5 Ways to Loosen Up Your Painting Style

How loosey goosey do you want to be?  

First, we must understand our own definition of painting loose or tight and how loose we want to paint. I’ve had people say about my work, “I’d love to paint as loose as you.”,  they’ve also said “I could never paint as tight as you.” As you can see, tight and loose, is  really a matter of individual perception. However, I think we can surmise the general difference between tight and loose.  

Tight is when the subject looks very realistic or hyper-realistic. It’s when the brushstrokes  are all smoothed out and the edges are very clear and sharp throughout most of the  painting. The painting looks like a photograph or a tromp l’oiel work.  Loose is when the subject is still recognizable as what it is (so not an abstract painting),  but the brushwork becomes a very active part of the composition. In general, there is less  refined detail and more suggestion of the most important details. The brushstrokes are  not blended out everywhere and there is a variety of hard and soft edges. How loose a  work is can vary.  

A photo of an original oil painting on panel of a still life painting of a melon, leaves and jug by Kelli Folsom.

Painting loose doesn’t mean painting sloppy and it also doesn’t mean that you don’t work to have a beautiful idea and composition. It just means that you are letting the paint play an active role in the work.

If you are having trouble loosening up here are some tips:  

1. Let it go!  

I hear students say all the time that they want to loosen up, but then they continue to do  the same style of work they’ve always done. The problem here is that they still want to  have a good result at the end of their painting. Rather than try to embrace something  new and uncertain they cling to the comfort zone of what they always do. So, first you  must let go of what you know you can do and be willing to experiment. I recommend  setting aside a painting a week or a day a week where you just focus on painting loose.  You probably won’t like the initial results because you’re not use to it. You don’t have to  show anyone your efforts, but do not reject or criticize these efforts. If you do, you will  never learn how to paint loose.  

Set up a simple subject or scene to practice trying the following tactics. 

2. Forget about the LINES!  

When you start by drawing and not painting, it’s difficult to switch into the mindset of a  painter. If you already have everything drawn in perfectly and tight, it’s hard to paint  outside of the lines and loosen up. You begin to learn to draw with paint and shapes  rather than filling in the lines.  

3. Use a ton of paint and big brushes!  

If you’re a tight painter who wants to loosen up, I recommend going the opposite  direction than what you’re use to. Get out some big brushes and put out a ton of juicy  paint. If your brushes, paint and canvas is all dried up and crusty how can you paint  loose? Get materials that work for juiciness. Don’t over dilute your paint with mineral  spirits either. Painting with juicy paint and big brushes will get you comfortable with the  nature of oil paint. Yes, it will be a mess in the beginning, but you’re trying to break a  habit. 

Did you try big brushes, but it still looks tight? Perhaps even more important is how you hold and load the brush. If you’re choking up on the ferrule and holding your brush like a  pen your strokes will be inherently tight not loose. So, hold your brush more towards the back and paint with your arm not your wrist. Also make sure that you’re loading the paint sitting on top of the bristles like a shovel, not inside the bristles like water in a mop. This is oil painting not watercolor. I  think of oil painting low relief sculpture. The thinner layers indicate depth of space and the thickest layers communicate coming forward.  

A photo of an original oil painting on panel of a floral still life of pink roses by Kelli Folsom.

4. Race to the Finish Line!  

Now it’s not that I am opposed to thoughtful painting and I’m certainly not for sloppy ugly paint, but you’re trying to open to a new way of painting. In doing so, sometimes we must swing the pendulum in the opposite direction to get balance. This suggestion is to set a timer on these practice studies. Depending on how simple the setup is try 30  minutes getting everything covered. Still too much time? Try 10 minutes! This is good practice in simplification and not overthinking as well. It requires you to look at the big picture and extract only the most important characteristics of an object or scene.  

5. Try a brushstroke exercise!  

It’s great artistic practice to limit your options which again forces you to simplify and not dawdle about. This also teaches you how description a brushstroke can be of the form, light, and texture of an object. Try 5 brushstrokes per object, or even 3! This will also teach you to load more paint on your brush too so this one’s a sneaky twofer exercise. A  brushstroke has a beginning and an end. I count one brushstroke as it goes down onto the canvas and finishes when I lift off the canvas. A brushstroke can have any shape.  

P.S. Congratulations to Alexandra Tanase on winning the Valentine’s Day Giveaway!

Love in Light, Kelli

6 thoughts on “5 Ways to Loosen Up Your Painting Style

  1. Doug, that is absolutely wonderful! I am so happy to hear your mission and goal have become clear. Looking forward to seeing you continue to grow and put everything into action!

  2. Thank you Kelli! This is exactly what I struggle with. And it is nice to put it together so I can come back to remind myself from time to time.
    Nina

  3. Kelli – this is what I needed to hear. Now I have a goal and a mission. Thank you! Doug Shepherd

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