Weapons of Choice

Do not just pick up the brushes you used yesterday because they are there. Put those back and then choose your weapon, like a certain type of gun or sword. You are going into battle and you want the best weapon for the job.

— Richard Schmid

I am learning to incorporate a new tool into my painting: the spatula.

So far, it’s a trial only; but already I’m hooked.

Using the spatula’s bellicose cousin, the palette knife, has never felt altogether comfortable to me.

I’ve watched other, better artists use a palette knife with a surgeon’s dexterity; but, in my hands, the results don’t match theirs. In fact, they’re fairly awful.

I think that’s because the palette knife—literally—adds a factor to my gesture that feels foreign to the paint.

Oil paint feels buttery to me and the introduction of the steel palette knife into the paint interrupts—more accurately, violates—that velvety feel. As I use a palette knife, I feel like I’m troweling the paint onto the canvas, like an untrained bricklayer. The results are usually dismal and sloppy.

I make a sloppy peanut butter and jelly sandwich, too.

The spatula, on the other hand, is springy and flexible—neither too firm nor too soft. It lets me spread paint smoothly over the surface of the canvas. I can sketch with it, fill my forms, and create nifty blended edges and broken colors. Made of silicon, the spatula also has a rubbery rounded edge that lets me make sculptural marks that I find evocative.

Beyond those magical qualities, as far as spatulas go, I can’t say more, except that they’re much easier to clean than brushes. That counts for something as well.

Mastering the spatula should allow me to paint in the expressive style I so admire in other contemporary painters such as Ans Debije and Ollie Le Broq. Let’s hope.

Spatulas aren’t new to painting, by any means. The spatula (the word stems from the Ancient Greek for broadsword) was invented by the Romans for mixing medicines. It made its way into kitchens as a chef’s utensil in the mid-19th century. Which artist first brought it into the studio is a mystery. 

Although he’s best remembered as a playwright, painter August Strindberg wrote an essay mentioning his use of a spatula in his studio in 1894. The piece appeared La Revue blanche, an avant-garde arts journal illustrated by French painters like Toulouse-Lautrec, Bonnard, Vuillard and Redon.

“I paint in my spare time,” Strindberg wrote. “So as to master my material, I choose a medium-sized canvas, or, better still, a piece of cardboard, on which I can complete the painting in two or three hours, while my inclination lasts. I am governed by a vague design. I have in mind the interior of a shadowy wood, from where the sea can be seen at sunset. Fine!

“With the spatula that I use for this purpose—I possess no brushes!—I distribute the colors on the cardboard and mix them so as to obtain the rudiments of a design. The opening in the center of the canvas represents the horizon with the sea. Now the interior of the wood, the network of branches and twigs, is extended in a group of colors, fourteen, fifteen, pell-mell but always in harmony. The canvas is covered; I step back and take a look! Confound it! I can see no trace of any sea; the illuminated opening shows an endless perspective of pink and bluish light in which vaporous beings, without body or definition, float like fairies with trains of cloud. The wood has become a dark subterranean cave, barred by brambles: and in the foreground—let’s see—why, rocks covered with unknown lichens—and there, to the right, the spatula has smoothed down the colors too much, so that they look like reflections in water. Well then! It’s a pool. Perfect!

“But above the water there is a patch of white and pink, whose origin and meaning I cannot explain. One moment!—a rose!—the spatula goes to work for a couple of seconds and the pool is framed in roses, roses, what a mass of roses! A touch here and there with my finger, which brings the rebellious colors together, blends and dispels the crude tones, refines, gives air and the picture is done!”

Above: Extract from The Seven Ups by Robert Francis James (2021). Speaks for Itself by Ans Debije (2021). Little Water by August Strindberg (1892).