I hear a lot of painting students wanting to loosen up their art. What do they really mean? I believe we all strive for looseness so that our art appears fresh and relaxed, not overworked. Another term for loose might be “painterly.” 


When we are just learning to paint, we often strive for an exact likeness of what is being painted. This approach may cause us to overthink and overcomplicate what we are doing, trying to get our picture “just right.” We become focused on painting precise details. As a result, we hold our brushes (often too small brushes) tightly and increase our tension. Stiff, controlled, overly detailed work can result.


Many painting students soon realize the value of expressing themselves in a more “painterly” fashion – an approach creating the suggestion of form by utilizing colors, strokes, and textures, in contrast with a linear or graphic method involving the drawing of line. The term “painterly” was popularized by Swiss art historian Heinrich Wölfflin (1864-1945), who used it to describe the characteristics of paintings. A painterly picture tends to be expressive, to focus on more simplified shapes, and to limit detail by using hard and soft edges.

Some painterly artists include Pierre Bonnard, Francis Bacon, Vincent van Gogh, Rembrandt, Renoir, and John Singer Sargent. More linear artists are Botticelli, Michelangelo, and Ingres. According to wikipedia, “contour and pattern are more the province of linear artists, while dynamism is the most painterly trait.”

“Painterly” – J. S. Sargent Watercolor, Brook Among Rocks, 1910.


We all want our art to appear confident and spontaneous, while suggesting depth and emotion. But how can you transition your art from overly detailed to looser, more relaxed, and expressive? Painting looser may require a shift in both process and thinking. 

  •   One tip to loosen up your art is to use larger brushes, which allows you to make fewer, bolder brush strokes and which prevents overdoing details. 
  •   Paint with quick and lively, confident brush strokes. 
  •   Try to focus on more simplified shapes to avoid getting distracted by unimportant details. 
  •   Paint hard, soft, and lost  edges to help the viewer get interested and involved while looking at your image. 
  •   Directional strokes, such as those used to create a swirling cloud or flowing water, help you describe movement and the essence of a scene without painting every detail. They can help direct the viewer’s eye toward the focal point. (Interestingly enough, directional strokes themselves can actually follow a direction and pattern that simulates what you’re painting. They can swirl like clouds, blow like hair in the wind,  or flow and ripple like water – a visual form of onomatopoeia.)
  •   Further, you may be interested in exaggerating certain elements in your painting, such as pushing colors beyond what you actually see, to emphasize your interpretation of your subject.
“Painterly” – J. S. Sargent Watercolor, La Biancheria, 1910.

I believe another factor causing tight, overly detailed paintings is an artist’s mindset. When we want to create a “perfect” picture and we feel unsure of our painting abilities, tension and insecurity result. The body naturally tenses up, we worry about results, and expressive work becomes difficult, if not impossible. 

Therefore, often before I begin a painting session, I do a “warm up,” like an athlete stretching and warming up before exercise or a race.

“Painterly” – J. S. Sargent Watercolor, Villa Di Marlia, Lucca, 1910.

Before I get to serious painting, I try to relax and play a little. I get out a sketchbook or several pieces of watercolor paper (perhaps 7X11” or 8X8”, the size doesn’t really matter), and begin to make some watercolor marks. It doesn’t matter what kind of marks or what color they are. It’s just an exercise, an experiment designed to get you moving.

Never mind what you end up with! Sometimes it may be hard to even begin if you’re worried about what the marks will look like or whether they’ll be any good. It doesn’t matter! Make a mess; fool around.

For me, it doesn’t always begin easily or feel like fun. Usually, I start making tight, hesitant marks, often feeling unsure. After one page is full, I grab another and continue. I’ve used brushes, spray bottles, sticks, sponges, etc. I keep going UNTIL I start to get sloppy, confident, boisterous. As I go along, the marks somehow get looser, freer, and more beautiful; I like them much better than those I made when I began. I start feeling more relaxed, having gotten over the worry that things won’t turn out well. I eventually move beyond the resistance, past any hesitancy to start, away from the  belief that art is a struggle, that the work needs to be perfect. 

My mood gradually changes to loose and easy without my forcing it. As the marks become looser, so does my mindset. I’m ready to carry over and try to maintain this mood in my paintings. And with this more relaxed attitude, I worry less about making mistakes and feel more comfortable listening to my own intuition and expressing my ideas. 

“Painterly” – J. S. Sargent Watercolor, In A Medici Village, 1906.


Once you’ve felt this more relaxed attitude and tried these tips, understand that you can recreate the mindset yourself and begin to paint more loosely whenever you want to. 

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    1. You’re welcome! Good for you for trying something new!
      Let me know what works and what doesn’t.
      Some tips may work well, whereas others may not. But you
      won’t know unless you try.
      Thanks for commenting.


  1. Lost edges…..this is what appealed to me in a loose floral I saw this morning. I tried a loose floral tutorial once that ended up too loose and soupy. My precise, analytical, pre retirement life makes me strive for tight linearity….great for improving my drawing ability but bad for my painting skills. I will ruminate on this post, thanks!


    1. In watercolor, one of the hardest things to figure out is how to control the water – how wet is too wet? This takes more practice than you might think it should. One try is never enough to figure it out.
      There are, however, several ways to control the wetness – which is what made your flower tutorial painting “too loose and soupy” – too much wetness.

      Painting wet-in-wet (wetting the paper then adding wet paint) gives you the least amount of control over your painting results. You must judge three things: the wetness of your paper, the consistency of the paint you are applying, AND the amount of paint on your brush. If done well, beautiful soft edges are the result.

      Painting wet-on-dry (wet paint on dry paper, whether an already painted dry section or blank paper) gives you much more control over your results. HOWEVER, to create soft or lost, loose edges, you must be able to ‘soften an edge’. To soften an edge you would use a damp (not soggy or dripping) brush to dampen just the edge of your recently painted area, along the edge you want to soften, without moving any paint. With this technique you get to choose which edges stay hard or which will be softer.

      If interested, check out these blog posts
      * How Wet Is Too Wet?, (6/18/2019), https://leemuirhaman.com/2019/06/18/how-wet-is-too-wet-the-secrets-to-controlling-water-and-paint/ , and
      * Softening an Edge Or Fading Out, (10/23/2018), https://leemuirhaman.com/2018/10/23/softening-an-edge-or-fading-out/ .

      Other suggestions would be to keep trying. Vary the amount of water, observe carefully, and keep practicing.
      Remember that if you find your painting is getting too soupy, feel free to pause and let things dry a bit before proceeding – watercolors needn’t be painted all in one go. And try to think of it all as one big experiment. With practice, you’ll figure this out.



      1. Lee, thank you so much for this detailed explanation. I actually did some experimenting today along these lines, wetting my paper and laying down brushstrokes at elapsed time intervals. It was an eye opener.


  2. Thank you, Lee. Your way of explaining things resonates with my way of understanding them. I’m going to grab my biggest brush tomorrow morning and see what happens!


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