Monday, 6 August 2012


Although many artists aspire to paint photographically, there are vast numbers of artists who would like to paint in a loose, painterly way, achieving a finished piece which looks spontaneous, fresh, and semi-suggested, the lovely loose mark-making as important as the subject.

A looser, more painterly effect is something I strive for, and seldom achieve.  I did manage it, to my own satisfaction, with the image of the girl on the beach, above.

Below is an image painted by the late Debra Manifold, who sadly died before she able to fulfil her marvellous potential.  We completely understand the image, despite the fact that so much of it is suggested:

BUT To achieve this kind of looseness does not happen just because you decide to paint with softened edges, fuzzy strokes, or lack of detail.

So HOW can I achieve a looser style then, do I hear you ask?

Well, the answer is perhaps not going to be one that you will like, particularly if you are fairly new to painting.

In order to achieve a painterly, loose, spontaneous look to your work, you need to fully understand the nuts and bolts of creating a painting.  

You need to be confident and knowledgeable about TONE, about COLOUR and about COMPOSITION.  Your DRAWING skills need to be good, if you intend to include figurative imagery.  Even the abstract artist, who works purely with colours and shapes which owe nothing to the figurative, needs to have good basic knowledge of tone, colour and design under his or her belt.  

And when I say "knowledgeable" this means a lot more than just understanding what the words mean!  You may think you know about tone, because you understand that a light tone is different to a dark one......this is not enough. Can you properly convert a colour into its correct tone?  So many think they do...but they get it wrong time and again.    The world of colour is one you must understand fully - you need to know the colour wheel and quite a lot about colour interaction.   You may feel that you do not need to read up about composition - it should come instinctively. But if your painting lacks a good, strong underlying composition, with the main elements of the design carefully considered, no amount of lovely loose brushwork or strokes will save the day.    I promise need to study all of these areas as separate subjects, there is so much to learn, but all of it should be fascinating to you, so it is no hardship to learn.

You also need to be brave and BOLD.  I have come across many a retired architect, who knows how to draw extremely well.  After many years of painstaking, accurate drawing, they retire and decide to try to be painters.  And their work remains slow and careful.  They dot every i and cross every t.  Detail is their god.   Their works are stiff and clean and very precise.  But there is no boldness, no excitement, nothing unexpected or surprising. 

So - a few ideas for you - if you feel you actually do understand many of the important basics by now and want to have a bash at working in a looser fashion.

ALWAYS DO A VALUE STUDY/THUMBNAIL before you start on any painting.  Concentrate on composing the big shapes within the rectangle, using dark, medium and light tones.  This will give you a flying start.  It will feed you with confidence.  Here is one of mine...I used the Tombow range of felt pens, in three shades of grey, they have brush tips, they are lovely to use, and in a few seconds, you can achieve a really good sense of the image to be.

 it is  still not as loose and surprising and painterly as the image of the girl above.  It is not botanical, or photographic, however, there is a nice looseness to the foreground and overall the image does capture what I was after...the impression of the texture and denseness of the foliage in the woods.

WORK STANDING UP whenever you can do so. ( If you cannot, then at least stand up regularly and walk AWAY from your picture to see it from a distance.)   If you work standing up, you have more energy, somehow, your whole body seems to be involved, you can use your hand working right from your shoulder, rather than from your wrist.  When sitting down, leaning over your picture, there is a tendency to tighten up and focus on small areas rather than view the image as a whole. 

SORT OUT YOUR PALETTE IN ADVANCE.  If you work with pastels, sort out the ones you plan to use, take them out of your main set and put them into a small plastic tray.  If you work with paints, prepare puddles or piles of paint in advance.  You can still add or adjust...but being prepared and ready to pick up a colour without hesitation, is a huge help.

USE BIG BRUSHES, AND LARGE STROKES.  Working with tiny brushes, and baby strokes, will completely inhibit your ability to work in a loose and lively fashion.  Choose brushes bigger than you would ever normally use;  make strokes larger, certainly in the early stages of a painting, bigger than you might usually do.  Work bigger than is your normal practice - on a forum I visit regularly, someone said "please look at this small painting I have done.  I am trying to loosen up".    It was not loose at all.  It was quite the opposite in fact.  It is really hard to loosen up when working small.

