed with both knife and brush. But without the clue of my description, you might simply have enjoyed the evocative power of its abstraction. What has always inspired me is thinking about the intention of the mark, what it is saying in relationship to its neighbors and when does it magically cross over into illusion. It’s this thin edge between a marks expressive power for its own sake and the conjuring of the thing it might be trying to evoke, that has always been the grist in my mill, the oil in my lamp. I remember in graduate school, my most influential teacher, Robert D’ Arista, talking about a painting I had done of a man. He pointed to the forehead in the painting and said, “Paul is never satisfied with the illusion, and there is a constant tug of war going on.” He was pointing to a mark that had not quite jumped, had not turned the corner and succumbed to the control of the illusion, a mark that I loved because it challenged the viewer to decide its fate.  Of course this notion is nothing new. Think Tintoretto, Rembrandt, Giacometti, Cezanne and on. The point being that marks are ultimately just that, marks, and nothing more. It is only when they are infused with intention that they are transformed, with skill and some luck,  into their designated role.

Here is another part of the waiting-woman-detail-facesame painting. Now the intention is to depict the figurative form, the pallet is more restrained and the calligraphy more docile, but the marks voices are still expressive and vibrant. Marks here are clearly meaning to convey an illusionistic resonance, with hue and value being managed in such a way as to provide the viewer with enough clues to decipher eyes, nose, mouth etc. It is ultimately though, simply a different arrangement of marks, still an abstraction, but with a illusionists slight of hand.

With every mark, there should be an intention. It can be improvisational and free of restraint, but its force needs to be rated in balance to the whole. Relationships between color and value, speed and direction, texture and density, all these characteristics with the additional illusion of space are manipulated to evoke an experience for the viewer. How poignant this becomes is dependent not only on the skill of the creator of these marks but the viewers personal and cultural predisposition. As with any artist, mastering the use of his tools is critical if the intended communication is to be understood. At a certain point, these tools become subconscious extensions of their muse creating pure expression, like Rostropovich’s bow, or Updike’s words. They are not thought of in isolation but are fluid manifestations of our creativity that can connect and inspire us on the deepest levels.

For the painter, slashes of pigment coalesce in the imagination, igniting percetions of common experience but in places we’ve never been, bonding viewer and creator in a synthesis of vision with endless potential. Such is the humble power of marks.


  1. Reading this brought me back to classes at Moravian. I felt like I should have pencil in hand and should be taking notes – I still have some drawings from that time with words like “value” “color” “texture” “energy” written on them as dictated by you.
    As I said before, I find your abstract works very exciting- and I love the monotypes. Impressed by the creative titles as well.
    Hope to see some works in person some time soon. And more blog entries…

    Comment by Pam Betts — August 5, 2009 @ 9:25 pm

  2. Van Gogh said it best with “Instead of trying to reproduce exactly what I see before me, I make more arbitrary use of color to express myself more forcefully.”

    Comment by oil painting for beginners — January 11, 2010 @ 1:22 am

  3. Found this by chance and bookmarked it too. Resonates with my own thoughts even though I’m not an artist.

    Comment by Josh — June 5, 2010 @ 6:31 am

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