Loosen Up And Get “Painterly”!

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.” 

DON’T OVERTHINK IT.

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.

WHAT EXACTLY IS “PAINTERLY”?

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.

TIPS.

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.

TRY IT.

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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Try Plein Air Painting This Summer… Get Outdoors!

Summer and the longest days of the year have arrived; it’s the perfect time to get out for some fresh air, to relax, and to paint. Painting outside in nature can be fun and different, whether you make it a field trip to the woods, a park, a nature preserve, or just sit out on your own doorstep. If you’ve already planned a trip to the beach, gather your sketchbook and paints to take along. Take a few painting supplies when mountain climbing. When you reach the summit, you could rest while doing a quick sketch and painting of the view. Or sit on the dock at the lake to paint the clouds and water. A change of scene can encourage close observation and inspire us.

Ocean view inspiration.
Summit View Inspiration.

MATERIALS.

Before starting out, consider your supplies. Keep your art kit on the small and lightweight side since you’ll be carrying it with you. Pack it in a bag ahead of time, so you’ll be ready to go when the time is right. 

In my kit I include a small sketchbook (that I use to record color and weather observations, to create thumbnails, to make sketches and contour drawings, to experiment with color matching (i.e. as a test sheet), to make notes of ideas). I also pack a small ‘block’ of watercolor paper (which is easy to hold on my lap for painting). I suggest including a watercolor travel palette like this one from amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Winsor-Newton-Cotman-Water-Colour/dp/B000PD3LY4/ref=sr_1_23?crid=1T41EILMKX301&keywords=winsor+newton+watercolor+set&qid=1656615455&sprefix=winsor+neton%2Caps%2C128&sr=8-23.  (When the paint in the small half pans has been exhausted, I refill the pans from watercolor tubes in my choice of colors.) The above set includes paint, a travel brush, and small water pots as well as a water container. If your paint set doesn’t include a brush or two, water in a container, and a water holder (for painting and cleaning your brushes), you will need to add these to your kit. If you prefer, water brushes (which have a water reservoir attached to a nylon brush) are available, so added water would not be necessary. I have some water brushes, but personally I don’t find their quality to be very good. A pencil, eraser, paper towels (or tissues), a viewfinder, perhaps some water-soluble drawing pencils, and watercolor pencils are also good to bring along. Depending on how far I will be going, I might also bring a hat, a folding chair, and something to drink. 

I enjoyed making my own small accordion sketchbook to take on outdoor sketching trips recently. I cut a full sheet (22X30″) of watercolor paper into three strips, attached them to each other, and used two pieces of leftover mat board for a cover. I keep it closed when not in use with a covered elastic headband. The finished sketchbook size is 4X6″; it opens into a continuous painting area of about 6X72″, or 18 pages on one side, and 6X64″, 16 pages, on the opposite side.

Handmade Sketchbook With Mat Board Cover.
Handmade Accordion Sketchbook Opened.

HOW TO CHOOSE WHAT TO PAINT.

When you arrive at your destination, look for a comfortable, interesting spot. The first part of your process involves looking around to get familiar with what’s in front of you. Look closely and think about what draws you in. Take your time. If you have a viewfinder, use it to help you pick your subject for painting. (You can make your own viewfinder by cutting a rectangle out of white card stock.) Looking through the hole, move the viewfinder closer and farther away from your eye to “zoom” in and out.  Wait for a composition to come into the frame that appeals to you. 

Wood Pile Inspiration.
Bare Trees Inspiration.

You can also plan a composition by drawing several quick thumbnail sketches in your sketchbook to begin to translate what you see into two dimensions on paper. See this blog post for more information on the advantages of thumbnails: Hold Your Horses!, (7/17/2020), https://leemuirhaman.com/2020/07/17/hold-your-horses/ . Sketch out various viewpoints or arrangements of the scene to find your preferences. Pick one of your thumbnails to paint, without overthinking.

TIPS.

There is no need to include everything you see in your painting. In fact, your picture will be stronger without including every detail. Observe the scene closely, but allow yourself to improvise, be spontaneous, even play, using what you see as your starting point. Feel free to paint smaller and quicker than you usually do, since the light will shift and the weather can change unexpectedly. If desired, use your smartphone to snap a couple of quick pictures of the light or colors just in case you need the information later.

Notice big shapes and a range of lights and darks. Look for patterns, color combinations, or shadows, for instance, to focus on. For more information about how to think about shapes in your artwork, look at Simplify Your Watercolors By Focusing On Shapes!, (7/16/2019), https://leemuirhaman.com/2019/07/16/simplify-your-watercolors-by-focusing-on-shapes/

Barn Shapes Inspiration.
Purple And Green Cabbage Color Inspiration.

