As much as it surprises me, even within realist art I notice a tendency for people to see painting loosely as something desirable and painting “tight” as somehow restrictive and undesirable, limiting in some way. Even the word “tight” seems to have pejorative connotations in connection with painting.
Why paint loose?
I do think there are good reasons for people wanting to paint loosely. A good place to start looking for them might be well known, “loose” realist painters, the really popular ones. For me, the ones that spring to mind are Sargent, Rembrandt and Velazquez.
Paint like Sargent
Sargent is an obvious choice, the preeminent bravura painter. Look at his later work, the life in the brush strokes, the way a simple stroke can show so much, the sheer economy.
His portraits have such life, surely the bravura brush strokes are what gives them their strength? If we could paint similarly loosely, might we be able to approach his level?
Paint like Velazquez
Look also at later Velazquez, the atmosphere and depth, the life in those figures – again, conveyed with such economy and brevity.
Velazquez is often thought of as the first impressionist, and it’s easy to see why. Although there’s nothing remotely impressionist about his colour, his later work is certainly loose, and I think people often see looseness as a feature of impressionism.
Paint like Rembrandt
And Rembrandt’s later work. He began quite “tight” when he was younger (as did Velazquez) but when he was painting his strongest narrative scenes and portraits, he employed a looseness that makes his canvasses live without ever losing the character and presence of the subject.
So it’s natural to assume that the looseness of the style of these truly great artists is largely responsible for the impact of the later work, and that looseness is something to aspire to.
How to paint loose?
There’s an awful lot of advice out there on the web that promises to help you paint more loosely. Here’s a few gems I found with a cursory search:
- Stand up to paint.
- Use big brushes.
- Use lots of paint.
- Paint what you feel, not what you see (there’s usually no detailed advice on how to achieve this difficult task, though…)
- I’ve even seen serious advice to paint with your non-dominant hand (hello? You’ll just paint less well).
- Paint the picture upside down. (Don’t get me started on this one, really.)
You must make up your own mind of course about the usefulness of this advice. As far as I can see, none of it will help you paint better.
I think most of it is a hang-over from modernism, especially the whole “paint what you feel” thing. I also think it’s time we put such unhelpful ideas to bed and got on with developing our drawing and painting skills instead. Last I looked, skill was a good thing, not a hindrance. And painting well is quite hard enough without trying to do it with one hand behind our backs.
How to paint loosely – well
It’s the very economy of loose painting that makes it so hard to do well. If you’re going to show a collar or the back of a hand (the portrait of Jan Six, for instance) with a few brief strokes, you can’t afford to have anything out of place:
- You need to be able to draw well. Everything needs to be in the right place. If it isn’t, it won’t work.
- You need to have a really good grasp of values. Whether intuitively developed over many years or deliberately practiced, if this grasp of values isn’t there, the painting simply will not work
- You need a very good sense of colour, both how to paint it accurately and how to manipulate it for effect
If you don’t have all of these, what you’ll end up with – and I’m sorry to say this – is more mess than loose.
Frankly, unless you can already work “tight” and do it well, you can’t work loose. Loosening up comes naturally after you’ve achieved enough enough control to do it well.
All of those artists I mentioned above – Sargent, Velazquez, Rembrandt – produced extremely skilled tighter work before they began to paint loosely. They earned their brevity, through hours and hours of practice and sheer effort. They didn’t sit back and “let it happen”. And I’m pretty sure they didn’t paint with their non-dominant hand.
Time for some examples
I could always just post some pictures of stunning loose works by famous painters of the past here, but I thought I’d show something a little closer to home. Just to show how doable this is. Here are two pieces by current students of my Mastering Colour course.
Here’s a study of a pear. This, to me, is an example of loose painting done right.
This assignment is a colour block in, and is all about getting as close as you can to the colour you see.
It’s not an easy exercise at all, and Heather, who’s study this is, worked diligently through a lot of course material, and produced quite a few of these block-ins before she hit this point. But she’s nailed the drawing, the values and the colour, and that’s why this study works so well.
Here’s another example of an earlier assignment in the course. This is by Pejmann, and he’s done an amazing job of it.
You might think this is a tightly controlled study, and it is. But when you can nail colour and drawing this well, you have the freedom to start to make choices about how you interpret your subject, whether you want to paint in a very highly finished style or a more loose style. Pejmann has earned that through practice.
What these two studies have in common is sound drawing, good values, and accurate colour. That’s why they work. Not because they’re loose or tight.
Finally, how to really paint loose – and do it well
First, learn control. Work until your fingers bleed. Then loosen up all you like, and your work will be incredibly beautiful. In fact, if you tend towards looseness, it will happen without you trying.
If you do get those basics first, then painting loosely can create beautiful results.
But you have to earn it.
Best wishes and thanks for reading
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