10 Techniques for Painting More Expressively & Loosely

If one of your artistic goals is to work in a freer, more painterly and expressive style, don’t focus on fighting against what you already do, but introduce new techniques and approaches that simply don’t allow for tight, highly controlled painting. Try everything, ideally twice (to get past the “this won’t work” and “this is ridiculous” thoughts). Find the approaches that work for you; as always different things work better for different people.

10 Tips for Painting More Loosely and Expressively
Hold charcoal in one hand and an eraser in the other, one applying tone and the other removing it to create highlights.

1. Use the ‘Wrong’ Hand
Our dominant hand, whether it’s our left or our right, is accustomed to how we do things. It’s built up muscle memory and does things on autopilot (that “I know what an apple looks like” thought). Putting your brush or pencil into your ‘wrong’ hand instantly reduces these. Yes, it feels awkward. Yes, things won’t go exactly where you wish. But this reduction in co-ordination is what will help you create expressive rather than rigidly controlled marks.

With practice it feels less awkward and you gain control. Do it a lot and you may even reach the point where you use both hands together, which is useful for working faster, or swap a brush from on hand to the other to reach the edges of a large canvas.

2. Reduce What You See
Don’t switch on a light, but work in reduced light where you can’t see every last bit of detail. Take off your glasses so you can’t see your subject or what’s on your canvas as sharply (depending on your eyes). Try lighting a still-life with a bright lamp from one side (oblique light) so there are strong cast and form shadows that reduce how much detail you see. If you can’t change the light, squint (half close) your eyes so the lights and darks in your subject become stronger. Don’t paint what you can’t see, even though you know on an intellectual level it’s there.

Detail: Tiny Sheep in a Painting
That sheep on a distant hill is merely a white blob, even though you know it has four legs etc. you can’t see these so don’t paint them in.

3. Leave Stuff Out
Not every petal is needed; our brains are adept at filling in missing details and interpreting shapes. Doing so engages us with a painting, so it’s in fact better not to put down every single bit of information and leave some for the viewer to ponder.

Take a hard look at your subject, trying to decide which are the essential bits (strong shapes, colours, tones) and put down these only, then add a little more suggested detail on top.

Exercise: Do it with line several times, each time reducing how much you had in the previous. 20 lines, 15, 10, 5 to convey the essence of the subject.

4. No Outlines

Sheep painting with iambic pentamer rhythm
Hold the composition in your mind’s eye.

Resist the temptation to draw a precise outline and colour it in. Objects are three-dimensional, they don’t have outlines. Paint the “inside” at the same time as the “outline” and quit trying to have perfectly neat edges. What we see as an edge changes when we shift our viewpoint anyway; uneven edges adds a sense of this. And as you step further away from the painting the edge neatens up visually.

Outlines are like bicycle training wheels, they support and protect, reassure us we’ll go where we want to without falling off, but they also restrict movement, hold us back. Hold the composition in your mind’s eye, clarify and work it out in a sketchbook, then use guidelines not outlines, suggestions and reminders rather than prescriptive lines on your painting.

Tips for painting loosely -- drips
This detail from “Across the Minch” shows where I used vertical drips underneath the horizontal bands of colour to enhance the sense of movement in the sea. It also adds the suggestion of rain.

5. Leave the Drips
Resist the impulse to tidy up pain runs, drips and backwashes. They add a fluidity, “happy accident” moments, and mark making it’s hard to do deliberately. Work with drips, let them run where they will. Let drips dry and then layer over without trying to obscure completely.

6. Use an Awkward Brush
Take a piece of dowel or a stick at least arm’s length and tie or tape it to the handle of a ‘normal’ brush. Put a large piece of paper on the floor, tape it to the wall or canvas on your easel. Now paint… you’ll find the long brush handle exaggerates the movement of your hand and arm, creating longer marks on the paper than you’d usually make, as well as reducing your overall control somewhat. Don’t fight this by trying to make smaller movements!

Brushes with unruly hairs or stiff with dried-in paint will take you away from neat brushstrokes. Resist the temptation to tidy up the marks. If need be, sharpen edges in the final round with the painting, but not midway.

Check where and how you’re holding a brush. Don’t strangle it by holding down by the hairs but hold it higher up the handle. Shift your grip on it from how you’d use a pencil to how you’d hold a tennis racket (across your palm, four fingers folded over handle, thumb resting on fingers). This encourages you to work with your arm rather than wrist.

Detail from Across the Minch Painting seascape by Marion Boddy-Evans Scotland Artist
In this detail from the rocky shore of a seascape, the orange used for the ground peeks through the subsequent paint layers.

7. Try Unexpected Colours
Instead of obsessing about whether you’ve got accurate colours, worrying about mixing the perfect green before applying it, use unexpected, unrealistic colours and focus instead on ensuring it’s the desired tone (value). Our brains register tone strongly, and surprising colours will read “right”. The resulting painting can be a lot more emotive and dramatic. If the idea frightens you, try using something unexpected for a coloured ground and let small flecks show through.

8. Use the Invisible
First paint your subject with clean water only to familiarize yourself with your composition (okay, not if you’re using oils, for that you can do this with solvent or oil!). Then take some fluid colour and let it flow into the wet areas. Don’t try to stop the paint from spreading or worry about the colours becoming ‘wrong’. Wait until you’ve finished, then see if you like the result.

Masking tape added so that whatever I did next, some of the colours as they are now will be retained. The masking tape is torn in half to give a ragged edge to enhance the feeling of tree trunks.
Torn strips of masking tape preserve areas of a painting from subsequent layers of paint.

9. Get Protection
Masking fluid enables you to block out areas in a watercolor so you don’t have to worry about accidentally painting there, and masking tape does the same if you’re working on canvas. For example, instead of meticulously trying to paint around the petals of a white daisy in a watercolour, paint the petals in masking fluid first. You can then paint freely knowing the white of the paper is preserved.

10. Use a Brave brush
Use a brush that prevents you from painting tiny details. At least an inch wide, wider if you can get yourself too. Varnishing brushes are great, as are decorating brushes (if it’s too thick, cut off some of the hair with scissors). Use a flat brush not a round one as the aim is to significantly increase the width of the painting strokes you make. Use it side-edge-on as well as flat, dab down a corner for “dots” and end-on for speckles.

A big brush encourages you to use your whole arm rather than only your wrist, to make broad, sweeping strokes.  The painting below, “Edge of the Cuillin” was done with a two-inch (5cm) brush, followed by smaller mark making on top.

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4 Replies to “10 Techniques for Painting More Expressively & Loosely”

  1. Marion, as always your post is very helpful, I have been working on this. I want to add one thing I have done: I wear low strength cheap reading glasses, but I had an Idea which helps. I leave them off when I paint now! Its great, I see shapes of color and tones, and leave the details alone, making it easier for the freedom of a more loose style.

  2. This is excellent advice Marion. I find that when working more abstractly, my mark making tends to be free, fluid, more natural. It’s when I work on more representational subject matter that I tighten up. Still trying to make the transition to a looser mark making technique for my representational work, but these suggestions will certainly help.

  3. I leave a painting on a table, then come back when the light is dim. Often shapes change and suggest a more interesting focal point, or a whole new composition appears, taking my ideas and thoughts in a different direction.

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