The word “mahl stick” comes to us from the Dutch word maalstok which means “painter’s stick”. It’s a handy little tool used by artists that has been around for centuries. Many of the Old Masters regularly used them as they were putting paint to canvas on many of their masterpieces. We often see paintings from the 16th- through 19th-centuries depicting artists in their studios, at their easels, etc. and the mahl stick is often there, included as part of the painter’s equipment.
Artists use this painter’s stick to steady their hand when attempting to paint minute details on their canvas art. Most oil painting artists paint with their canvases resting upright on an easel and sometimes its hard to get your hand into just the right position without resting it on your canvas. This is a problem if the surface is delicate or the paint is wet. You can’t just plop your hand in the middle of your work. To do so, would mean smudging or smearing your artwork. That’s when a mahl stick comes in handy.
A mahl stick is simply a long round stick that is approximately three feet in length with a ball or knob on one end. Usually the knob end has a ball or wad of cotton on it that is surrounded by soft leather or chamois. The chamois will keep it from slipping on the surface and can easily be removed for cleaning or replaced when it gets soiled. You use the painter’s stick by resting the ball-end on the edge of the canvas, easel or dry spot of the painting. Then hold the other end up with your non-painting hand and steady your hand holding the brush on the stick while you paint. If you’re right handed, you would hold the mahl stick with your left hand and if you are left handed, you’d hold it with your right. It should be light enough so your hand that holds the stick will not get tired.
A mahl stick is something you can purchase online or from a local art supply store, or you can simply make one yourself. They can be made from any round piece of wood that you have on hand such as an old broom handle, half inch dowel or piece of bamboo. Whatever it is, it should be lightweight yet strong enough to resist bending under the weight of your hand. One end should be easy to grip. This can be achieved by wrapping it with some sports tape like the handle of a hockey stick or tennis racket. The other end of the painter’s stick needs to be bulky by adding a ball-shaped piece of wood or a rubber tip like what is used on the end of walking canes. You would then wrap it with a bit of cloth to prevent it from slipping or scratching the canvas. It can be tied on by using a piece of string.
I hope this article takes a little bit of the mystery out of mahl sticks and also provided a useful painting tip.
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