Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Romancing the Mark

Perhaps this is an unintended pun, since it could refer both to my studio mark-making explorations yesterday and to my current interest in painter Mark Tobey’s works.

Yesterday I returned to the soft, quiet work of exploring new ideas inspired by Mark Tobey’s “white writing.”


White Writing, 1951, by Mark Tobey, gouache and watercolor on paper.

Tobey, 1890-1976, an American painter who spent many years in the Pacific Northwest, loved to experiment and his abstract, calligraphic work now is considered to have influenced subsequent art trends, especially Abstract Expressionism. It reassured me to discover that he was more interested in experimentation and exploration than self-promotion of his work.

Tobey studied at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and worked for a time as a fashion illustrator and portraitist in New York City. He converted to the Bahāʾī faith in 1918 and from that point on explored non-Western spirituality. (Must mention here that I consider my own artmaking a spiritual practice, one that deepens and connects me more and more to a universal force and presence of creative energy)

Tobey’s mature painting style evolved after a visit to East Asia in 1934, during which he spent one month in a Zen monastery in Kyōto and studied Chinese calligraphy in Shanghai. (Another note here, I love the calligraphic, painted mark and it is a dream of mine to go to Kyoto as an artist-in-residence some day.)

The influence of calligraphy first became apparent in the tangled brushwork of his cityscapes of the 1930s, and Tobey went on to develop a unique style consisting of a web or network of calligraphic marks painted in white against a gray or coloured ground. This “white writing” soon displaced all realistic representation in his work.  (excerpted from the Encyclopedia Brittanica).

While my own efforts are not imitative of Tobey’s signature all-over, abstract linear network of calligraphic marks, I am learning from them.


When I began applying opaque paints, particularly white, to the surface of this darkly dyed, subtly patterned silk, I felt as though I was absorbing and responding to Tobey’s experimentation with my own.


Building lighter layers over dark is proving to be an interesting study. I spent yesterday working on the above sample – it’s about 11” x 24”. I worked slowly, growing more comfortable with size 00 to size 2 round and liner brushes and focusing on how much opacity and what kinds of marks I want in the areas where I apply the opaque colors. Yesterday on this sample I used varying dilutions of opaque white textile paint, comparable to Tobey’s gouache.

It is hard to maintain the softer hand and keep the white paint from becoming too thick and heavy. You can see above that where the white is applied more thinly and has softer edges it feels more integrated than the areas where the white is fully opaque. Still, some fully opaque spots over the larger surface might be interesting.

Varying the pure white to tints of ochre and tan and gray is next on a new practice piece and then I will begin working on the full size one again, which is about 44” x 50” right now.


Here’s the sample piece pinned to the larger piece. It seems to me at this point that there’s already a shape on the surface of the larger piece that I can work into and define with the opaque washes around printed or hand painted text. There are also some subtle hints of browns, golds, and lavender grays already on the surface that can be accentuated. I want to be careful not to cover them with the white and lose the interest they add to the surface, so the white may need to be more confined in specific areas than it is on the sample.

The whole process is an absorbing experiment and although I keep trying to move away from this to start working on new fabric grounds and other experimental ideas, the light over dark painting keeps pulling me back.

If I can manage to calm my impulsive nature and move forward mindfully, I believe this could be a very interesting piece when complete. It certainly is fascinating to consider and work on.


  1. You and I are in love with the line! I really love your work....wish I could have heard your lecture.

    I'll be back to see your blog soon.


  2. Hi Valerie, thanks for stopping by and for leaving a comment. Jeanne