Using Unconventional Painting Tools

-By Vanessa Lemen

The three stages of this painting show the underlying layer of marks made with spatulas, combs, and drips, and then the softening of the atmosphere in the top layers

Some folks have shown interest in the tools I use for the mark-making in my paintings, so I thought I'd do a post here about some of them. Besides alternating between bristles and sables for different effects and purposes, there are some lesser known or unconventional painting tools I use for many of the marks that my paintings consist of. In fact, the unconventional tools are what I tend to use more than the more conventional tools, much of the time. I use the word 'unconventional' only because it's a word that we all can relate to as a definition, but I don't necessarily find them to be unconventional in the sense that I find them to be quite practical and expressive, and they suit the purposes I'm after in my own work. I tend to layer several passes of mark-making to build up the depth, leaving one layer of drips and splatters to dry, and then cover it with paint in order to pick out with a spatula or squeegee to reveal portions of the marks underneath. All of the paintings in this article combine a few layers of different marks made and tools used.

Here are some of the tools I use...


Not to be confused with a palette knife, the tool I'm referring to is a silicone baking spatula. It's used as a pick-out tool and works especially well on smooth, slick surfaces to wipe away at paint that has a little bit of medium (such as linseed oil) mixed in. My favorite spatula is a small one from the Dollar Store. It's got just the right flexibility to it – not too firm, not too soft – which makes for some great marks. It also has a pointy corner on the flat side, and I can make some good small marks with that, as well as using the whole flat edge for larger marks, and the rounded corner and edge for smaller rounded marks (because it doesn't lay flat to the surface as the flat edge does). There are also sculpting tools that can be used to get the same type of effects, and these are also made in varying degrees of flexibility. For larger marks, I go for larger spatulas (or squeegees – see next). I have several of these, with varying flexibility and texture to the silicone. Laid on its side, a spatula can be used to smear the paint using a bit more sensitive pressure. When using them, it's good to keep in mind that tilt and pressure sensitivity make varying marks. Here are some examples of marks made with a spatula:

A spatula was used to make a lot of the marks in both of these paintings, and some splattering and softening was incorporated as well on the top layers for atmosphere

The spatula is my favorite quick sketch tool.  These paintings are quick sketches from life


A shower squeegee is a good size and usually has a bit softer/more flexible piece of rubber and a short handle. This is used for pick-out in larger paintings, essentially making the same types of marks that a spatula can make. Here are some examples of marks I've made with a squeegee:

A squeegee was used to carve out big shapes around the figure on the left and as a reveal for the green layer of paint on the right

Faux Finishing Combs or Rakes

I use these combs for picking out striations or a pattern of lines. The Martha Stewart brand flexible combs are the best (the grey rectangular ones in the top left of the photo). They have the perfect flexibility, in my opinion. This brand also has a less flexible faux finishing comb, as most other brands do. Those are not as fluid, but do make the same kinds of marks. These combs are many-sided, and fit in your hand nicely – they can be bent or straightened, and each edge has a different style row of teeth on the comb. I have a few different versions of these – with pointier teeth that make smaller marks, or with flattened teeth that pick out a bit wider marks. I've also cut into a few of my spatulas with scissors to make my own more organic type of combs. The direction in which you align the teeth and pull the tool across the surface will give you varying width between the lines. Here are some of the marks I make with these combs:

A comb was used a lot in these two, as well as spatulas, and dripping of solvent on the right

Super Soft Puffy Brushes

I use these to soften out areas and create more atmospheric edges or to lose edges or striations in brushwork altogether. These types of brushes are often found in the watercolor section at the art store, or you can try makeup brushes from a drugstore or department store. I have varying sizes of these brushes and I always use them dry to soften already-existing paint on the surface. Getting them wet with solvent or medium changes their texture, so in turn changes their purpose. The varying sizes are important for different areas of the painting that they're used for. Big areas of atmosphere need a bigger brush, and small areas that need edges softened would require a smaller soft brush. Here are some areas in my paintings where I've used these brushes:

Lots of softening with big soft brushes in these, as well as dripping and splattering solvent

Solvent (Mineral Spirits or Turpentine) and the Tools to Apply it With

I use solvent for splattering and dripping. I usually have a separate container for the solvent I use solely for splattering, and a different container of it for when I mix paint with it to drip or splatter thinned color. I use the clean solvent as a pick out method, and apply it by flicking a brush or tool with my finger to spray it, or pressing it against the surface to drip the solvent out of the brush, or by shaking the brush or other tool at the surface to splash it with solvent. On areas with just the right amount of paint on the surface, when the paint is still wet but not too wet, the splatters and drips pick away the paint when the surface is laying flat. It's fun to watch the marks appear like magic. Here are some examples of the marks I can make with solvent:

A lot of splatters and drips in these, as well as spatula and combs, layering the effects

Using drips in different directions, and some spatula and softening with big soft brushes


There is really an infinite number of ways to make marks. The list above is mainly the mark-making tools that I use frequently, but I've been known to try random things a lot too. I use paint scrapers and palette knives, and I've cut into brushes, spatulas, and foam core with scissors to make more organic strokes or striations. I've also used wadded up towels and old t-shirts, pieces of scrap plastic, found objects, rubber stamps, etc.. so many things can make interesting and unpredictable marks. Also, I've found sticking two surfaces together and pulling them apart, or laying a board flat onto my palette, and pulling it up can give me some really interesting results. Sometimes, I've built up a texture on the surface first with different acrylic mediums, or thick oil paint (which takes longer to dry), and then use the mark-making tools on top of that textured surface. Many of these marks I've made are what I use to create new digital brushes, too, and they give my digital work an organic or traditional feel.

What are some of your go-to unconventional tools? Let me know in the comments section.  I'd love to give them a try!