Making paint brushes from found objects

‘Proper’ paint brushes are amazing of course, but sometimes it’s nice to go a little off-piste and put some of nature’s tools to use – especially at this time of year. I always love to gather leaves and pretty sticks rippled in lichen, but for this tutorial I took my foraging a bit further to find items in nature to experiment and ‘get messy’ with.

I did this for the first time last year and loved the idea of being able to create unique marks, patterns and designs on paper using my own hand-made brushes. My big discovery? EVERYTHING is your paintbrush with a bit of imagination. And no-one could ever re-create the exact same brush or tool – FACT.

Supplies

  • Scissors
  • String/wool/elastic bands for tying things together
  • Glue/sellotape
  • Oddments of fabric/haberdashery/pins
  • Thick paper – I used a mix of 300g watercolour paper and slightly lighter cartridge paper
  • Anything else you want to use to make your brushes or mark-making tools – pegs, wire scrubbers, old pom-poms, buttons…

Foraging: the beach

Hot or cold, the beach is the perfect place to find washed up driftwood, seaweed, shells and other bits and bobs. I collected my stash in the north of Scotland earlier in the year, and love that I can create with nature to express my creativity and feelings through the marks I make and the words that begin to flow as I do it.

I found patterns in the seaweed I might want to emulate, and took lots of photographs of rocks and stones in situ, piled up or just tumbled together in a flood of pretty colours – perhaps an idea for a themed colour-palette?

Foraging: the woods

I also love a woodland walk, and the kind of things you typically find in a wooded area are perfect for making your own brushes: broken twigs, pine cones, leaves. I also raided my Dad’s stash of kindling for the lovely chopped sticks that make a perfect foundation for building up a more complex brush; it begins to feel like casting a spell…

If you don’t live near a forest or woodland area, then a stroll through the park or even just a ‘wild’ area nearby would work equally well.

NB: I don’t tend to snip or cut anything down myself, but instead use the treasure that has already fallen/washed up. Different places/countries have different rules about this – check before you chop!

Stones can also make really interesting marks.

These are from the Cairngorm National Park in the Highlands of Scotland, and I am particularly drawn to them because of their shape – flat with hard edges that are easy to grip and use to make marks.

Let the brush-making begin!

Pins & Needles Brush

I started with a simple, fat, chopped stick, and stuck nails and pins into one end, using a small hammer to make sure they didn’t fall out when I started ‘painting’.

The good thing about a stick like this is you can adapt both ends to make it a 2-in-1-brush, or as I am choosing to do, leave it untouched at one end but still perfect for dipping into paint.

Using a small/medium paint brush (oh the irony!), I loaded the tips of the nails and pins with acrylic paint. For the plain end I just made a very watery mix of acrylic. You need to work quickly as the wood absorbs the paint/water, and re-apply every 2-3 times ‘strokes’.

The results were very different but both could easily go straight into an art journal spread:

Fabric Brush

For this brush I chose a few small pieces of thin fabric with different textures – chiffon and silk – and used an elastic band to tie them round the end of a stick. Easy.

At first I wasn’t loving the results, but then I realised the fabric looked a bit like a ‘rose’ on the end of the stick and so did the impression on the paper.

I was inspired to create this bunch of flowers with my fabric brush, picking a thin twig to draw in the stems.

I think I’ve discovered a new fav technique!

Grouped Twigs Brush

For this brush experiment I picked three thin sticks and tied them together with an elastic band. They stick out at different heights and angles, so my plan here was to drag them over my page to create a kind of trail rather than a stamp-mark. You can experiment with your tools as you go – that’s what it’s all about.

The result can be either built up or left quite minimal, and I chose different colours to layer over each other. I used lots of water too which allowed the colours to bleed and mix a bit – this could also be exaggerated – or not.

Lichen Brush

I really wanted to try the lichen to see what effect I would get, so glued a piece of it to the end of a medium-sized chopped-edge stick.

I painted the lichen different colours to create a dappled effect…but then ended up dipping the lichen onto my palette and just going for it! Again, the lovely dappled effect can be built up or left minimal.

I was thinking of ‘magic furry planets’ at one stage…

‘Magic Wand’ Brush

I found my ‘magic wand’ on the beach, frayed by the tides, and I knew straight away it would make the perfect ‘brush’, so I didn’t make any changes.

