The Big Brushoff: How to Paint Without a Brush

Learn how to create your next masterpiece with a mouth atomizer instead of a “must-have” tool.

By Laurie Goldstein-Warren

Joy and Brass (acrylic on paper, 22×30) by Laurie Goldstein-Warren

I’ve used a mouth atomizer — an apparatus that mists paint onto a surface — for several years as a tool in my watercolor paintings. I’ve employed it to tone down an area, dim a section of color, and create a slight shift in value. One day I wondered, why can’t I use this tool for an entire painting, right down to the smallest details?

Photo courtesy of John Salminen

Using a Mouth Atomizer

A mouth atomizer is a device consisting of two tubes, either hinged or permanently fixed at the proper angle with a crosspiece. With the tubes forming a right angle, you submerge the end of the narrower tube into paint or another liquid and then blow into the wider tube, creating an evenly sprayed mist.

If you find a mouth atomizer difficult to use, try a Holbein HWCSB2 watercolor spray bottle. Spray the painting surface from a distance of 12 inches to produce “dots” of paint.

Pedicab—NYC (acrylic on paper, 22×30) by Laurie Goldstein-Warren

A First Attempt

To attempt my first brushless painting, I searched for a simple subject. I had previously made a larger traditional watercolor painting of a New York City street scene featuring a pedicab, and I decided to adapt that image. Viewing the image on my computer, I zoomed into the pedicab portion of the scene and then printed off a posterized black-and-white version. Using the photo as a value guide, I masked everything on the drawing that wasn’t a value of 8 or 9 (dark). Then, using a three-color palette, I began atomizing the darkest darks.

After the paint had dried, I removed the masking and was delighted by what I saw: flecks of color that had an airbrushed quality, but featuring larger dots of paint.

I knew I was onto something new in my watercolor repertoire and continued experimenting. After I completed Pedicab—NYC, I entered it into the 2016 Texas Watercolor Society Annual Exhibition, and it received Best in Show. I’ve since used this technique for still life paintings, such as Soup to Nuts, and portrait works, such as Joy and Brass.

Soup to Nuts (acrylic on paper, 17×22) by Laurie Goldstein-Warren

The Beauty of Going Brushless

Using a mouth atomizer produces a silkscreen-like appearance or graphic quality that makes a strong visual statement. It’s ideal for dark, mottled backgrounds and texture. Yet another benefit of this technique is the fast drying time between passes of color. And, when paired with masking, it’s easy to build up layers of color to achieve the desired effect.

Follow along as I use this unconventional brushless painting method in Soup to Nuts below.

Demo: Painting Without a Brush

Step 1

I mixed three colors — nickel azo gold, quinacridone red, and phthalo blue (red shade) — separately in small covered jars. Each mixture was formed from a quarter-sized amount of paint, approximately 10 pumps of water from a large adjustable spray bottle and a full squirt of Golden airbrush medium, which keeps the atomizer from clogging while I work. I’ve found that covered jars work best, because I can mix the color and water together more thoroughly by shaking the jars. I also have a large paper clip that I straightened out to unclog my atomizer between sessions. My masking is Pebeo Drawing Gum, and I use a masking lift to remove dry masking.

Step 2

I began with a drawing that clearly defined the separation of values in my still life.

Step 3

I carefully masked all the areas that wouldn’t be a value 8 or 9 and let the masking dry.

Step 4

To create those darkest values, I made a pass of color using nickel azo gold. After it dried, I made a pass using quinacridone red. I let it dry, and then did a final pass using phthalo blue (red shade). I kept layering the three colors in the same order until I achieved a value of 8 or 9. After the dark layer dried, I removed the masking and studied the shapes for accuracy and interest.

Step 5

I masked everything that was lighter than a value of 6 or 7, leaving the darkest shapes unmasked so they’d get darker as I proceeded with the painting process. I want my dark warm areas to remain warm and just get darker; the same is true for the cooler dark areas. If, near the completion of the painting, I want to “neutralize” or gray an area that’s getting too much attention, I’ll pass over it with cool if it was originally warm and vice versa if it was originally cool.

Step 6

I added about six pumps of water from the spray bottle into each color to lighten their values. Then I made three passes of color in the same sequential order as the previous layers, letting them dry between layers. I made two or three passes of each color to achieve a value of 6 or 7.

Step 7

I masked everything that I wanted to keep lighter than a value 4 or 5, leaving all that had been painted previously exposed to the continual passes of paint.

Step 8

I squirted about five pumps of water into each color to lighten them and made the paint passes in the same sequence.

Final Step

I softened the areas around the large white highlights of the spoon bowls by masking off their perimeters and then flicking white paint with a toothbrush for Soup to Nuts (acrylic on paper, 17×22).


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