YOU GET TO CHOOSE.  

Outdoor painting is a good way to start moving beyond copying because you don’t use others’ photo references. You get to decide your own subject and your own focus during your painting session. Paint what you find most interesting. You can choose to include or leave out whatever you wish. Since you will be in control of determining your main concept, edit out anything that is not important to the story you will be telling in the painting.

MANY APPROACHES.

There are many ways to approach outdoor painting. Generally, outdoor paintings tend to be done more quickly and loosely than studio paintings because time available is limited. So, simplify and try not to get bogged down with details. Instead, one way to begin painting is to use light washes to block out the main areas of color on the paper. Then work on the lightest areas first. You can gradually build up and intensify colors as you proceed to create depth and detail. 

One artist I know begins by loosely painting colored shapes first, then drawing line and detail later when the original colors have dried. She uses various materials for these later layers, sometimes choosing more watercolor, or perhaps Pigma micron pens, Faber Castell Pitt pens, or Caran D’Ache Neocolors. Another artist friend will start with a loose, very light pencil sketch before applying any paint. Yet another artist I know makes a lot of separate watercolor marks (squiggles, dashes, dots, lines, blobs), but no washes of color to describe the scene, much like pointillism. When the color on the paper has dried, this artist lightly softens marks to merge colors, fill in white space, and create shadows.

FINALLY.

Give plein air painting a try, especially if it’s new to you. You may just fall in love with it. It can be fun to experiment with something new and different. 

Paint what inspires you. And when your painting session is done, your outdoor painting can stand on its own or become the basis for a later studio painting.

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What Does It Mean To Simplify A Painting?

Most artists have heard that they need to ’simplify’ when painting. We’re told that simplifying is  good! But why, what is it, and how do you go about ‘simplification’? A beginning artist, unsure exactly what simplification means, may often just go ahead and struggle to copy what they see, details and all, exactly as it is.

Why simplify?

With more experience, however, we come to understand that it’s possible and sensible to IMPROVE a painting by changing some of the components of an image. We want to share a story in our own way about what we see. Perhaps we want to emphasize parts of our picture and encourage the viewer to understand what is important to us. We don’t want to include confusing or extraneous information in our image. Sometimes a painting becomes more effective and stronger if some parts are left out completely. We want to make less be more! That is why we simplify.

What is Simplification?

The essence of simplifying is making something less complex and complicated. In painting, simplifying can mean making your painting and your message clearer, easier to understand.  Complex forms with lots of detail are REDUCED or EDITED to become fundamental shapes and including only the most important details. Copying is not simplifying, whereas painting an impression or suggestion of a scene is. 

Crocus simplified.

How to simplify? First, Establish Major Shapes.

Begin by thinking about shapes – the MAJOR SHAPES of the scene you hope to paint. (Don’t begin by focusing on details.) Look for the largest shapes, the big overall pattern. Imagine the least number of shapes necessary to make your design. In a landscape painting, the fewest number of shapes could be two – sky and land, or sky and ocean. But your image could have as many as 5-7 large shapes. A row of trees with their shadows (their shapes combined to form one) could be a shape. Or a mountain range can be a major shape. Keep in mind that ‘shapes’ are not necessarily single objects or subjects. A single barn could include several shapes – one side of the barn sunlit, the other shaded (see below).

Some of the major shapes include sunlit front of barn, shaded end of barn.

Only after noting major shapes (which form the backbone of your painting), should you consider smaller shapes, then details.

Second, Reduce The Range of Values.

Shapes in a painting can often be related to VALUE (lights and darks). Strive for simplified value contrasts and limit yourself to light, middle, and dark values as you plan your picture. Rather than trying to capture a lot of little shapes and an infinite range of values, design your painting with strong and simple shapes and a limited range of values. You will avoid confusing clutter that distracts viewers from your intended message.

Third, Use Fewer Colors.

Another way to simplify your image and create a stronger painting is to use a LIMITED PALETTE of colors. Too many colors can complicate a picture, making it appear garish, as well as make mixing of color burdensome. Fewer colors, on the other hand, can increase color harmony and balance.

Limited palette of colors used.

Fourth, Limit details.

Better artists are able to look at the vast amount of information around us and screen out extraneous details. To do that yourself, stop and ask yourself what it is about your subject that you liked. Once you have identified what interests you about the scene, think about what details are important to your message (that you might want to emphasize) and which details do not contribute (which you might be able to make less important or completely filter out of the picture). It’s sometimes a good idea to even crop out/eliminate an area that does not add value. 

