Loosen Up

History of Loose Painting

For centuries, Western painters and their patrons valued a tight, realistic style with a smooth finish. From a normal viewing distance, no brush marks showed. The illusion of solid form was carefully rendered with highlights, modeling and cast shadows. Linear and atmospheric perspective were perfected. The illusion of depth was created by overlapping foreground, middle ground, and background planes. Colors were realistic. The two dimensional nature of the painting surface was disguised as much as possible. The painter’s craft and personality were not allowed to come between the viewer and the subject matter described by the painting.

This started to change in the 19th century. In 1808 Goya painted historical canvases with dry, brushy textures in the backgrounds. In the 1840s Turner painted glowing atmospheric watercolors. In 1850 Millet painted The Sower with brushwork showing distinctly on his main figure, whose legs merged with the earth. By 1875 photography was taking over the domain of realism. The early Impressionists Manet, Monet and Pissarro were painting “loosely” with exaggerated color, sketchy lines, and visible brush marks that created scintillating color effects and drew attention to the two dimensional nature of their surface.

Later movements such as Post Impressionism, Symbolism, Expressionism, and Cubism were also “loose” in their own ways. No longer was a painting primarily “about” its subject matter—it was first and foremost a physical object, an arrangement of color patches on canvas. Second, it was an expression of the painter’s personality. Subject matter ran a distant third. By the time we got to Action Painting and Abstract Expressionism in the 20th century, subject matter in the traditional sense disappeared all together, leaving nothing but paint and ego.

In the 21st century realism is making a comeback, but it’s bringing “looseness” with it.

What Is “Loose” Anyway, and How Do I Get More of It?

With all this history behind you, “loose” means more than painting faster and sloppier. In contemporary painter’s jargon, a “loose” painting has one or more of these characteristics:

Distorted Drawing. Make your drawing wobbly. Enlarge the important part. Stylize or abstract your subject as cubes, cylinders and cones. Express curves as a series of straight lines and vice versa.

Simplicity/Economy. Reduce your value composition to a handful of dark, light, and mid tone shapes.

Fewer, Bolder, More Visible Brushstrokes. Stand up to paint, use a big brush and have lots of juicy paint squeezed out on your palette. Plan where to put two or three big, dark brush strokes at the end.

Spontaneous Paint Effects. Plan large areas of big non-brush effects—wet in wet gradations and diffusions, drips, splatters, blossoms, etc.

Ambiguity. Don’t spell everything out. Omit small details. Plan how you can paint through boundaries and connect shapes together. Plan some lost edges in the lights and mid tones so that shapes melt into the background.

Inventive Color. Plan a beautiful color scheme of 2 or 3 colors that may or may not relate to the actual colors of your subject.

Apparent Speed of Execution. “Apparent” because this is usually an illusion. Plan each step. Pause after each stroke. Watch and think. Paint slowly, so it will look like you painted quickly.