How to Paint More Loosely: Dos and Don'ts

Robert Motherwell (1915-1991), At Five in the Afternoon, 1950, oil on hardboard panel. Photo credit: Lisa Marder

Many beginning painters struggle to make their paintings appear looser, yet end up discouraged by a painting that seems too tight and controlled.  More experienced painters, though, often create paintings that seem looser and more spontaneous. How do they achieve that? In large part, much of that looseness comes with practice, skill, and confidence, as well as the ability to put enough into the painting to make it meaningful, but not enough to overstate it.

Think of Goldilocks and the Three Bears - not too much information, not too little,  but just the right amount. A painting should capture the essence of the subject while creating intrigue and mystery.

Read: What Makes a Great Painting

More: A Checklist for Determining When Your Painting is Finished

Here are some dos and don'ts  to help you paint more loosely.

Do:

Do decide what your intent is and keep focused on that.  Make sure to capture that and only that. Ask yourself repeatedly, "Why did I choose this subject to paint?" For example, If it is about the way the light shines on an object, make your painting decisions with that in mind. 

Do a loose pencil sketch or study first. Use a good drawing pencil to quickly lay in the major shapes and values. This process will help you to learn your subject and make decisions that will guide you in your painting. Once you have the values right you can use any color palette and still convey the illusion of space, depth, and form.

Read: Creating Studies

Do simplify. Squint your eyes, paint in a dimly lit room, use a big 3" house painting brush, use your opposite hand - anything that will help you to see and then paint only the most important elements. 

Do look hard and paint fast. Spend enough time looking at your subject so that you can paint it confidently and decisively.

Do look for the shapes. Everything is a shape - a shape of light, a shape of shadow, a shape of color.

Do work from largest shapes to smallest shapes. Save the smallest shapes for the very end, and only when absolutely necessary. You may find that the painting looks finished before you've painted the smaller shapes you intended to paint.

Do stand while you're painting if you can. This gives you a greater range of movement, allowing you to make grand gestural ones emanating from your shoulder if desired.

Do use lines for other than outline and contour. Use lines playfully, or organizationally, or to extend the mark-making gesture. 

Do choose a limited color palette. Read 10 Limited Color Palettes for suggestions.

Do paint with large brushes and use them for as long as possible - start with a 5" brush if possible, or a 3" brush, using a 1" brush or smaller for details only near the end of the painting.

Do paint like you're rich and not worried about "wasting" paint. Use plenty of paint and medium. 

Do time yourself and paint quickly, forcing yourself to capture only what is necessary to convey the essence of your subject. Paint a series of quick 10, then 20, then 30-minute studies of your subject.

Do adopt a spirit of play as you paint.

Don't:

Don't get sidetracked by details that don't matter.

Don't do a detailed pencil sketch and then just fill it in with color.

Don't hold the paint brush close to the ferrule, as you would a writing pencil. Instead, hold the paintbrush loosely, between the palm of your hand and forefinger, as a fencer would hold a sword. The way you hold the brush will dictate the mark that you make.  Holding the brush close to the ferrule will give you a controlled and rational mark, whereas holding it closer to the end of the brush will give you a looser more intuitive mark.

Don't expect to create a masterpiece with every painting. Let yourself be experimental and have fun.

Don't expect to be experimental when you're preparing for a show. That is usually when I become tighter, as I try to make the paintings just "perfect."

Don't expect perfection. Those "imperfect" areas, or "happy accidents" might just be the most interesting visually. 

Don't wipe off the drips. Let the accidents happen. Be a little messy. 

Remember that the energy that you put into a stroke comes through in the mark itself. An energetic gestural stroke from the shoulder will convey a very different emotion than a small slow mark made by moving only the wrist. If you want to achieve looseness in your painting save these small, slow, controlled strokes for only the most necessary detail at the very end of the painting process.

Also try the techniques suggested in the articles  How to Paint Abstractly and More Tips for Painting Abstractly.