Paintingwithoutbrushes head

October 12, 2012

This is the story of a large figurative painting I did using no brushes, only sponges.

I’ve found sponges help me with one of my major challenges: getting too careful and picky with my paintings. Just having a big sponge dripping with paint in my hand instead of a brush puts me in the right state of mind to place big, bold strokes and take my chances rather than trying to control everything.

This wasn’t the first time I’d used sponges instead of brushes. I did a painting in June 2009 called “Late Afternoon at Queen’s Surf” (below) which was painted mostly with a single small kitchen sponge (I did use brushes for the finishing phase of this painting).


More recently, just a few weeks ago, I did a piece called “Octopus Plant” (below) which I painted entirely with sponges, except for a very few final-touch brushstrokes. I loved the way using sponges kept my paint application free and energetic in this piece. It gave the finished work a nice, light-filled vitality.


Also, in the week before starting the painting discussed in this blog, I did several small acrylic-on-canvas studies using sponges, exploring the possibilities. So when I began this painting I was feeling fairly confident of my ability to put paint on the canvas with a sponge, and my willingness to give up some degree of control in return for a bold vitality.

However, as it turned out, what I learned in the process of doing this painting went way beyond expanding my sponge-painting abilities.

There are 3 major painting challenges that came up for me in the course of doing this painting:

Values (Light vs. Dark)
Color Temperature (Warm vs. Cool)
Edges (Hard vs. Soft)

For this challenge I chose a horizontal image similar to my previous large painting, Eduardo na Luz (which you can read about in my Going Big blog entry) in that it’s just the head and upper body. The image I settled on was a photograph of Steve Chen taken during our Malibu photo shoot last year. 

As usual, I printed out several versions of the reference image: one conventional continuous-tone color version, one posterized, and a greyscale version of the posterized image. As I’ve explained in other blog entries, the posterization allows me to see the color breakdown in ways I might not see so well just looking at the conventional photograph. It also makes it easier to see the warm colors and the cool colors.

Stevechen source 3up

(A very condensed note on my understanding of warm vs. cool: When you’ve got warm light—a sunny day, for instance—you’ll have cool shadows. So if your highlights go toward yellow or orange, your shadows will tend toward purple or blue. The reverse is also true: cool light—a cloudy day, for instance—tends to produce warm shadows. I’ve known about warm vs. cool for many years but only recently have I really admitted to myself how important it is, and I’ve started paying a LOT more attention to it. That wound up making a big difference in this painting.)

The greyscale version of the image lets me see values more clearly. This, like warm vs. cool, is something of which I’ve always known the importance, but only recently have I expanded my ability to see and focus on the really subtle value differences you find in an image. In the painting I did previous to this one, Eduardo na Luz, I really had to pay attention to values.  In the course of that painting, I spent a lot of time getting better at SEEING the differences in values. I was determined to cut down the number of times I had to repaint different passages in the painting. Because I was so focused on this, I really made progress in my ability to see microscopically small variations in value. That made a big difference on Eduardo na Luz, and an even bigger difference on the painting you’re reading about here.


In the image above you see a variety of kitchen sponges I bought at a grocery store. I bought small and large sponges, and some I cut in half so I would have more variety to work with…since I’m still discovering what it’s like to paint with sponges. The variety you see here has proven to work pretty well.

When I paint with a brush, I tend to use 1 or 2 brushes throughout the whole painting, which means that every time I change colors I have to rinse the brush clean and dry it, then dip into the next color.

With sponges, I have 4 corners on each sponge, so I can move from sponge to sponge without cleaning them; one sponge corner is for the darkest purple, for instance, and another one for the lighter purple, another for medium flesh, etc. I end up with a pile of sponges beside my palette, each one carrying different colors of paint on its corners. I paint with the sponges damp (but not soaking), so the paint on them tends to stay wet for quite a while, which is nice.

1549 inprog1

I started out in my usual way, drawing the image roughly onto the canvas, then doing a dark wash (dioxazine purple + burnt umber) over the entire area. Using a sponge, of course. In the above image you see the beginning of my application of the wash.

1549 inprog2

Here’s the next phase. I decided to use the brown-purple wash for everything but the figure itself; for that I chose a burnt-sienna (with a bit of ultramarine blue added to grey it down a bit) wash, thinking a reddish-brown tone under the fleshtones would probably be a good idea. By the way, applying a wash over a big area is a whole lot faster and easier with a sponge!

