Quince in a Box – oil on panel, 5 x 7 inches
From the start of this painting I had in mind an idea that I could use the paint expressively to describe the lumpy-ness of this beautiful quince.
And I had a rough picture in my head of how it would look when it was finished.
Still, as I was starting, at the top of my mind were thoughts of past paintings where I’d tried to paint more expressively, to create texture with the paint, and pretty much fallen flat on my face.
Mostly because I’d lost the form and the accuracy of the drawing.
So what do you do when you want to paint more loosely and expressively?
Well, how about this:
Paint fast and just let go.
Use your biggest brushes.
Go with your intuition.
Don’t tighten up or you’ll lose the flow.
No no no no no no no.
You’ve probably come across advice like this before. Advice intended to help you paint more loosely.
Really? I think it’s among the worst advice on painting I’ve ever come across. Especially if you paint realistically (representationally) and truly do want to paint more loosely.
This is just my opinion of course, but it’s based on my own experience of trying to use paint more expressively, and getting it (very often) wrong. And (more rarely) kind of right.
Here’s what I think you should do, if you want to paint more loosely and let the paint speak:
Learn to draw accurately. Really drill yourself.
Because if there are large errors in your drawing, the form won’t work and the painting won’t read properly. Even if your values and your colour are good, the painting just won’t work overall.
And then, once you’ve learned to draw accurately, keep it mind every time you’re at the easel. As you’re painting, don’t lose sight of the accuracy of the drawing. This part I forget about sometimes.
Learn to judge and mix colour accurately.
Getting the colour right is perhaps the most important part of painting loosely.
Because if your colour is good (and your drawing too, the two have to be working together) the painting doesn’t need a high level of finish for the form and the light to be convincing.
Really? Accuracy? Why?
I know it seems counter-intuitive.
It’s because learning accuracy first will teach you how to create convincing light and form. And it will teach you to work slowly.
I believe that’s the best way to paint loosely, to paint very slowly. Especially if it’s something you struggle with.
Won’t that make me work tight?
I don’t think so.
One of the most important experiences in my learning journey has been trying to copy Bargue plates exactly, on my own, with no back up or experienced critique.
The most useful thing about that practice was that it showed me exactly how slowly I was going to have to work if I wanted complete accuracy.
I was going to have to concentrate on each individual mark I made. I was going to have to hold focus for long periods of time.
It was very, very hard. Because I didn’t have the skills I needed to do it. It was like trying to lift heavy weights having never done any serious exercise before.
I didn’t enjoy it at all at first. I fought it. My brain rebelled. It told me I didn’t need to do it, that it was a waste of time, that it wouldn’t make me any better.
But I stuck with it anyway and I’m glad I did, because I think it was some of the most valuable practice I’ve ever done.
For the record, once I’d learned to slow down and had developed my ability to focus for longer periods, I came to enjoy it too.
So for me, if you want to work more loosely and more expressively, then work broadly and slowly and with the greatest level of focus and accuracy you can muster.
I think you’ll get closer to what you want.
That sounds pretty dull
I know. It’s not exciting. It’s hard work. And I know it might not be what you want to hear.
If it isn’t, there are plenty of online painting “experts” that will happily tell you to speed up, be spontaneous and let go, use your biggest brushes, your richest colours, feel the flow.
By all means try it. Then, when it doesn’t work out, try this instead 🙂
I’m writing this because I think there are a lot of misconceptions about working expressively with paint. It hurts me to see people who want to paint realistically but loosely following bad advice that they’ve found online, because it will hold them back and stop them making progress.
That’s not what I want for you.
But (insert speedy painter here) works fast and their work is great!
Yes indeed. In the interests of balance, I should say that I know that there are painters who can work fast, loose and make good work. Sometimes, really good.
Invariably, in my experience, they have very, very many brush miles under their belts and have earned it. I wouldn’t advise trying to emulate them unless you have travelled a similar number of miles with your brush.
And still I think painters who can do that are the exception, not the rule.
And I have to say, the people that most often fall prey to the above bad advice are the ones who haven’t painted much, and haven’t yet learned to work accurately.
It’s worth remembering the working methods of perhaps the greatest master of painting realistically and at the same time loosely and expressively. Well, you have to know I’m talking about Sargent.
By all accounts he painted very slowly, taking time over every single brush stroke. Every. single. one. If he wasn’t happy, he’d wipe it off and try again.
That’s the very opposite of the advice you often hear from painters who are, let’s face it, less experienced than Sargent.
If you want my advice (and I appreciate that you might very well not!) go with experience. Go with Sargent.
Stroke by Stroke
As I often do these days, I streamed the whole process of this painting in bite-sized chunks live on facebook. Follow or friend me here if you want to see future ones as they happen.
The reason I’m talking about expression and slowness and accuracy today is that during this painting, there was a point where I thought it might be finished.
But when I looked at it the next day, I noticed that the outline of one part was badly out.
Because of that, the form wasn’t reading correctly. The colours were good, the values were good, but they weren’t working together with good drawing so they weren’t really working at all.
After I fixed the outline, everything started making more sense.
So I’m writing this in the hope that it might help people who try the usual shop-worn advice that you so often see about painting loosely and expressively.
But I’m also writing it as a reminder for myself. Because when I do it like this, slowly and steadily, it works better.
Here are the videos of the various streams of this piece from facebook. The one where I changed the outline, if you want to see it, is the last one.
Blocking in, how to work sight size on a small scale
Judging and mixing colours, with the Munsell big book as a guide
Establishing the space and blocking in the colours
And yet more 🙂
I had thought the painting was finished the day before I started this session, but n getting into the studio I knew I needed to change a few things.
At least, I thought I could improve it a little more. You can decide for yourself whether I did or not!
If you watch any of those videos, or even just little bits of them, it should be pretty obvious how I painted this one. I tried to decide what stroke I was going to paint next, sometimes rehearsing it with my brush (I’ve only just realised I do this!) then, after it went down, standing back and deciding how it went.
I find that the more I paint in this slow, deliberate, focussed way, the better I paint.
When I forget it, and “try” to loosen up and, crucially, speed up, I paint less well. Much less.
Have you tried deliberately to loosen u your painting? What did you try? How did it go? I’d love to hear your thoughts, please add a comment at the end of the post.
Best wishes and thanks for reading,
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