Unusual Yet Effective Painting Techniques

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In my recent paintings, I’ve started incorporating rather unusual techniques. Cotton buds, paper towel, fingernails, whatever gets the job done. I take this as a good sign, as it means I’m focusing more on the outcome rather than how I’m going to get there.

I’ll run through some of these techniques in this post, using my recent painting below and some others to illustrate my points. Keep in mind this is not an all-encompassing list and I encourage you to come up with your own unusual techniques. Be open-minded and creative. Don’t be confined by convention.

Anyway, let’s get into it. I’ll cover:

Dan Scott, Maleny, Late Afternoon, 2020
Dan Scott, Maleny, Late Afternoon, 2020

Cotton Buds

I recently discovered the wonderful use of cotton buds for painting. Though my partner Chontele isn’t amused, knowing that the cotton buds in her bathroom will be under constant threat of my raids from now on.

Cotton buds have a few unique characteristics that make them effective tools in certain situations. 1) They are small. 2) They have a firm handle. 3) They can lift or apply paint.

I used them to paint parts of the clouds in Maleny, Late Afternoon. Instead of painting on the highlights, I used cotton buds dabbed in a touch of odorless solvent to lift paint and expose the white surface.

Dan Scott, Maleny, 2020 (Clouds)

I followed the form and movement of the clouds. Up, over, around. In lighter areas, I applied more pressure and worked back and forth, exposing more of the white surface. The end result has a slight van Gogh feel to it.

Dan Scott, Maleny, 2020 (Sky)

This was my first time using cotton buds, but certainly won’t be the last. Here are some other applications I can think of:

  • To capture the motion of water on a calm day.
  • To clean up small, overworked areas.
  • To smooth edges.

Blunt End of Your Brush

Use the blunt end of your brush to make clean, direct lines in wet paint. This is similar to the cotton bud technique, but it’s more abrupt. It also makes convenient use of the brush already in your hand, rather than needing to find some other tool. Here are some uses:

  • To paint tree branches. The larger the brush, the thicker the mark.
  • To sign your painting.
  • To reiterate key edges, objects, and other details. This can create an illustrator-like effect.

Australian artist Pro Hart seems to have used the blunt end of his brush in many of his works. My parents own one of his originals, so I get to see all his marks up close. Here are some photos of the painting (thanks dad):

Pro Hart, Catching Yabbies (1)
Pro Hart, Catching Yabbies
Pro Hart, Catching Yabbies (2)
Pro Hart, Catching Yabbies (3)

Combining Brushwork With Palette Knife Strokes

I’m not sure if this one is unusual, but it’s certainly underutilized.

Many artists seem to work strictly with brushes or strictly with palette knives. But I find them to be most effective when combined. The subtle touch of a brush paired with the brash strokes of the palette knife is a powerful combination.

Richard Schmid’s work comes to mind. Especially his still lifes, which combine painterly brushwork with crisp and colorful strokes of the palette knife.

In Impressions of Noosa below, I used brushwork for the foundation, then went over the top with palette knife work to inject life into the painting. The palette knife strokes seem to be effective for capturing the crisp colors you tend to see under the midday Australian sun.

Dan Scott, Impressions of Noosa, 2020
Dan Scott, Impressions of Noosa, 2020

Tip of Your Palette Knife or Your Fingernail

Use the tip of your palette knife or fingernail to produce crude, irregular lines in wet paint. This can be perfect for painting grass, tree branches, fence posts, signing your work, or any rough linework. And in many cases, it’s more effective than using paint and a fine liner brush.

Below are some detail shots of Maleny, Late Afternoon demonstrating this technique. Notice how the scratchy lines work well for depicting nature.

Dan Scott, Maleny, 2020 (Warm Trees)
Dan Scott, Maleny, 2020 (Trees)
Dan Scott, Maleny, 2020 (Signature)

I find myself using the tip of my palette knife or fingernail more often now that I paint on Ambersand gessoboard, as I don’t need to worry about damaging the surface. Stretched canvas is fragile and you need to be careful when using rough techniques like this.

