Who Needs a Brush?

Art supply stores and catalogs are full of wonderful tools and equipment for capturing just the right texture or effect you’re looking for, whether it’s whisper-thin lines or the crags and recesses of a specific type of rock. Yet there are times when you simply can’t wait—you need to paint now. That’s when you need to do a little improvisation and make your own tools. Just look around you: Your bathroom, kitchen, garden shed and wallet are full of painting implements. So is the great outdoors. Even your own fingers are great to paint with, and you can’t get any handier than that.

It’s joyfully liberating to discover that creativity has no boundaries, no limits! If we want to paint badly enough—if a subject just begs to be captured on paper or canvas—we’re free to use any means at our disposal to do so. And you may be surprised to discover that the strange, stopgap implement you pressed into service suddenly becomes a new favorite tool. For instance, I noticed the brushlike qualities of the end of a hemp rope when working on this article. I cut off a piece, unraveled a strand about the width of a ?-inch brush and used it for grasses, leaves, foliage and the rough texture of weathered stone. The effect was too good to simply forget about; I’ve bound the end with tape and now keep the rope alongside my “real” brushes.

Nevada watercolorist Richard Busey just won a prestigious award for a beautiful abstract painting with rich colors and countless interlocking circle shapes, from large to small. You’d think he owned a set of expensive templates or a very precise compass tool. Not so. He created his prizewinning painting after raiding the kitchen cabinets for platters, plates, saucers and glasses (and using mountains of masking tape). As he put it, he felt like the Martha Stewart of the art world.

For this article I’ve demonstrated techniques using watercolors, but every medium is amenable to unusual tools and approaches. The finished effect—and the act of creating itself—are far more important than the tools we use to get there. Let your imagination roam free, look around you and give what you find a try. Use a few sheets of paper to make yourself pages of samples and, if you need to, note what new tool you used for which effect.

Mary Blocksma, who has written over 20 books, conducts writing workshops and works part time as a reference librarian.

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