You may want more detail around your center of interest to encourage a viewer to focus on this area of your painting. Soften and eliminate some details elsewhere in the picture (perhaps blurring details in the distance and shadows). 

In this barn painting, I cropped away some of the edges, simplified a bit of the fencing and barn board, and got rid of the trough in the foreground completely.

Details limited in painting.

Original Reference Photo.

Thumbnails To Help You Simplify.

Use several THUMBNAIL sketches to structure the best possible composition for a painting. Thumbnails are not finished drawings, but quick, small, simplified sketches, 2X3 inches (or perhaps 4X5 inches) that help you explore where your painting might go.  Try to keep your thumbnail sketch proportions similar to what you plan for the finished work.  Experiment with the arrangement of shapes and values. Your first thumbnail is often not the best arrangement you can come up with, so draw several thumbnails, with pencil, before choosing a final composition.

Fourth and Final Quick Thumbnail for Field Painting.
Watercolor Painting of Field

Sketching out a few thumbnails is like brainstorming, investigating options or variations on possible picture arrangements. It need only take 3 to 5 minutes. By working small, there is no room to fuss with detail. It is one of the best ways to organize and simplify a composition, and to focus on important information, while eliminating the unnecessary.

In Summary.

As an artist, strive to simplify, interpret a scene, and make it your own. Be bold. Simplifying your composition improves its focus, clarity, and power. To simplify may seem difficult at first, but less can really be more!

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Hold Your Horses!

As you know, many artists, including me, want to get on to their painting quickly. Unfortunately, jumping right into a painting without forethought often develops into rushing and inattentiveness to important details. It can be a disaster to encounter a problem with the arrangement of shapes, or discover something in your picture you want to change, while in the midst of painting. Don’t simply copy, without thinking, all the details you see before you while emphasizing them all equally! Instead, take the time to contemplate a plan before starting to paint! Rein in your excitement, for the moment, and harness your enthusiasm. As an artist, strive to simplify, interpret a scene, and make it your own. How?

Create thumbnails.

Use several THUMBNAIL sketches to structure the best possible composition for a painting. Thumbnails are not finished drawings, but quick, small, simplified sketches, 2X3 inches (or perhaps 4X5 inches) that help you explore where your painting might go.  Try to keep your thumbnail sketch proportions similar to what you plan for the finished work.  Experiment with the arrangement of shapes and values. Your first thumbnail is often not the best arrangement you can come up with, so draw several thumbnails, with pencil, before choosing a final composition.

Sketching out a few thumbnails is like brainstorming, investigating options or variations on possible arrangements. It need only take 3 to 5 minutes. By working small, there is no room to fuss with detail. It is one of the best ways to organize and simplify a composition, and to focus on important information, while eliminating the unnecessary.

Attention to your thumbnails will save you both time and creative energy. If performed with conscious attention and thought, you will discover the strengths and weaknesses of your composition. Does your image work best in a horizontal or vertical format? Should you crop out part of your image to emphasize a terrific grouping of shapes? What will the focal point be? Where is the light coming from? Does the picture need more contrast to emphasize the center of interest? Maybe it would be better to eliminate some of the more distracting elements. What about rearranging some shapes to lead the viewer more easily into the picture?

Template-Summer Field

Recent reference photo.

Look for the BIG SHAPES and VALUES.

Thumbnail  sunny clouds.jpg

Thumbnail 1 – sunny sky, remove corner vegetation, larger tree?

Shapes are the building blocks of composition. To create a thumbnail, sketch the LARGE SHAPES first, forget about small details. Group masses of similar value shapes together. Sketch lightly at first. Identify the most important objects or parts of the scene. Notice how the smaller shapes relate to the large shapes. Try to think of possible changes in the arrangement and STRUCTURE of elements that might produce a stronger composition. You may want to rearrange some of the major shapes or change their size or profile.

Thumbnail animals

Thumbnail 2 – add animals, remove corner vegetation?

 

Refine your shapes, then start to add VALUES to your sketch. Squint to identify the darks, mediums, and lights. Each mass of shapes needs to be lighter or darker than what is next to it in order for it to appear different. Consider changing the value of an area if it improves value contrast and the composition. Stick to dark, medium, and light values in each sketch to keep it simple.

Thumbnail more sky

Thumbnail 3 – More sky, less field?

Add or rearrange to explore variations in value or even subject arrangement or EMPHASIS. If you do change values, however, realize that you have changed the light source and must also remember to check that any shadows are consistent with this new light source. Add darker lines and middle values.