Also, if using your fingernail, make sure your finger is clean first. It sounds obvious, but a simple mistake like this can result in a frustrating mess.

Tip of Your Finger

The tip of your finger is soft and rounded, making it useful for blending, smoothing, or applying paint. See Iris Scott’s work. She’s known for painting almost entirely with her fingers and hands. Though of course you don’t need to go to this extreme.

Just be careful as marks made by your finger can look out of place when surrounded by brushwork. I will often make a mark with my finger then need to rough it up with a brush, palette knife, or my fingernail in order to make it fit in with the rest of the painting.

Paper Towel

I use paper towel like you would a large brush. It’s particularly useful for lifting paint and scruffing up overworked areas.

I’ll run through some examples, starting with my recent, Fraser Island, High Key, below.

Dan Scott, Fraser Island, High Key, 2020
Dan Scott, Fraser Island, High Key, 2020

Below is how the painting started. Thin washes and simple color shapes.

Dan Scott, Fraser Island, High Key, 2020 (Progress 1)

I then used paper towel to wipe down the surface from side to side. This blended the edges, removed the excess paint, and set the stage for the rest of the painting. As this is such a light painting, it was important that I kept the paint thin and transparent, allowing some of the white surface to show through.

Dan Scott, Fraser Island, High Key, 2020 (Progress 2)

In the painting below, I used paper towel to lift paint from the shadowed foreground, leaving a thin layer of color. I also twisted the paper towel into a pointed tip to lift paint from more intricate places, like the spots of dappled light.

Dan Scott, Airlie Beach, 2020
Dan Scott, Airlie Beach, 2020

Here’s a painting in progress, currently sitting on my easel. I started with broad strokes of raw umber, loosely drawing the main shapes. I then refined the drawing with paper towel (see the second image below). I can lift more or less paint by varying the amount of pressure I use, allowing me to capture the different values with just paper towel, raw umber, and solvent.

Dan Scott, New Zealand, 2020 (In Progress)
Dan Scott, New Zealand, 2020 (In Progress 2)

I’ll let you know how this one turns out.

Multicolored Strokes

Load your brush with numerous unmixed colors to produce multicolored strokes. This is an effective and efficient way of painting nature. With a single stroke of your brush, you can convey a sense of depth, activity, and life. The Russian impressionists do this all the time. Check out these videos by Bato Dugarzhapov or Slava Korolenkov.

I used this technique for the small plein air painting below, particularly for the grass in light. I dabbed my brush in white, green, yellow, and a touch of red; roughly mixed the colors on my palette, leaving the colors distinct; then placed a decisive multicolored stroke on the canvas. This allowed me to paint swiftly, as is needed when painting plein air.

Dan Scott, Maleny Study, 2020
Dan Scott, Maleny Study, 2020
Dan Scott, Maleny Study, 2020

Other Unusual Techniques

Here are some other unusual techniques I have come across but yet to use myself:

  • Jeremy Mann: Uses a household paint roller to apply ambient strokes of broken color. He also makes interesting use of old-school cameras to take reference photos.
  • Vladimir Volegov: I once saw a video of him using a plastic bag with a small hole in the corner to squeeze a thick line of white paint onto the canvas. He was painting a boat’s reflection in the water. Very innovative. Unfortunately, I cannot find the video.
  • J. M. W. Turner: The movie, Mr. Turner, depicts him using all kinds of unusual techniques to paint his ambient masterpieces. Worth a watch.

If you are aware of any other unusual yet effective painting techniques, feel free to share in the comment section at the end.

Thanks for Reading!

Thanks for taking the time to read this post. I appreciate it! Feel free to share with friends. If you want more painting tips, check out my Painting Academy course.

Happy painting!

