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The Power of Directional Marks in Painting

In the world of art, every stroke, every colour, and every texture holds a story and adds to the overall success of a painting.

In my teaching practice, I am always sharing the importance of looking at master painters because we can learn so much from them. I have several bookshelves full of books and in my lessons, we are always analysing paintings, and I encourage you to do the same.

Today I wanted to share with you the importance of directional marks. Directional marks are a powerful element of painting. These deliberate strokes are not just about applying paint to canvas; they are about guiding the viewer’s eye, conveying emotion, and infusing your work with a dynamic sense of movement and life.

Directional marks in the painting are, in essence, the brushstrokes that lead the viewer across the artwork. At times they are subtle and other times more obvious.

Let’s take a look at the various ways directions marks can be used.

Creating Movement

At times you may want to create a sense of movement in your work. Whether it’s the gentle sway of leaves in a breeze or the energy of a stormy sea, directional marks help to capture a sense of motion. By varying the length, width, and pressure of my brushstrokes, you can mimic the natural rhythms found in nature, making you paintings come alive.

Lets take a look at ‘The Scream’ by Edvard Munch. Here the directional marks are much more obvious than the next painting by Monet we’ll review. There is a feeling of unease of being pulled around the canvas. You start at the top left and move around the sky and are pulled toward the figure in the foreground and then up the path to the two figures walking around. It’s a clever use of directional marks.

Guiding the Viewer’s Eye

It’s important to try and guide the viewer through or around your painting. You may want to guide them towards your focal point (if you have one) or take them on a journey. This guided experience creates a more immersive and engaging interaction with the art.

Take a look at this painting by Monet. The brush marks in the sky are leading towards the haystacks, the foreground marks are again leading toward the haystacks and the marks on the haystacks are leading the eye down toward the light. Therefore your eye moves around the painting and ends up by the brightest part of light in the painting. You are taken on a tour if you like.

Conveying Emotion

The direction and quality of brushstrokes can significantly impact the emotional tone of a painting. For example, sharp, jagged lines might convey chaos or distress, while smooth, flowing strokes suggest tranquillity and harmony. At times directional marks can express the underlying emotions that inspired the piece. It’s a way to communicate feelings that words cannot fully capture, connecting with the viewer on a deeper, more instinctive level.

Lets take a look at ‘Starry Night’ by Van Gogh. This painting has a strong sense of emotion. The artist was seeking respite from his depression at the asylum he was in when it was painted. The painting was a direct observation of his view of the countryside from his window as well as memories and emotions.

Look closely at the movement created in the painting.

Creating Depth and Texture

Directional marks are also crucial in building depth and texture within a painting. By overlapping strokes and varying their direction, you can create the illusion of three-dimensionality and texture, adding richness and complexity to the work. This depth enhances the realism of the painting or, in more abstract works, adds layers of meaning for the viewer to explore.

Notice this painting by Monet and how the marks are shown in various directions to add interest. You wouldn’t for example point all your marks in the same direction of it would make for an uninteresting painting. Notice as well how the marks are reduced as you more into the distance, thus creating a sense of depth.

Personal Expression

The way you paint is a form of personal expression. Each artist has their unique way of creating marks with their brushwork and it evolves with each piece they create.

By looking at the work of other artists we can educate ourselves further. Ask yourself what it is you like about the painting. Study the brushwork used.

The use of directional marks is much more than mere components of a painting; they are an expression of movement, emotion, and storytelling.

In my work, I use them to create energy movement and depth. How do you use them in your work?

Try This:

Find three paintings by an artist in history and try and put into words what you think they were trying to convey with the direction of their marks. Could it be depth, movement, emotion or something else?

Next time you paint try and vary the direction of your marks and think about the journey you want to take the view on.

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