SPaRK – Ballpoint Art

Points of divergence – metathinking.

By Helen Yip – teacher at Asquith Girls High School.

SPaRK overview

A Shared Practice and Resource Kit (SPaRK) for Visual Arts Stages 4-6, Years 7-12.

Resource: ‘Ballpoint Art’ by Trent Morse, Laurence King Publishing, UK, 2016.

Educational significance


With blue-inked bathtubs, scribbled spheres, expansive paper landscapes, inscribed castles and meditative mark-making, contemporary artists are extending the humble ballpoint pen beyond its everyday uses. They are exploiting its potential as an ingenious artmaking tool. Showcasing the work of 30 international pen aficionados, this compendium examines the interplay between the physicality and psychology of the medium. A concise account of historical developments and precedents, in tandem with insightful summaries of each artist’s practice, presents engaging content for classroom inquiry. Artist interviews, detailed images from artists’ bodies of works and authoritative critical interpretations allow students to analyse the processes of conceptual and material experimentation, contextualise their practice within the artworld and discover how each artist evolves a personal yet universal language through the drawing process. Students’ own artmaking investigations can be informed by an exploration of key motifs ranging from spaces and structures, whether tangible or illusory, to portraits, mythical monsters, pop hybrids and representations of DNA. Significantly, this resource offers rich inspiration for developing students’ metathinking and experimental mark-making practice. It highlights the versatility of biro ink in the layering of media, patterns, line, movement, gesture, density, tone and memory marks. Students will pick up their pens to discover a point of no return!

Outcomes and content

A student:

  • explores the conventions of practice in artmaking (Practice, P1)
  • investigates subject matter and forms as representations in artmaking (Representation, P4)
  • explores ways in which significant art histories, critical narratives and other documentary accounts of the visual arts can be constructed (Representation, P10).

Visual Arts Stage 6 Syllabus

Other outcomes

Photographic and Digital Media Years 7-10 Syllabus 5.1, 5.4, 5.10

Photography, Video and Digital Imaging CEC Stage 6 Syllabus M1, M4, CH5

Visual Arts Years 7-10 Syllabus 4.1, 4.4, 4.10, 5.1, 5.4, 5.10

Visual Design Years 7-10 Syllabus 5.1, 5.4, 5.10

Visual Design CEC Stage 6 Syllabus DM1, DM4, CH4


  • Developing conceptual and material autonomy, positive risk-taking and responsiveness through the artmaking process
  • Connecting ideas and actions to generate innovative interpretations of the world
  • Exploring how artists’ practice evolves over time in response to cultural context, technologies and other artists’ practice.