Dan Scott

Draw Paint Academy

90 comments on “Unusual Yet Effective Painting Techniques”

    • These unusual techniques are indeed inspiring. My imagination is now running wild as to the many things I will like to try myself. It will sure make painting more adventurous and fun. Thank You.

      Reply
      • Thanks a lot I am so inspired to use these amazing techniques ,will definitely try some ,will you evaluate my work if I send it to you thanks again

        Reply
  1. Dan I love your Fraser Island painting – if it were available as a print and I could afford it – it would be on my wall !
    Beautiful

    Thanks for another great article.

    Reply
    • Hi Sharon! Funny you mention that. I actually have a spare print on my desk of that painting (I was testing a local printer). I’ll send it out to you. I’ll flick you an email later to grab your address. Cheers! Dan

      Reply
    • I’ve had great success using a pallet knife to scrape wet dark paint to reveal the dry light colour below (or vice versa) to mimic fur for a tabby cat or brindle dog. Surprised myself with how realistic and textured it looked.

      Also
      You can find some cotton buds with Very solid sharp points at one end and a flat paddle shape at the other. Check baby section of drugstore & some dollar stores

      Reply
  2. Have you tried sponge dabbed in paint? In acrylic it does give beautiful effects. No idea if this will work in oil or water mixable oil though!

    Reply
  3. In my painting of Impala buck which I sent you a while ago, I used a twig of the herb Rosemary, which I dipped into various colours and then dabbed on; first reason was to get the effect of short grass, and the second to make the grass look alive because of the variation in colour.

    In another painting I used strips of thin cardboard, getting paint onto the sides thereof, and then simply pressing the paint down with the sides of the cardboard to get the effect of bullrushes in the water, and taller grass than mentioned in the previous paragraph.

    Reply
  4. I use 4-5 cotton buds rubber band together dipped in various shades of purple and white to paint lilacs. Works great. Also have used fiber fill dipped into 2-3 colors and dabbled on the canvas to make a marbled look for the background. Just Have to change out frequently to prevent leaving fibers behind. Wadded up aluminum foil is another technique I have used. Thanks for sharing your tips.

    Reply
  5. I use all kinds of things to get “that look” of movement, shadows, or light. I used my fingers a lot when I paint. Crinkled plastic bags or paper towels. My dad introduced me to painting many many years ago. I’ve been playing with it my whole life. Bob Ross sort of set me free from getting over involved with traditional techniques, but my dad has been the most inspirational. He taught me no rules! Be expressive, and see my dreams, so I play in my art. You have shown me that it’s all possible. It’s all behind your minds eye. Thank you so much!

    Reply
  6. I have used the Q-Tip technique for tree foliage. The lifting techniques you describe, minus the solvent, will it work with acrylics using water. Thanks for your excellent emails and courses

    Reply
    • I paint in acrylics and I use Q-tips/ paper towels dipped in hand sanitiser to lift out paint. It’s been a game changer! Hubby thinks I’m being over-zealous with hand cleaning in these times, little does he know 🙂

      Reply
  7. Had tremendous fun reading this article. Can you sometimes please do one for ‘What to use to sign your name in the painting?’. I sometimes use the end of a small brush but didn’t work very good. Also what type of signature an artist should have to have an impression?
    Thank you!!

    Reply
      • I did some reading on this. If you wish to enter a painting in a contest, printing is preferred. They also recommend placing one’s signature on the left or right at the bottom and not inside the painting at a subtle spot. I use markers that are made for oil painting for my signature. They are also good to use for detail where a brush just isn’t fine enough. Finally, they suggest not placing the date on the front of your painting. It is wonderful for antique paintings; however, it tends to date the more recent ones. I enjoyed your suggestions. I will try them. Thank you.

        Reply
  8. Am busy with a stormy sea scape and have used your tips…my hands for the sky and ear buds for the wave tips..what fun ..and its effective

    Reply
  9. UK artist Hashim Akib uses the multicolored stroke technique as a basis of his acrylic painting style. It produces a very lively effect. He has a couple good books and videos available, check him out.

