What Unconventional Tools do You Employ in Your Art?

Calling all mixed-media artists and illustrators!

Lisa L. Cyr, author of the 2009 North Light book Art Revolution: Alternative Approaches for Fine Artists and Illustrators is knee-deep in her next project with North Light Books. Lisa thought it would be a great idea to collect the thoughts and opinions of other artists to more fully explore the topic of unconventional tools. To get the discussion started, the folks here at artistsnetwork.com would like to open up the floor to you and your artist friends to find out what types of unique and alternative tools you are using in your art.

Lisa has identified three categories that most unconventional tools fall into: altered tools—traditional painting tools that have been modified in some way; repurposed tools—non-art tools that have been adapted for art making; and custom tools—tools made up of everyday materials that don’t fall into the other categories. Keeping these definitions in mind, we want to hear from you!

  • How have you altered your traditional painting tools to make unique marks on the painting surface?
  • What tools have you repurposed from other industries (culinary, construction, fashion, etc.) for use in your paintings? How have they enhanced your art?
  • What custom tools (tools that have not been altered or repurposed) have you created using everyday materials? What effects have you been able to achieve?

We welcome you to participate in the discussion! Click here to share your thoughts and ideas. Please note that while your thoughts and opinions are very much appreciated, the purpose of this discussion is one of general sharing of information. Your ideas may or may not be used in the project and no specific name credits will be assigned, as artists may have similar ideas and approaches. For your time and consideration toward the topic, please enjoy this free demo of the making of an unconventional tool courtesy of Lisa’s arsenal of tricks.

by Lisa Cyr

Using everyday materials, custom tools can be easily produced as a way to introduce signature markmaking and imprints onto the working surface. These one-of-a-kind instruments allow for a distinctive, personal approach to picture making and can help extend the visual message of your artwork.



Mailing tube

Fabric lace

Relief blocks 

Paint rollers: 9-inch (23cm) & 4-inch (10cm)

Paint roller handle

Offset pastry spatula

Metal ruler

Acrylic matte medium

Acrylic matte gel medium

Molding paste

White gesso 


Nylon brush: flat


Cotton cloth

Hand saw

STEP 1: Making the Base

Using a hand saw, cut a two-inch diameter mailing tube to approximately ten inches long. A bigger trim size can also be used for larger works. Pull out the plastic caps at the ends of the tube and set aside.

STEP 2: Coating the Surface

Temporarily insert a four-inch paint roller partway into the tube to use as a holding device while coating the surface. Apply three coats of acrylic matte medium with a soft flat brush all around the tube to seal the surface. Once dry, apply acrylic matte gel medium to establish the base coat. A thicker application of gel medium will allow for a more dimensional texture while a thinner coat will result in a subtle relief.

STEP 3:  Creating the Design

While the gel medium is still wet, firmly but slowly roll the tube over a piece of fabric lace, debossing the surface with a generalized overall texture. For more detailed areas, imprint various relief blocks into the surface. Almost any material, porous and non-porous, can be used to infuse texture. Allow the tube to dry overnight in an upright position.

STEP 4: Assembling the Tool

Once the gel medium has fully cured, use sandpaper to smooth out any unwanted peaks that may exist on the surface. Remove the small roller and fully insert a large roller (one attached to a handle) for an even distribution of weight and ease of use. Use one of the plastic caps to seal the other side of the tube.

STEP 5: Preparing the Surface

Apply a layer of molding paste to a gesso-primed Masonite surface with a pastry spatula. Pull a metal ruler along vertically as well horizontally to thin down and evenly distribute the molding paste. A heavy coating of molding paste will not work for this application.

STEP 6: Revealing the Surface

Employ the custom tool by pressing down firmly on the surface and rolling it slowly in various random directions, allowing for a layered texture that is unique to unfold. If any molding paste builds up on the tube, simply wipe it away with a slightly damp cotton cloth. Since the tube is sealed, it can be cleaned with water and a nail brush, and reused for other applications. When cleaning, it is important to insert the plastic caps on either side to protect the interior of the tube once the handle and roller have been pulled out.

(All text and images copyright 2010 Lisa L. Cyr, Cyr Studio LLC all rights reserved

For reviews and press coverage of Lisa’s first book, Art Revolution, please visit Lisa’s website for more info. Or to purchase your own fabulous copy, visit northlighshop.comVisit Facebook to join the Art Revolution fan page or follow Lisa on Twitter.

“The more artists share their experiences, the more the industry benefits as a whole. I look forward to hearing about your experiences using unconventional tools!”  —Lisa L. Cyr







You may also like these articles: