Tools of the Trade

As I recently pointed out, my husband is my biggest supporter, and although he’s never done any visual art, he is quite a crafty and talented man. He’s done a lot of woodworking over the years, he’s done a bit of leatherwork, and he’s now sewing bibs — lots of bibs — for our grandson with PMG. If you’re not familiar with PMG, well, it’s a long word that I can’t pronounce. It’s a medical condition where the brain develops too many folds and creases.  Little William will be three in March, and he’s doing well, but his low muscle tone leads to many different problems, continual drooling among them. So, Grandpa to the rescue. Since it’s difficult to find baby bibs that will fit a growing boy, Grandpa decided it was time to learn to sew.

This post isn’t about sewing, though. Nor is it about leathercrafts or woodworking. It’s not really even about my husband, but about something he has learned from his own experiences. From the beginning of my art journey, he has pointed out the importance of having the right tools.


“A carpenter is only as good as his tools.”

Artists have taken that saying and changed it a bit, often remarking that artists are only as good as their brushes, and yes, there’s a certain amount of truth in that. We’re always encouraged to buy the best brushes we can afford — and to learn about them, too, knowing which brush to use, when to use it, and how to use it.

But, then again, there are lots of artists who don’t like using brushes, or who may use brushes but who also reach for many different tools of the artistic trade.

A fun part of my recent art projects has been playing around with many different ways to put paint on the canvas, as well as ways to change it a bit once it’s there. Now, unless you’re creating abstract art, I certainly won’t recommend putting salt on the canvas as I once did. I will, however, strongly advocate trying different things as you’re painting.

Whether you’re using acrylics, oils, tempera, watercolor, ink washes or whatever, there are many tools and techniques to try out in your own paintings.

Palette knives and painting knives are certainly the best-known alternative implements for applying paint, but those traditional tools are only the beginning. Artists are curious by nature, I believe, and we’re always looking for new and different methods.

Here are a few other useful tools of the trade that you might not have tried yet.

  • Credit cards or gift cards. I’ve seen this tool demonstrated for both watercolor and oil. To create a rough-looking texture similar to a dry brush technique, just drag the edge of a stiff plastic card over the wet paint. I’ve also seen artists take a credit card and fray the edges by cutting narrow strips. This can be used to create a variety of effects in oil. Not only can credit cards be used for special effects, but they can also be an artist’s sole means of applying paint.
  • Sponges. Probably every watercolor artist already has a few sponges close by. They’re useful for cleaning up the inevitable spills (or am I the only messy watercolor painter?) and they’re great for adding texture to watercolor. And, guess what? Sponges work, too, with oil painting. Although I’m not good with the technique yet, a sponge can be a great way to add the impression of leafy foliage on trees, as well as a good way to add a few highlights to already-painted trees. I’m guessing sponges might also work well with acrylics and tempera. As with plastic cards, sponges can also replace the traditional brush.
  • Ruined brushes. Among my favorite brushes for oil painting are a few that look ragged and worn. Some are that way because I’ve ruined them by not caring for them properly — a lesson I still struggle to learn. Even so, I’ve been able to find good uses for these bad brushes, using them in ways similar to a sponge. I can create many different textures with old brushes, such as bushes and grassy areas. Jagged-edged brushes are so handy in oil painting, in fact, many artists take good brushes and deliberately ruin them, cutting them up, splaying out the bristles, doing lots of bad things to good brushes.
  • Toothpicks. I always keep a little box of toothpicks at my easel. Once I learned the technique of sgraffito in painting, it made it so much easier for me to create the effects of distant tree trunks or to create little bits of grass. Sgraffito is a technique that is widely used in pottery and ceramics. It simply means scratching away to reveal what’s beneath. The technique works wonderfully in painting, and can be used to create many different textures.
  • Toothbrushes. Everyone has done splatter art. It was a fun project back in grade school, and that same splatter technique can be useful in our grown-up art, too. A toothbrush dipped in thinned white paint makes a great snowfall effect, or you can use a toothbrush for splattered backgrounds, masking out the subject first. An old toothbrush can also be a great tool for blending and softening colors, especially in the background of a painting. Of course, talented artists have also used toothbrushes alone for creating beautiful works of art.
  • Rags and towels. Some artists find it easier — and faster — to lay in large areas of paint by using a rag or a paper towel. I use rags and paper towels mostly to wipe away mistakes I’ve made or to quickly cover an old canvas I want to re-use. Rags and paper towels are also used at times for blending and softening, although artists who do this point out the need to use only lint-free materials, otherwise you’ll end up with quite a mess on your canvas.
  • Sticks. Quite similar to knives, sticks and twigs can be a fun and interesting way to put paint on the canvas. I wasn’t able to find any specific information on using sticks, so the link I’ve posted goes to a “how to paint with knives” tutorial for beginners.
  • Just about anything! Take a look around you right now, and you’ll probably see many different things you could use while painting. I see a letter-opener here at my desk, an old drafting brush, a stapler with a rather pointy edge at the back. I see a few rubber bands and a bit of string. I see scraps of fabric. I see more painting possibilities than I could ever explore.

Trying different tools — the untraditional sort — is a great way to kick our imagination into high gear. As we play with these unusual methods of applying paint, we also discover new techniques that we can apply using more traditional tools. Playing with paint in this way is fun and exciting, and while every experiment won’t produce great results, a lot of our paintings will surprise us.

What different tools do you use in your art?

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