    Reply
  10. Once again, wonderful tips. I paint with palette knife quite often. When painting rocks and cliffs, I just scrape multiple colors left on my paper palette and “scrape” it onto the canvas. The crevices and multiple planes magically appear (most of the time) and if I’m not happy with the application, I just scrape it off again, often resulting in another magical (accidental) effect.

    Reply
  11. Besides Q-Tips which I can’t live without; I also use stampers (as in tools to go with ink pads) ever which way so the actual print does not come through, plus toothpicks & disposable skewers for lines. For hydrangeas & bubbles, I saw someone use bubble wrap.

    Reply
  12. I too have used Q-Tips (cotton buds) when painting. I recently used that technique to make window panes on a window inside a barn. I also used a toothpick to make the ladder inside the barn. Tooth picks work great (like your finger nail technique. I have tried signing with a toothpick but it wasn’t very successful!

    Reply
    • Isn’t it fun to use unconventional tools to paint with! I started using the card for watercolors but it works in oils and acrylic’s as well. I use the card for tree bark on birch and aspen’s. Cut the card through diagonally, ruff up the cut edge, then dip that edge into the paint and scrape it across your tree trunk. You can use the pointed edge for grass and such too. I also use the bundled cotton buds for making lilacs, etc.

      Reply
  13. A friend recently showed me how using cling film on wet water colour, taken off when the paint is dry creates a very interesting effect that can be used for rocks or stones.

    Salt too, gives some interesting foreground mottling effects.

    Reply
    • I save the plastic wrapping when I get new canvases. I spread it on my wet acrylics to lift off paint. Yes! I too have gotten good rocks using this method. I don’t wait until it is dry, tho. Maybe I’ll try that to see if there’s a difference.

      Reply
  14. This certainly is my favorite lesson! So many great ideas and such fun! Thank you for sharing your knowledge and inspiration. I’ve shared it with my friends on FaceBook and look forward to trying out some of these unique ideas!

    Reply
  15. Great ideas with examples, I appreciate your newsletter which I enjoy immensely. I’ve used some of these practices myself, now I’ve more for my repertoire of techniques. Thank you!

    I’m not the best speller myself so I use Grammarly.com “free” and I noticed “strictly”.

    Reply
  16. This is inspiring, vital work! Especially love Noosa and Fraser Island. Thanks for sharing your experiments and the results. Ive been in a rut. This will help me out of it!

    Reply
  17. Crumpled aluminum foil is a favorite as well as toothpicks. I have also used my son’s small toy trucks for texture. Especially the ones with “tread” on the tires.

    Reply
  18. Thanks for the ideas!
    The metal cutting edge strip from a box of aluminium foil can be used it to scrape (acrylic) paint. This creates some interesting effects on canvas. A pin head dipped in paint can also provide some delicate details.

    Reply
  19. Hi Dan,

    I always enjoy your site, but this morning I got a good laugh out of it. I couldn’t figure out what cotton buds are. Then I saw a picture. Here in the USA, we call then ” Q-tips”. I also use them for a lot of effects.

    Reply
  20. YOU ARE BRILLIANT! Thank you so much for sharing. You are such an inspiration. This post tapped into my 5 year old self and I am deeply moved. As a professional that has sold millions of dollars all over the world this post gave me exactly what I needed at this particular stage in my career. I purchased one of your courses, not because I don’t know how to paint landscapes, but because I need to connect with other artist during these times. I have sold my landscapes for 1000’s of dollars over the last 25 years, but never allowed myself the time to take a class. Thank you for the connection. I really really appreciate and respect you!
    Wishing you health and happiness always!
    Debbie Arambula

    Reply
  21. In place of a brush handle or palette knife tip, I have purchased a Kemper tool which has 2 rubber ends: one pointed and one wedge shaped. Fabulous for so many applications and no need to worry about damaging a stretched canvas

    Reply
  22. Thanks for another great article! I like to use unusual brushes and cotton buds (I call them Q-tips) are a favorite. I like toothpicks for grass as well. At school, we’ve even used socks and plastic eggs.