Thumbnail best.jpg

Thumbnail 4 – enlarge tree, minimize/lighten left corner vegetation, darken right side trees, darken clouds behind center tree, keep fields/road light – values exaggerated!

Finish by shading in the darkest values and adjusting CONTRASTS between shapes. Remember, the greatest contrast in values (and sometimes the lightest value) is centered on the focal point.

PAINTING-Summer Field.jpg

Finished watercolor painting.

In my latest painting (shown here), I WISH I had sketched thumbnails BEFORE I painted! I know I should, but I don’t always do it. This time, I didn’t, and I struggled. I couldn’t figure out why the painting initially wasn’t working. The subject was good, but eventually I realized I had to increase the value contrasts – a lot. Nothing stood out until I lightened some areas and darkened others! So, I wrote this post and created these thumbnails after I had trouble with getting the values right while painting. I ‘shut the barn door after the horse was gone’! Maybe this article can help you realize how drawing quick thumbnails (before you paint) will help you work out possible problems ( with composition, subject, color, etc.) before you start painting. The time you spend creating thumbnails can save you some headaches.

To summarize,

With the knowledge learned from thumbnails, you can begin painting with much more confidence. It’ll be a cinch! You will have considered the main STRUCTURE, EMPHASIS, SHAPES, and CONTRASTS for the composition. You will have already worked out most of the possible issues and problems within your thumbnail sketches. You will have developed a ‘plan’ for your composition, since you understand that it is the strength of the composition NOT the subject matter that makes a painting effective. The plan may even include possible color choices. Don’t forget, however, when transferring your image to the watercolor paper, to refer back to your thumbnail, not necessarily your reference.  This would insure any changes made when creating your thumbnails are included when transferring the drawing onto paper. Save your reference for later, when you start to build up detail in the final painting.

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Distinguishing Layers In Watercolor.

Most watercolors are painted in layers; not all in one go. But how do you decide how many layers you need to paint? How do you break down or separate the layers ? How many layers will you need to ‘tell the story’ of your painting? How can you add ‘enough’ layers to suggest shape and detail without losing the light and luminosity you strive for? How many layers are too many?

Seeing in layers.

While there is probably an infinite number of layers possible, the great artists of the past generally show only the essential aspects of a subject with nothing extra added. Their art is deceptively simple. Many of John Singer Sargent’s watercolors, for example, are created with only three layers. Arguably, Sargent’s AWARENESS of what is essential in an image, his vision, is just as impressive as his brushwork.

My Swamp

Simplify and plan.

Just as reducing the number of colors in a painting can improve your work (see Choosing Colors For a Painting…Less Is More!, 9/11/2019, https://leemuirhaman.com/2019/09/11/choosing-colors-for-a-painting-less-is-more/ ),  limiting the number of layers (even brushstrokes) you paint is an effective way to simplify your image and create a strong painting. Avoid adding layer upon layer and overworking! Rarely are more than four or five layers necessary.

When planning your painting, IMAGINE a series of layers. This selective vision may take some practice. Strive to peel back each layer of paint to analyze how layers below might be painted.

Full Moon

Work backward – reverse the order in which the paint will be applied. You must mentally remove the darker layers (which will be painted later) from the image. Try to recognize the dark patterns as separate from the lighter shapes. Once you picture the darkest darks and mentally remove them from the picture, you can then analyze and separate light- and middle- value shapes in the same way.

Method.

Usually, you will strive to reserve some whites of the paper in a painting. With that in mind, the first paint layer will then be created by painting your light valued colors, a second layer will contain middle values, and a third layer will be made up of dark values.

More specifically, block in each of the major shapes with its lightest tone, avoiding any areas within the big shapes that should remain lighter and be reserved. The care you must take in painting each layer is dependent on the story to be told by the picture itself. You must decide early on which value layers will tell more of the important information in your specific picture.

Fall Queen Ann

For instance, in a high contrast picture with strong, bright light, the later dark values tell the story and pull the picture together. Therefore, the first layers of light and middle values might be applied with less attention, with the dark values painted more carefully. Details would be saved until the later layers. In contrast, in a more subtle image where light and middle values play a bigger role, more care must be taken in the first layers, with consideration of color and texture. Forms may need to be established early in such a painting.

In summary, when the lightest colors have been applied and dried, the second (mid-value) layer can be begun, shape by shape. Then, the third (dark) layer can be added. With each successive layer, less of the picture will be painted, until the final finishing touches (darkest darks) are complete!

Winter Ice

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