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Change Up Your Tools to Discover New Mark Making Possibilities

January 11, 2017

161127_a_DickCWCRLeft: Direct brush portrait of Dick as he sat in the TV room with a light crossing him. (9 x 12 inch sheet of smooth yardstick). Read below for more details. Click on the image to view an enlargement.

Paintings of Dick often start with leftover paints. On this day I had some gouache leftover from a trip to the Bell Museum. Lots of “nature” colors like raw sienna and greens.

I took some very bright green and started to sketch Dick. (You can still see some of this around his mouth.) I didn’t really think I would progress beyond a line sketch of green, but I happened to pick up a 1/2 inch flat when I started making those lines.

Normally I like filberts (whether I'm painting with watercolor or with gouache). Filberts are flat brushes with a curve on their tip. They look a bit like a fingernail. I can do so much with them. I can even lay in some fine details by angling and tilting the brush. But on this day there wasn’t a filbert to be seen and Dick was getting ready to go to bed so I wanted to start working before he decided against modeling! (That's also the real reason I typically use leftover paints when painting Dick.)

While putting the green lines down for the main areas of the face I realized that the flat was really fun to paint with. Stand it on end so the end of the bristles hit the page and you get a nice little line of paint. I was intrigued. I found that this dictated the scale in which I was working. This portrait is only about 4 inches tall—a switch from the portraits I've been doing that bleed off a 9 x 12 inch page.

Always patient, Dick agreed to continue sitting while I laid in some colors, working in one value across the face, then the next, and finally ending with some white.

The only time I switched brushes was in the last two minutes of painting—I needed a finer line for the highlights on the eye and eyelid. I also did a couple strokes on the white sideburns. 

Did I solve the riddle of the light eyebrows with the flat brush? Nope, but I had a lot of fun turning the brush on end and often using it almost like a stamp, rather than a brush. (The gouache left over from the Bell Museum outing was still very fresh so it was easy to pick up with the brush and apply thickly.)

I also like the various planes I was able to create on the face with this brush.

Remember how I always go on about changing your tool?

Usually I tell you to switch out the pen you’re using or to switch from pen to pencil or maybe back again. I think that we need to keep playing with the variables that we use when we create so that we can find those tools and materials that do what we want in order to create our artistic vision. But we don’t always know what we want until we use a particular tool and it gives us something new (to us) on which we can build.

Maybe like me you love filberts? Maybe you always use rounds? Today I’d like to suggest that you that whatever brush you use when you paint, switch it up. See what marks and strokes you can get if you use a 1/2-inch flat brush. Change from bristles to sponge brushes and see what you can do with your strokes. You might even play with some of the silicone-tipped tools that are made for use with heavy-bodied acrylics. 

You can also play with the size of your brushes. If you've been using small brushes (000 to 2 for instance) try painting without anything smaller than a 10 round. This will also change the scale of your paintings in lovely, interesting, and challenging ways!

Don’t forget that you can make your own tools for painting. I have friends who paint with sticks they’ve carved to a point, or flattened and broken up so that they create stiff “fibers” at one end. When I work on scratchboard I use “brushes” I make out of odd bits of wire that I gather together and wrap on the end of a dowel.

Start looking at your tools and see what other possibilities are around you. You’ll find ways to to expand your visual vocabulary of marks. Have fun experimenting.

Note: I really like the filberts and flats that Princeton makes under the name "Snap." These are readily available at local stores and online. Princeton Snap brushes are great for working with watercolor or with gouache on all paper surfaces. They are also great for use with those media and acrylics on canvas boards and canvas. If you like more stiffness in your bristles when working on canvas or canvas boards you can use Silver Bristlon Brushes.

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