    If you’re looking for inspiration, Jay Lee is an artist who can paint with just about anything, with incredible results. Check out the channel “Jay Lee Painting” on YouTube if you’re able.

    Reply
  23. Thank you Dan. Another informative article. I look forward to receiving your daily (?) emails as they are so inspiring and helpful. The best email to land in my mailbox all day!

    Reply
  24. Thanks Dan, this was very informative. I use acrylics, but some of these tips are useful to me.
    Love that Pro Hart, colourful and even a bit quirky.
    Thanks, Dave M.

    Reply
  25. These are just lovely paintings! I enjoyed your descriptions of all the tools you have been using, I have tried a few with acrylics, including scrumpled foil, credit cards- cut to different shapes, finger nails and even my home made printing stamps with threads stuck on great for foliage.
    One important point, I do hope you are using environmentally friendly cotton buds, with wooden or bamboo handles, not plastic!
    Helen

    Reply
  26. I recycle every old brush I have. For example, if the bristles have had it, and hard n dried out,they can be used for some short, blunt grass or other rough markings. The blue paper towels in the autmotive section are the best for rubbing some paint off without leaving any fuzzies.
    Knitting needles can help with lines.

    Reply
  27. I recycle every old brush I have. For example, if the bristles have had it, and hard n dried out,they can be used for some short, blunt grass or other rough markings. The blue paper towels in the autmotive section are the best for rubbing some paint off without leaving any fuzzies.
    Knitting needles can help with lines.

    Reply
  28. Thank you very much. I always find your advice so helpful and informative. Your generosity in sharing your knowledge is much appreciated.

    Reply
  29. Thank you Dan for sharing the wonderful variety of brush techniques. Not only brush but all the objects one can find. I will never forget going to the Galapagos Islands and been given a finger and stick painting in the 1970’s. It made me realize that one can use anything to create a great painting.

    Reply
  30. I have allways use my fingers to blend colors. Unfortunately acrylics leaves you little time and space for this. I also use different sponges, vith variable size cells, to add texture, especially in shadows.
    A good example for unorthodox techniques is Kurt Jackson.
    https://www.kurtjackson.com/
    He is using sand and other debries in his rather abstract landscapes.
    I’ve allways feel like cheating by using such techniques, but your post, and especially your paintings opened my eyes (and mind). No matter what you do to get what you seek in art.

    Reply
  31. Loved this ! I have used most all of these! I use blue shop towels to blend sky and ground with broad swipes. They don’t leave bits of a paper towel on your canvas and work the same. I find golf tees are great for signing when the paint is still wet and your under painting has a contrasting color with acrylics or oils. You have to sign faster for acrylics though. They also make great scratch marks for emphasis. I have used steel wool for texture on oils with a light touch. Cotton padding from Rx bottles works well, too. Especially clouds. And for blending acrylics for facial tones, I always get my fingers to help with the blending. Recently painting more portraits with acrylics than oils as my blending techniques have improved. I have used my palette knife for an entire painting and have also used with brushwork. Also I have found black canvases with acrylics make some very interesting paintings ! Again I just loved all these suggestions and new uses for me for what I’ve used in the past. Thanks again !

    Reply
  32. A painter friend of mine did a lot of Madonna and Child paintings and she used a kitchen spatula
    almost entirely for her paintings . I look forward to your e-mails and really appreciate your generosity
    in imparting your vast knowledge . Thank you.

    Reply
  33. HI Dan, I constantly try unusual methods like yours to create different effects, albeit with acrylics which I assume is easier than oil. When I approach a new painting, I sit for a while looking at my reference, then think……what if I do this. Even midway through I would think…..what if I do this…..In this way my art has become much looser, a problem I have battled with for years!! Thanks for amazing advice. Look forward to your letters.
    Kind regards from South Africa.

