How mark-making gets you into the flow of painting

Art as inner journey, Developing an art practice

How to get into the flow of painting


When I start painting, I usually start with scribbling, making marks, adding some paint. I am just doing something. I am ‘activating the canvas’ as some artists call it.

I like that expression. Before, the canvas (or the paper) is silent, inert. Once I put some marks on it, it starts talking back to me. It starts moving and having its own opinions about where it wants to go. A wordless back and forth evolves between me and the painting. It’s like an intimate dance, as I have described it in my blog post about non-duality and painting.

My first and almost random marks are a starting point; from there the painting will evolve, more or less out of itself. And even those first marks are not ‘random’ of course. They depend on my mood, or on the mark making tools close by on my table. If you get really philosophical, there could not have been another mark than that particular one. The whole universe led up to that one mark, you might even say.


An insight

Lately, I was making a collage. I had made marks and covered some parts with a layer of glazing. The next thing I did was add a scrap of collage paper that almost covered all of the underlayer. My first thoughts were: Why did I even make all those ‘activating’ marks in the first place? They are useless now; nobody will ever see them. I might have activated the paper, but now there is nothing left of it. I could have glued the collage paper on the white substrate with the same result!

But then an insight struck me. Those first marks not only activated the canvas. They also activated me!

By activating the canvas, something inside me starts to move. My inner artist awakes. Inspiration strikes. The dancer enters the dance floor. My subconscious starts to flow, and from there, my hands start moving.

In this case, my hands took a scrap of paper that had the size of almost the whole underlayer. But if I would not have made those first marks, my inner artist might not have awakened. I might have thought: Oh, let’s drop this collage. I have no inspiration at all today. I’ll paint tomorrow.

These first marks did not only get the collage started, but they also got me started, and helped me to get into the flow of painting.

My conclusion is: if you don’t know how to get into the flow of painting, just start somewhere. From there, your inner artist will wake up and lead you.




Let me know your experiences with activating the canvas and activating yourself below in the comments.


Simone Nijboer, Dutch abstract artist, online art teacher, daily painter, creativity accelerator


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  1. Carol Edan

    A very good reminder. I love the starts and mark making. But sometimes they become silent I feel that I am stuck. Guess I ‘ll just start making more marks, smears, smudges! We have a better word for all them “ketem”

    • Simone Nijboer

      Oooh, I love that word ‘Ketem’. Don’t know what it means literally, but I love hearing the Hebrew (am I right?) word. It has its own poetry! Google said it means something like ‘stain’.
      I think indeed the trick is making more marks, smears, smudges, or even paint the whole thing over. Not trying to make something appealing. Or not even trying to feel good about it! Feeling bad and stuck is all part of the same dance. Dancers sometimes step on toes too 😉
      Have fun painting, smearing, smudging and making lots of ‘ketem’!

      • Carol Edan

        Yes, it is Hebrew and means “stain” but in painting much more!

      • Simone Nijboer

        Let’s celebrate Ketem!

  2. Dotty Seiter

    Everything about this post resonates with my art experience, Simone—the wordless back-and-forth, the intimate dance, the shift from inert into movement, the fact of marks not really being random. Indeed, ‘there could not have been another mark than [the] particular one’ I ever make; I know this because there is the mark being itself; it is NOT another mark.

    I am especially grateful for your reminder that ‘by activating the canvas, something inside me starts to move. My inner artist awakes.’ I know this to be true, even though I sometimes fall into ‘monkey mind’ thinking that questions what I’m doing or thinks it has ‘control.’

    Off I go to paint and collage : )

    • Simone Nijboer

      Hi Dotty, yes, maybe we could even take it further (I wrote something similar above to Carol), that maybe even the monkey mind, the one that’s trying to control, that’s criticizing and judging us is also an undeniable part of this beautiful and sometimes very painful experience called Life. So maybe we could invite this monkey to our dance (and you know: I’m writing this to myself ;-))

      • Simone Nijboer


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