It was very damp when I found it, the tide just coming in, so I would recommend making sure everything you want to use is completely dry otherwise it will dilute your paint and wet your paper, potentially skewing/spoiling the result…but then maybe not? You decide the look you are going for.

Wood-Chop Wheel

These chopped slices of wood are so adorable and I’ve used this technique before but had to share here as it’s so much fun. All you need to do is paint around the edges with a nice watery/acrylic mix (or paint of your choice) and ‘roll’ over your paper. You get really messy doing it but I think the results are totally worth it.

I also lay a few pieces of the wood flat on a piece of paper and used my actual paint brush to splatter paint over them, loaded with different colours. It created an attractive ‘relief’ pattern with blank spaces for journaling into.

Wood Scrap Brush

I saved this little square of wood from a DIY project and couldn’t resist using it as a ‘brush’ because it’s so cute. All I had to do was paint a nice thick layer of acrylic all over the bottom of it and stamp it all over my page – a nice ‘maximalist’ background in bright, autumnal colours.

Pine Cone

Same technique as above, though not quite as effective and a hundred times messier…but that’s the name of the game, right? I splattered water over it while the paint was still wet to add an extra dimension.

Seaweed

OK, technically not a stick, but I lightly stuck it down on the paper (using blue tac) and painted round it. Trapped sand textured the paint slightly and I kept getting a deep whiff of the sea – gorgeous! The effect is quite dreamy and reminiscent of the sea. This is the perfect starting point for a dreamy, whimsical page.

Rocks/stone

I loved the result from this stone – it might be my favourite. The marks it created are so delicate and random due to only some parts touching the paper. I layered on a watery/acrylic mix and just rolled the stone over the page. I think this might appeal to the ‘minimalists’.

Top tip: use lots of water to ensure the paint doesn’t dry too quickly and to get the most ‘action’ on the paper!

The results

Some of the ‘brushes’ worked better than others.

Some of the pages I made could be used straight away as a background in my art journal, while others could be cut/ripped to add decorative elements to a page. I can’t wait to do this with the results from the ‘lichen brush’ – I’m seeing dappled, Jackson-Pollock-esque clouds in my future! Lots of ideas for pages came to me as I was working – and that was without having any particular season or prompt in mind as I went.

I even made a repeating pattern from the paint splatters created in the wood-cut relief experiment. I’m calling it ‘explosion’:

I had no ‘plan’ of how any of these brushes were going to work out before I started, but that’s part of the fun. I hope you found the ideas in this tutorial useful and inspiring, and I’d love to see what kind of brushes and marks you create.

Written with a twig (of course)!

Finally, here’s a finished art-journal page, made straight onto the background created using the ‘Pins & Needles’ brush.

Rebecca

Rebecca is a multi-passionate creative and writer living in Scotland. She finds inspired from her garden, the birds and the visions that come to her in dreams, gathering her art supplies and ideas like a squirrel and weaving them into stories on the page.

14 Comments

  1. Katie Smith

    This looks like it was so much fun!

    • Rebecca Johnstone

      It really was!

    • Rebecca Johnstone

      Thanks Jules 🙂

  2. Emily@squiggleandswirl

    I wouldn’t have thought of this. I like the idea of gathering things on a holiday for holiday specific journaling. Using the things to add a little magic to your pages. LOve the explosion page!

    • Rebecca Johnstone

      Thanks Emily. All about the magic!

  3. Sasha Zinevych

    This is so fantastically creative!

    • Rebecca Johnstone

      Thanks so much Sasha!

  4. CIndy Jacobs

    Wow so inspiring!!!

  5. CIndy Jacobs

    I had no idea what this Tutorial was going to be about, and I’m really glad I dropped in! Thanks for the inspiration!

    • Rebecca Johnstone

      Really glad you enjoyed it Cindy 🙂

  6. Rebecca Johnstone

    Hey thanks everyone – I really LOVED putting this together and only wish I was more down with the video tech!! So glad you enjoyed it 🙂

  7. Elizabeth D.

    I can’t wait to try this with Grace — she’s always collecting twigs and pinecones on our walks. xx

  8. Lesley Watson

    Lovely ideas. The lichen is especially effective. Just goes to show what you can do with a bit of imagination. Thank you.