    Reply
  34. I have used the edge of match book covers, coffee grounds, sand, sand paper to scratch out a painted area, which leaves it interesting, and even sticks from trees. Most anything works in ways to make our work our own and different from others. Also, interest in the painting, holds the viewers eye……like, how did they do that?

    Reply
  35. I have also used paper towels to tamp down the image of a boat’s reflection in the water. It gives a ghostly softer feel to it and then it is not “perfect” but a bit smudged. It is exactly what I wanted.

    Love your classes and your posts! Keep creating!

    Claire Long

    Reply
  36. I love reading your emails when I get a chance. Every single one of my paintings have an unusual technique because I had a stroke seven years ago when I was 22. My vision isn’t the best, my whole left side is numb, and I have ataxia, involuntary muscle movements, which is extremely frustrating. I hosted a paint and sip a couple years ago and the teacher had showed us a neat trick with a debit card, I was surprised by the end of my painting I could tell what it was. So I scoured YouTube to find different techniques I could use with my abilities. I found Cotton buds and cotton balls, bubble wrap and even saran wrap! It’s great for your mental and physical health so I’ve been painting ever since!

    Reply
  37. I’ve seen Stuart Davies do something similar with paper towel on oils, but I use acrylics and he said the technique was not applicable.

    Reply
    • Thanks for inspiration, Dan.
      Sometime I use a small piece of a wet sponge with acrylic colors to paint skies and clouds. I like that the outcome is unusual, mostly when painting night skies.

      Reply
  38. Dig this: In 1993 I needed to paint some serious fire so I planned it out, got myself a 2×4, squirted some red and yellow acrylic on the canvas, and dragged the 2×4 across it – like wiggling and whatnot – took 3 passes, then trimmed it up with regular brush. Risky, and fun. Expressive. Dan – You Da Man. All this stuff is great, and your community of followers looks awesome too. Craig

    Reply
  39. I use a type of pointilism. I layer dots of different colors to create a painting. I use dotting tools used for nail art. Starting with a light color layer with darker layered has a different feel than dark with light over. Makes cool textures.

    Reply
  40. Aluminum foil works well for tree foliage. Using a light touch, scrubbing brush and/or a pot scrubber make a wonderful flowery meadow. The brush can also be used for grass. A toothpick for very tiny areas. The possibilities are endless and so much fun!

    Reply
  41. Some of these techniques are coloured pencil techniques too, especially cotton tips for blending or removing parts of water and clouds. They are so useful. Tin foil gives interesting effects too. But.. I love the way you paint your skies..clouds in particular. They are very Monet-like. Can you do a study on clouds online? I’m not able to join your classes just yet for Covid reasons..but am trying to challenge myself, as are others I’m sure, during lockdown, to improve my skills. I decided skies, trees and grass are the basics. I downloaded all of your free tutorials and tried them and they are great. Thanks for your time and effort. You nailed the content. 👍

    Reply
  42. Thanks, Dan. I enjoyed your article and the illustrations you provided. Can’t wait to get in my studio to try these “new” tools. Only thing I did not see mentioned was a toothbrush…an artist friend of mine showed me how get beautiful effects using a toothbrush by dragging your thumb across for splatter that looks like stars in a night sky. Thank you again!

    Reply
  43. Recently used a cotton bud and felt unprofessional using it. Happily you suggested the same technique. What ever works I say!

    Reply
  44. I have done a lot of work with dimensional paints for raised lines and textures/patterns.
    Pastry decorating nozzles are great for high relief features.
    Don’t forget mini extruding tools!
    Depending on the thickness of your medium, you could experiment with the bottoms of beverage bottles. Many of them have interesting rosette patterns that could be stamped or impeded into the medium.

    Reply
  45. I like to paint with my fingertips using acrylic paints. I paint in front of a fan, as I left my finger from the canvas, the fan will blow a thin stream of paint onto my painting making it much more interesting to me!

    Reply

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