How to Loosen up Your Painting Style

Feb 08, 2023

Frequently, I encounter students who feel stuck painting tightly rendered and overworked paintings. While a looser style may come more naturally to some than others, this is a skill that can be taught. 

In this week’s video, I have three powerful strategies that will help you loosen up in your watercolor painting, achieving that “painterly style” that so many of us want.  

What does it mean to paint loose?

Often when people say they want to loosen up, it really means they want to stop overworking paintings. This happens when we obsess over every area and all the little details of the scene.

When I think of painting loose, I think of a painting that is fresh and painted in an intentional way. 

To break it down even further, this means:

We might think that a highly rendered, very tight painting takes more planning than a loose painting. I actually think it could be the opposite because in order to paint loose, we need to have a clear plan.

So let's talk about how we can develop that plan to create fresher paintings. 

Perspective - Change the way you see your subject

When we observe our subject, it is natural for us to look at every bit of the scene and, at a subconscious level, name everything that we see. Since we were born into this world, we have been taught to name everything. Now, this is great when we’re learning to navigate the world around us, but this doesn’t serve us well when we’re trying to simplify a scene into its basic shapes. 

When you're learning to paint more and more loosely, you need to start painting shapes and not objects.

When we name everything in our scene, we subconsciously interject our preconceived notions of how that thing is shaped into our painting process. If we're not observing the shape, we can fall into patterns of drawing and rendering things in these preconceived ways rather than looking at how they actually are. We then want to render it completely and add a lot of detail to it. 

When we see shapes rather than objects, we can paint them as they really are rather than how we think they should be. Then we can connect those smaller shapes into the bigger shape of the scene. 

Key to keeping your painting fresh and loose, is to learn to see the large shape of the scene.  

Let me show you an example of this. This is a street scene I painted recently:

Before I add any details, I paint the large, connected shape of the scene. So here is a look at that large connected shape. 

Notice how minimal this is. You could say that this is a very loose rendering because I haven't added in any details yet. From here, I can decide how abstract I want to keep this scene or how detailed I want to keep this scene.I am now in control of how many details I add and how many I leave out. 

Focus - Zoom out often 

Do you ever find yourself hovering over your paper as you paint, homed in on one particular part of it? When we do this, we get too focused on little areas around the painting, and we forget to look at the painting as a whole. 

So my advice is - Zoom out often.

If you have a habit of focusing too much on one part, leave yourself a little Post-it note on your easel as a reminder. Write, “Zoom out” or “Take a step back.” 

If we want the different parts of our painting to relate well to one another, we need to be aware of the entire scene, even when we’re working on a single part. 

Hovering right over our painting and painstakingly considering every detail of every area of the scene will result in overworking our painting. We can easily lose the essence of the scene when we don’t remind ourselves to zoom out. 

Technique - Hold your brush further back 

Oftentimes, I see students holding a brush like this:

Really, it’s better to hold it a little further back. This way, you open yourself up to more interesting brushwork, and you can vary the way that you make marks. You're not so precise and tight as when you hold your brush further up toward the bristles. 


Of course, there will be times when you need to hold the brush a little bit closer. When you’re working on really small, fine or precise marks, for example, you’ll want to hold the brush further up. 

For example, in this painting here, I had precise bits of light and shadow that were very important to me to render this figure. So of course, during this part, I held my brush a little bit closer so I wouldn’t go over important key areas of light.

But we don't want to paint our whole scene that way. 

But when I'm painting other areas in the scene, I want to hold my brush further back. 

3 Tips to Loosen Up as a Painter

So, if loosening up your paintings is a goal of yours, focus on these three things:

  • Think about shapes instead of objects, and add your details in after you've painted the large shape of your scene. 
  • Zoom out often. Take a step back, assess. Don't get hyper-focused on one little area of your painting.
  • Unless you are trying to make a precise mark, hold your brush further back. 

Stop Overworking Your Paintings!

Watch my FREE Video Lesson 7 Secrets of Fresh, Powerful Painting.

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