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Activity: Make Your Own Nature Paintbrushes

materials laid out for an art making project

Combine your creativity and love for the outdoors to create a nature paintbrush. Then make a painting inspired by Joan Mitchell’s Untitled. Have fun exploring the world around you and getting a little messy making art!

Look Closer:

Take a look at this work from far away. Then try to look closely and see the details. Notice the use of lines in the painting. What color are the lines? Where are they going? Choose a line and imitate it with your body!

This work was made by Joan Mitchell and is very large, just under six feet long and 6.5 feet tall. How would you feel if you stood directly in front of the work so that the painting is all you can see?

Mitchell created work based on her own experience and emotions. These paintings were often a way for her to record memories. What kind of memories or emotions do you think of when looking at this work?

Joan Mitchell, Untitled
Joan Mitchell, Untitled, 1952-1953, oil on canvas, 77 1/2 x 71 1/2 in. Courtesy Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas. Photography by Edward C. Robison III.

Mitchell was part of an artist group called the Abstract Expressionists. Like Mitchell, artists in this group created abstract works that focused on making marks that looked expressive and spontaneous. The word abstract means that the artist did not attempt to recreate a recognizable place or object. 

These artists also often worked with their paintings on the floor instead of on an easel and used unconventional materials to apply paint. For example, Mitchell is said to have used housepainters’ and artists’ brushes, rags, and even her fingers to apply paint. What are some other tools you could paint with? 

Activity: Make Nature Paintbrushes

Materials Needed:

  • Several twigs
  • Leaves, pine needles, or other natural materials
  • String or a rubber band
  • Tempera or acrylic paint
  • Cups for paint
  • Large paper 
  • Cardboard sheet (optional)
  • Tape (optional)
materials laid out for an art making project


Step 1: Go on a nature walk together and look for materials to create your paintbrush. Find a small stick for each paintbrush you want to make, and then look for nature items that could become the bristles of your brush. This could be pine needles, leaves, or even flowers you find outside. Look for items with different textures and sizes. 

Step 2: When you get home, it’s time to assemble your brush! Lay out the sticks you’ve gathered and then sort your nature materials to create a few different bushes. Attach the materials to one side of your stick using string or a rubber band. Test how the different materials feel on your hand. Are they poky, feathery, or fuzzy? Guess what marks they might make when painting.

flowers and leaves being tied to sticks to make paintbrush

Step 3: Next, find a place where it’s okay to get a little messy. Going outdoors is a great option! Spread out a large piece of paper on the ground to paint on. If you don’t have a large piece of paper, you can tape multiple pieces of paper together or use a big cardboard sheet. This will be your canvas.

Step 4: Next put different colors of paint into cups. Dip your nature paintbrush into the paint and make marks on your canvas. Compare the marks made from your different brushes. Do they look similar or different? 

art paper being taped together
flowers being used as paintbrushes to make an artwork

Step 5: Focus on creating different kinds of lines: thin vs. thick and straight vs. loopy. Try painting farther away from your canvas. This is something Joan Mitchell did with many of her works. Do you paint differently from farther away? You can also try adding marks with your fingers or other materials you have on hand. 

Step 6: Continue to paint until your work is complete! Be sure to clean paint off your materials as soon as you finish. Then wait for your painting to dry and then display it someplace special. What feelings or emotions do you have when you look at your painting? Ask others the same question and see how your answers compare!

an abstract artwork made of paint strokes on paper
paint heavily coating paper

Have fun creating! Share your nature brushes and abstract paintings with us on social media – tag #crystalbridges on Instagram.


Written by Marie Hofer, museum educator, Crystal Bridges.

Special thanks to our sponsors:

Youth and Family programming is supported in part by AMP Sign & Banner, Arthur J. Gallagher Risk Management Services, Juan, Marcy and Joaquin Camacho, The Coca-Cola Company, iHeart Media, JTH Productions, Northwest Arkansas Naturals, Pinnacle Car Services, Procter & Gamble, Gordon and Carole Segal, The Simmons Family Fund, and ViacomCBS Consumer Products.

Education and Learning is supported in part by Willard and Pat Walker Charitable Foundation, Walton Family Foundation, The Northern Trust Company, Pamela and Wayne Garrison, Doug and Shelley McMillon, Jack and Melba Shewmaker Family, Neff and Scarlett Basore, Galen and Debi Havner, Lance and Sharon Beshore, Cardinal Four Foundation, Colgate-Palmolive Company, Harry Cornell, Cox Communications, Dorothy Hurt, J.M. Smucker Company, Kimberly-Clark, Nice-Pak Products, Inc., The Russell Berrie Foundation, Stephen and Claudia Strange, Felix and Margaret Wright.