When I ask readers what they are struggling with most in painting, one of the most common replies is a struggle to paint looser and more relaxed.
This is a common problem in painting. We tend to overthink and overcomplicate things. The end result is usually a tight and overly refined painting (which is fine if that is the look you are going for).
Many artists, including myself, want our paintings to look effortless as if our paint flowed onto the canvas without hesitation. This is often referred to as a "painterly" style. Artists like Joaquín Sorolla and Richard Schmid first come to mind when I think of a painterly style.
In this post, I will go over some tips for painting looser and more relaxed.
1. Squint at Your Subject to See the Important Information
An important part of painting looser is knowing what to focus on and what to simplify. If you try to paint every detail, you will struggle to paint loose and relaxed. This is where squinting comes into play.
If you ever watch a professional artist paint, you should see them constantly step back and squint at the subject. This is not because they have bad eyesight, but rather because they are using squinting to simplify their perception of values and other details.
When you observe your subject without squinting, you see all the colors, edges, lines, shapes and other details. Nature is not so convenient to arrange all the elements in a neat composition for you.
Squinting allows you to simplify all this information. When you squint, you are looking through the dark filter of your eyelashes. This makes everything appear darker and less detailed.
Instead of seeing every minor change in value, you only see large value masses. This makes it easier to differentiate the important information from the "noise".
I will use the photo below to demonstrate what you should see when you squint. Below is what you would see when looking normally - all the colors and details in full force.
Below is more or less what you would see whilst squinting, depending on how hard you squint. This reveals a few important points:
- The lightest lights are the highlights in the clouds.
- The darkest darks are around the trees on the side.
- The mountain is all of similar value, with a few dark spots of blue.
- The blue sky is a touch lighter than the mountain.
- The light area in the grass is around the same value as the bottom of the blue sky.
All the above information is not as obvious without squinting.
Once you know what important information you want to capture in your painting, then you can go ahead and focus on capturing that information whilst ignoring the rest. This will allow you to paint with a much looser style than if you were trying to paint every little detail.
Tip: You see less color whilst squinting, so don’t use it to see color. Only use it to see value.
2. Think, Then Move with Confidence
When most people try to paint in a loose style, they just end up with a hurried mess on the canvas. It is not about painting recklessly, but rather with confidence. To add to this, there is no point in painting with confidence if you are painting the wrong things.
So instead of rushing through your painting and hoping for the best, take more time and think about your next stroke. When you are confident in what you want to do, then commit to that stroke and don't hold back.
Also, just because a painting looks effortless and painterly, does not mean it was painted fast. People tend to think Claude Monet only ever painted in a creative flurry on location, but he often labored over his paintings in the studio across numerous sessions.
3. Load That Brush!
I still need to remind myself from time to time to make sure I load my brush with enough paint between strokes. This is important as it allows me to paint with confident and efficient strokes.
If you do not have enough paint on your brush, then your strokes will be weak and timid. You will be constantly going back to the palette for more paint, rather than painting freely.
This also means that you should ensure you have enough paint on your palette. Otherwise, you will struggle to load your brush.
As John Singer Sargent once said:
"No small dabs of color - you want plenty of paint to paint with."
4. Make Use of Large Brushes and Palette Knives
Sometimes, when I want to loosen an area up in my painting, I will run a large brush or palette knife over the area. This helps simplify all the unwanted detail, which can build up in the painting over time.
The palette knife can also produce very interesting effects when you run it over wet brushwork. With one stroke of the palette knife, you pick up, scrape away and drag paint all at the same time. The result is usually a very loose and organic appearance. I use this technique all the time when painting the textured grounds of a landscape, or the choppy water of a seascape.
In my painting below, if you look closely you can see that the blue sky was painted with just a few long strokes of a large flat brush. The same goes for most of the water. I also used a palette knife to loosen up the trees and to add some highlights for the cliffs and buildings.
5. Start Fast, Finish Slow
If you want to paint in a looser style, then do not start slow and tight! It is much easier to start fast and loose, then tighten things up later if needed.
With most of my paintings, the start usually involves trying to capture my initial impression of the subject - the most basic formation of shapes and colors which I see. The end result of this is a no-frills painting. I can then go over and add the finer details if necessary.
Below is a progress shot of one of my paintings at the no-frills stage. Notice how all the general shapes and colors are in place, but not much else. Getting to this stage of the painting did not take long - perhaps 20 minutes.
I was then able to spend a bit more time on the finer details to bring the painting home. You can see other progress shots of this painting in this post.