Cattle Markers

Cattle Markers

I first heard about using cattle markers as oversized oil pastels when I was in college at Montana State University. The professors in the art department there were notorious for hitting the ranch supply stores for cheap alternatives to art supplies.

Several artists have used cattle markers as a medium at one time or another. The late, great Montana artist, Gennie DeWeese, is noted for having used them before she went on to use oil bars to create huge scrolls.

Cattle markers, also known as livestock markers or paint sticks, are made for temporarily marking on animals to identify them. To my knowledge there isn’t a big livestock graffiti problem, but it’s nice to know that it’s at least a possibility.

The markers sell for about a dollar each, come in a range of bright colors and are classified as nontoxic (which doesn’t necessarily mean good for you). They are composed of various pigments in a linseed oil base. (I use canola oil to clean my tools and wash my hands with.)

The stick is crusty on the outside and creamy once you break the surface. (I use a utility knife to scrape off the outer crust.) They are messy to work with and give off quite a pungent linseed odor but that subsides after a day or two, as the paint dries.

The markers I have been using were left over from a poster-making party at my old job where we drew with them on cardboard. I decided to see if I could use them up. At the rate I’m going, it might take quite a while…I’ve barely made a dent in them.

Disadvantages of drawing with cattle markers are that colors will fade and change over time and the colors tend to be pretty garish. (They are also messy, might ruin your clothes, and their smell is pretty strong if you’re sensitive to that kind of thing.) They are not intended for use as an archival art medium.

Advantages of drawing with cattle markers are that they are big and cheap, and that they mix and feel like thick oil paint. If you just want to try something new or make a big poster on cardboard or something along those lines, it’s really fun to mess around with them.

Alternatives: If you want a more colorfast option for a little bit more money, you can purchase artists’s oil sticks. I tried several kinds and wrote about it, here. Of the mid-priced oil sticks I tried, I’m happiest with Shiva Artist’s Paintstik Oil Colors. They have a nice consistency — like drawing with creamy lipstick — and there are several colors to choose from.