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:
- Cotton Buds
- Blunt End of Your Brush
- Combining Brushwork With Palette Knife Strokes
- Tip of Your Palette Knife or Your Fingernail
- Tip of Your Finger
- Paper Towel
- Multicolored Strokes
- Other Unusual Techniques
- Want to Learn More?
- Thanks for Reading!
(Before diving into this post, make sure to download a free copy of my Beginner's Guide to Painting.)
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.
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.
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):
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Below is how the painting started. Thin washes and simple color shapes.
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.
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.
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.
I’ll let you know how this one turns out.
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.
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.
Want to Learn More?
You might be interested in my Painting Academy course. I’ll walk you through the time-tested fundamentals of painting. It’s perfect for absolute beginner to intermediate painters.
Thanks for Reading!
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