1549 inprog3

Next I mixed up a blue for the background. My favorite blue mixture these days is ultramarine blue with a touch of phthalo blue. So first I took a sponge and laid that in. What fun to have that big, broad sponge to lay in those large areas. I used big, broad movements, using my whole upper body. And was rewarded with some nice-looking ‘brushwork.’ Then I mixed some fleshtone—a medium, not too light and not too dark—and laid in the first fleshtones. I was VERY determined to not get too careful, to keep the strokes big and bold, and I think I did pretty well. One thing I’ve always been good at is squinting—my mom taught me that—so that I see how it’s looking without the distraction of the details. And I really had to do that even more than usual with this stage of this painting.

As soon as I laid in the fleshtones, I stood back (WAY back) from the painting and thought, “YES!” I really liked the energy of the work already. A good sign.

Next I mixed some colors for the towel. Usually painting something like a towel is boring for me. But this time I actually had fun! Using sponges, I was able to paint whole big sections of the towel quickly. Plus, I was less tempted than usual to get picky with it. And because I’ve gotten much better at judging values lately, I was able to better manage a difficult part of the painting, the greys on the towel (the shadowed areas of the white stripes). I took a couple of strokes with my carefully judged greys and boom, the towel started to look three-dimensional. Having a little bit of that kind of ‘magic’ happen early in the painting is very encouraging and really helps!

1549 inprog4

After painting the towel I went into the shadows. In my photograph I saw some very warm reddish tones in the shadows on the left-hand side of the body so I put some of those in. At this point I was not yet sure about those, knowing I would need to wait for them to dry, and to get some other color in around them, before knowing whether they would be okay without further work.

At this point I felt the painting was looking pretty good. I still wanted to do a lot to it, but I also felt that I could stop totally at this point and still have something I liked. That’s a good feeling. But I was having too much fun to quit. I wanted to see what this would grow into.

1549 inprog6

Next I tackled some of the more subtle areas, like the reflections within the shadows. You’ll see I added some cool (bluish) lighter tones within the shadows, specifically on the left side of the face, in the center of the chest, and under the nearer arm. If you don’t get the values exactly right on these reflection-within-the-shadow colors, they won’t work—so you really have to pay attention. I actually had to repaint these a couple of times before they worked.

1549 inprog7

By now I was actually moving into the final-touches phase. The basics were working so well that very little ‘detail work’ was required to bring the painting to a near-complete level of finish. I’m talking about the eyes, lips, the smaller patterns of lights and darks in various areas. I also went in and added more blue to the background so it was more ‘finished’-looking. I could’ve left it alone but just wanted to finish it more.

Here are some closeups of the final touches I put in to finish the painting.

1549 CU1

I mixed up a very light yellow for highlights, then used an even lighter pink on top of that. Sometimes I do the reverse, with the highest highlights yellow (warm) and the near-highlights a cool pink. I just experiment and see which one works better. Here you can see (on the underarm) the purplish shadows and the warm yellowish-greenish lighter areas within them. Cool shadows with warm reflections within them (which happened here because the sand was reflecting upward) can be magical!

1549 CU3 abs

In the detail above: I enjoyed defining the serratus anterior (the rippled area between the nipple and the lower right edge of the body) with just a few quick strokes of the sponge.

The face became kind of a symphony of warm and cool values. The really reddish shadows are next to the dull greenish in-between shadows which are next to the medium fleshtones which are next to the lighter fleshtones which are next to the yellow and pink highlights. And then there’s the purple triangle under the eye on the right side…a happy accident I knew enough to leave alone.

1549 CU2 head

Notice also on this closeup of the head, something I discovered when I thought I was finished with the painting. I stood back from it and I realized that the whole figure had hard edges all around. This is something that wouldn’t have bothered me even a few weeks ago. But for years I’ve read about how it’s good to lose some edges, to have some edges really sharp and others very soft or even nonexistent, and how that makes things appear more three-dimensional…I’ve read it for years and seen it in others’ work, but never got to the point where I was able to really apply it. But in the moment when I stood back from this painting and saw that it was a bit too ‘cut-out’ looking against the background, I knew I needed to soften some edges. I didn’t do much. I just softened the outline of Steve’s hair on the upper left and on the right just a bit above his ear. Those two very small, subtle touches made a world of difference. I stood back from the painting and suddenly it was more three-dimensional. NOW I decided it really was finished, and I was really happy with it. This one went fast—only took two days!



If you’d like to see more of Steve Chen, the model for the painting described above, visit my E-Bookstore and download my e-book Steve. You can also order it on CD.


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