Ad Hoc Artists’ Materials

Left your art materials in your locker? Try these substitutions.

Ad Hoc Artists' Materials“As artists, I think that one of the good qualities we have is that we’re imaginative. We’re resourceful. We like challenges.” —Meredith Monk, composer

In that spirit, you can use what you have around you to create.

1. Coffee makes lovely cool darks and light grey tones.

2. Tea makes beautiful warm washes. A sprinkle of sea salt in wet media creates interesting random textures.

3. For browns, use cocoa, cinnamon, chocolate.

4. For yellows, curry powder, turmeric, mustard.

5. For reds: paprika (Hungarian or standard), saffron.

Try the above dry or thinned to taste with water or safflower oil. (Olive oil goes rancid quickly.)

6. For shiny reds, lipstick.

7. For pinks, blush.

8. For skin tones, foundation makeup.

9. For blues and violet skies, eye shadow.

10. Wish you had small amounts of translucent shiny primary or any other color—greens, blues, oranges? Think about the range of nail polish. Every bottle comes with its own brush!

11. Need an opaque white? Wite-Out® anywhere around in a desk drawer.

12. Need to erase? The Old Masters’ trick was to use soft breadcrumbs from the center of a freshly baked moist loaf.

13. No brushes? How about Q-tips®? Take the cotton off for crisper edges. Make up applicators, pastry or hardware store ones are good.

14. Leftover wine corks are easily cut into shapes or other found objects; found objects are interesting to use for stamping.

15. A comb, a sponge, or toothbrush will do great for creating texture.

16. Embossing can be done by making a strong line with a butter knife, wooden skewer, plastic knife, fork, spoon, or bottle opener into a soft surfaced thick type surface to make a grove, then softly whisk some charcoal, graphite, or dry color over the area to reveal the white mark below.

17. Old magazines? Newspapers? Think collage. Mixed media. Follow Xenia Hausner’s lead, incorporating photographs into paintings.

18. Need a sharpener? A vegetable scraper is the very best pencil, charcoal, nu-pastel sharpener ever to create a point on any drawing implement. (See video demo by Richard Husson on my Instagram: @sherrycamhy). Use it to shape a small dry branch, pigeon feather, or even a reed branch following in the path of van Gogh.

19. Leftover latex house paint can save the day. Pour it like Jackson Pollack! Use it as gesso on anything that resists water—paper, scrap wood, wallboard, cardboard, delivery boxes—to prepare surfaces for drawing or painting.

20. Step backward into the past. Carefully toast dry vines for charcoal like the cave artists. There was a time before artists had pencils. Use a teaspoon or an old ring of silver to make a metalpoint drawing like da Vinci. No need to use his secret formula for a surface. House paint will do.

Feel trapped? Your computer or iPad is the magic carpet that can take you on a trip to almost any art museum in the world. Feel isolated?  Zoom. Experiencing artist block? Follow the footsteps of David Hockney and use the app Procreate (iOS and Android) to draw and paint with no physical mediums at all. 

Necessity truly is the mother of invention.

“Treasures from the Color Archive” (link)
The Story of Cinnabar and Vermilion (HgS) at The Met” (link)
Artists’ Pigments: A Handbook of Their History and Characteristics, Volume 1 (link)

SHERRY CAMHY is an instructor at the Art Students League of New York who teaches “Painterly Drawing,” “Life Drawing to Painting,” and “Drawing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.” 

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