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Unfamiliar Painting Materials

 Sketching and Painting with what's at hand

When our kids were little we would often take them camping. We would take sketch books pencils and pens for them but what they enjoyed most was making pictures from things they found around the camp site - charcoal, grass, flowers, dirt - anything that would make a mark. Some masterpieces were produced with just a burnt stick and a used tea bag!


We can become overwhelmed by the quality and variety of available painting materials. Sometimes it is good to step back from the comfort of familiar tools and materials and experiment with the unfamiliar.

When flying, I normally carry a small pencil case with a tiny palette, water brush and a few pens and pencils. Having mistakenly packed it in my booked luggage forced me to try different options. These sketches were done in various locations with a fine permanent marker. The color was added by dipping into the dregs of an in flight coffee and diluting it with water to vary the tone.

Pen and wash sketch
Pen and wash sketch using airline coffee

Jetstar coffee and a fine tipped permanent marker.

Pen and wash sketch

This sketch used diluted Qantas coffee and a little pigment lifted off a sketch on a previous page of the sketch book

These little sketches were a lot of fun, so once back home in the studio, I decided to take the idea a little further. This time rather than airline coffee, I went out into the garden and gathered some things that looked like they would yield interesting colors.


A hand full of grass, some geranium flowers, yellow berries off a purple flowering bush and some charcoal from a barbecue. These materials were each ground up finely and mixed with water to make a colored stain.

Click through the images below...

Experimenting with these makeshift materials is great fun. There is no pressure to produce a masterpiece - or even a successful painting. It’s just a process of playing with what’s available and seeing where it takes you.


The biggest problem would be if a masterpiece was produced, it may not be there in six months time. The archival quality of Qantas coffee or ground up geranium flowers is probably not that high! With these little sketches it is more the fun of working with the unfamiliar and seeing what can be done.  


It does make you realize, it’s not the materials you use that determine how good or bad your work will be, it’s what you do with what you have. I found the simplicity of the compressed colors and the loose approach in these experiments very appealing.

To overcome the dubious permanence of the pigments used in the experimental sketches, I did some related paintings (below) using this sketchy approach and tight, subtle colors, this time with regular artist quality watercolors.

Had I not played around with the pen and coffee or the ground up plants, I would not have discovered this way of working. It just goes to prove, forcing yourself to step outside what is familiar can often be the catalyst for a whole new approach to painting

Author: John Lovett

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