Teaching activities

  • Account for the role of the ballpoint pen as a fine artmaking tool in the context of its historical development and traditional function as an everyday writing instrument. Consider artworld debates surrounding ‘high’ and ‘low’ art.
  • Examine how contemporary artists are extending the material and conceptual potential of the ballpoint pen, through strategies such as experimenting with the chemistry and sensory qualities of ink, merging it with other media and working on unconventional surfaces such as canvas, objects, wallpaper, transparent cloth and buildings.
  • Create experimental biro drawings inspired by patterns observed from topographical formations, weather maps, nebulae, cells or DNA, the accumulated compositions of Il Lee and the macro studies of Jennifer Keeler-Milne. Transfer or project these drawings onto objects or spaces to design unusual site-specific installations, observing Russell Crotty’s drawings on three-dimensional spheres and Jan Fabre’s use of bathtubs and the built environment in artworks such as 'Hey, What a Pleasant Madness!' (1988) and 'Tivoli' (1990).
  • Investigate how the immediacy and characteristics of the ballpoint pen allows artists to approach mark-making as an intuitive process of meditation and reiteration. Explore a range of drawing techniques such as pointillism, scumbling, cross-hatching and line build-up to generate free-forms, masses, voids and optical illusions, referring to the tonal drawings of Angiola Gatti and Ignacio Uriarte’s ‘BIC Transition Matrix’ (2010).
  • Take a line for a walk and create continuous line, blind and automatic drawings in response to music, verbal stories, aromas or other sensory stimuli. Experiment with different timeframes and speeds, and bundling multiple pens together with a rubber band to emphasise movement and gesture, referring to the work of C. J. Pyle. Discuss how these drawings act as abstract interpretations or visualisations of a journey, and trial Dawn Clements'technique of folding and gluing to merge progressive drawings into expansive panoramas. Create a time-lapse video or stop-motion animation to document this process.
  • Analyse the significance of control and chance in artmaking practice, considering artists’ intentional use of materials and techniques, as well as their valuing of spontaneous actions, open experimentation and unpredictable ‘accidents’. Highlight the nature of ink as a medium, dimensions of the drawing process, the impact of timing and the concepts of palimpsests and memory marks.
  • Evaluate how contemporary artists are reinterpreting and challenging traditions associated with the medium of ink and distinctions between painting and drawing, exploring Wai Pong Yu’s appropriation of techniques from Chinese landscape painting in ‘a rhyme of …’ (2008) and ‘a moment of truth 49 (I)’ (2016) and the repurposing of biro ink in the practice of Rebecca E. Chamberlain.
  • Investigate innovative approaches to the drawing process, experimenting with the interplay between line, form, composition and actions in space to convey spatial depth, visual rhythms and gestural expression. Refer to Thomas Müller’s use of mirror rulers, rotation and repetition, the wireframe portrait drawings of Vernon Ah Kee and Alberto Giacometti, and the light paintings of photographer Tokihiro Sato.
  • Explore the potential for biros to render realistic details and textures, juxtaposing this with surreal subject matter and distortions of reality. Refer to Joo Lee Kang’s visions of hybrid mutations in ‘Pattern of Life #6’ (2014) and Claudio Ethos’ fusion of everyday objects, machines, animals and architecture. Utilise hand-generated collage, the crumpling of images or digital image manipulation to visualise forms in abstract, unexpected ways and develop novel concepts.
  • Experiment with ballpoint pens as tools for alternative mark-making, such as sgraffito, trace monoprinting, embossing with a dry pen and text as image. Consider the micro-burnishing effects achieved by Butt Johnson and Melvin Way’s diagrammatic talismans.
  • Trace the historical significance of the colour blue, researching diverse associations, beliefs and symbolism from artists’ practice, cultural customs and traditional art forms. Survey how the material and conceptual qualities of the hue have been explored in Expressionism, colour field painting, monochrome abstraction, porcelain, indigo textiles and contemporary artworks such as Alighiero Boetti’s ‘Bringing the World into the World' (1973-5) and Tatsuo Miyajima’s ‘Mega Death’ (1999/2016).
  • Inspired by Yoshitomo Nara’s practice and drawing collages, create a zine using drawings and observations of everyday experiences and insights recorded on envelopes, tickets, graph paper, receipts, torn notebook pages and other collected ephemera. Experiment with collaging, cropping, resizing, rotating, inverting and repeating imagery using a photocopier and/or digital means to construct a visual narrative or impression of an individual or collective experience.


Professional resources

Drawing education kit, Art Gallery of New South Wales

Jennifer Keeler-Milne Education Kit: Secondary School Resources, Glasshouse Port Macquarie Regional Gallery

To make a work of timeless art: MCA Education Kit, Museum of Contemporary Art


Ballpoint Art Pack: Creative Techniques and Explorations for Drawing with an Everyday Pen (2016) by Matt Rota

Close to home: Dobell Australian Drawing Biennial 2016 (2016) by Anne Ryan

Drawing projects: An exploration of the language of drawing (2014) by Mick Maslen & Jack Southern

Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain (4th Edition) (2013) by Betty Edwards

Lines of thought: Drawing from Michelangelo to now (2016) by Isabel Seligman

The Art of Ballpoint: Experimentation, Exploration, and Techniques in Ink (2015) by Matt Rota

Unlearning to Draw (2015) by Peter Jenny

Walk the Line: The Art of Drawing (2013) by Marc Valli & Ana Ibarra


American Artist Russell Crotty talks about his show at Turner Contemporary (KTVarchive)(2011) by Kent County Council

The Artist Project: Il Lee (2015) by The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Gallery Talk: Joo Lee Kang (2017) by Pennsylvania College of Technology

SJMA Preview – Il Lee: Ballpoint Abstractions (2007) by San Jose Museum of Art


Angiola Gatti, Ryan Lee Gallery

Butt Johnson, artist’s website

C. J. Pyle, artist’s website

Claudio Ethos, artist’s blog

Conversation with Il Lee, Asia Art Archive in America

Dawn Clements, Saatchi Gallery

Ignacio Uriarte, artist’s website

Il Lee, Art Projects International

Jan Fabre, artist’s website

Jennifer Keeler-Milne, artist’s website

Joo Lee Kang, artist’s blog

Melvin Way, Christian Berst Gallery

Rebecca E. Chamberlain, artist’s website

Russell Crotty, artist’s website

Thomas Müller, Galeria Michael Sturm

Tokihiro Sato, Haines, Gallery

Vernon Ah Kee, Museum of Contemporary Art

Wai Pong Yu, artist’s website

Yoshitomo Nara, Museum of Modern Art

How to cite this article – Yip, H. 2017, 'SPaRK – Points of divergence – metathinking. Ballpoint Art by Trent Morse', Scan 36(4).

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