WORK FAST. This requires some practice.  Here is an idea for you:

 Instead of working on an important, finished painting, a commission, or one you are absolutely determined to frame, GIVE YOURSELF PERMISSION to spend some time working on some images which you actually will allow yourself to throw away (or put in a drawer).  Give yourself a TIME LIMIT and paint like the wind.  It is extraordinary what happens when you work against the clock - adrenalin kicks in and you become a totally different painter.  Even find yourself a timer, or stopwatch ...and give yourself no more than about 7 minutes to paint a scene.  This needs to be after having done your initial thumbnail sketch, incidentally - this is important.  Do your sketch, sort out your palette, then set the stopwatch and GO FOR IT!!!  Big bold strokes, no fiddly detail, be bold,  you will soon see what I mean!  It really feels quite different and exciting.  Force yourself to stop when the bell rings.  Then walk away from that picture, come back to it later and see what you achieved.  Do quite a few.  You may be surprised to find that actually, the pictures have more merit than you would have believed possible, and they will have more looseness and freshness than you ever imagined you could achieve.  You will have no time to worry about details, you will learn to get the essence of the picture down swiftly........and it might even teach you to stop before you fiddle the picture to death!


  1. Thanks for the very helpful ideas, Jackie. I will give them a try.

  2. This is a great post. You speak the truth about not just knowing, but truly understanding the concepts that make up art. Value is primo and you show this with your thumbnail sketch. I'm teaching a workshop soon that will cover these elements and focus strongly on color and the creative use of it. So many of us want to loosen up. I think what we really want is to create paintings filled with emotion. Too much detail stops the viewer from participating with their own experiences and feelings, forcing them to view only the artist's concept. A painting that can make you dream, make you fall in love... Isn't that what we all seek to achieve?

    I think the most important step to a loose painting that works is a clear statement of what's in sunlight and what's in shadow. Too many times, artists will mistakingly use the same color in both places. Nothing in the shadow is ever as light as anything in the sunlight. The same color (value) never exists in both places. You should have shadow colors and sun colors. I even like to use different brushes for both.

    Best of luck!

    1. I agree, understanding values is most important, and I hope your workshop on creative colour is very successful.
      Just one word of warning. I think you need to be very careful about thinking that the "most important step" towards looseness is what is in sunlight and what is in shadow. I have recently seen some marvellously loose images where the sun is noticeable by its sunlight clearly played no part in the looseness of those images! It is a fact that some people will paint a white window frame the same colour in shadow and in sunlight "because it is white"...but that window frame can be painted loosely, or painted tightly. When you teach your workshop, perhaps it might be good to focus on what happens to colours when they are changed by the prevailing the sun provides different temperature of light to, say, a fluorescent lamp, and how this will affect the colours in a scene. Good luck with the workshop.

  3. Great post! I love your advice to be brave and bold! Thanks for sharing your excellent advice!

  4. Jackie,
    your thoughts are simply in line with mine.
    Your post is so interesting that I will save it to my personal folder. I cannot speak and write like you so I will save it and make it mine (in the artist's meaning).
    I prefer also to not loose the freshness and the lively of lights and feeling in my sketches. Nothing compared to your painting, but believe me I'm trying hard to have the same feelings.

    1. Thanks for sharing this Jackie, I'm definitely one of those that needs to loosen up!

  5. thanks for your comments, Karen, Stefano and other Karen. I am glad this post struck a chord for all of you, and flattered that you want to save it Stefano! Everyone says "aren't you lucky to have such a relaxing hobby"........little do they know how hard we all work!

  6. This post really confirms my own thoughts about "loosening up." There is a fine line between loose and sloppy and it seems to me that the difference is hours and hours of practice in the things you mention, tone, colour, composition and yes drawing is important too, it doesn't matter how good and loose the painting is, if the perspective/proportions aren't right neither will the painting be!! My style is naturally loose but I have had to learn a lot about painting skills and techniques, sort of go back to basics, learning how to handle the paint and water so that some areas of my work are more instinctive and only then could I move on to work in a looser way. It doesn't happen overnight not for most of us anyway..... it needs dedication and desire, it needs optimism and a strong heart, it is a journey which will be never ending because it is the journey which is more important than the destination, which, if we are learning and improving, will be constantly changing anyway!!


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