Loosening Up

A Pep Talk for Artists Struggling With Confident Brushwork

If you are like me and you love paintings that tug at your heartstrings with juicy direct brushwork then you will undoubtedly like what you are about to read. Loosening up isn’t for everyone, but done right it can have an astounding effect. If your goal is a tight rendering and a photographic depiction, then you don’t need to loosen up at all. But if your aim is to represent your vision of a subject in a painterly fashion with feeling and strong brushwork, read on!

A loosely painted subject that is done with confidence and know-how, is a beautiful sight to behold. Think of the works of Rembrandt, Franz Halls, Sargent, and Sorolla, or, more recently, Clyde Aspevig, Matt Smith, Dan McCaw, and Zang Win Xing. Their works ooze with feeling, drip with the visual rapture of a single brushstroke that “says it all.”

To the artistically uninitiated or the artistically jaded individual this type of painting may seem rough, perhaps a little clumsy (in the case of a field study), lacking all the “detail.” Look deeper and sharpen your visual understanding in order to appreciate the deceptively simple nature of these works of art. This type of painting requires something of the viewer – visual understanding and emotional experience — in order to complete the message. To develop this approach in your own work the first thing you must do is study the works of others whose work embody these characteristics. Then move forward with fearless determination . Fear of failure is one of the biggest pitfalls to loosening up and being yourself. Each person has to approach this task a little differently because no one knows yourself better than you do.

A few tips on freeing yourself up and painting in a loose manner are as follows: Close your eyes, clear your mind, trust your abilities; keep a clear focus and know what your ultimate goal is. This may require some preliminary work like thumbnails sketches, charcoal renderings and small oil studies to prepare for a large studio piece; the time spent in study will be well worth the effort. Working out the problems beforehand in this manner can free up your expressive abilities when the real painting starts. Don’t be sidelined by self-doubt and never give in to negative self-talk. Look at mistakes as opportunities to learn a valuable lesson and try not to repeat them the next time, remember also that mistakes are part of the learning process. Do not expect too much of your initial brush marks. Just try to put the right values and right colors in the right place and allow the painting to take shape, almost in a magical way; it’s all about relationships, one color next to another until the painting begins to take shape. Right doesn’t mean an exact match to what you are looking at, it just means right in relation to the other color notes in your painting.

Literally loosen up and paint from the shoulder. Use as big a stroke as possible, allowing the various forms in the painting to merge into beautiful interesting edges; finer points and details can be worked in toward the end of the painting session. Don’t put a lot of pressure on yourself, just try to respond to the scene you are painting and make lots of comparisons to get it right. Comparisons should be made constantly with regard to drawing, color, value, edges and texture; keep your eye on the whole painting and don’t let it become unbalanced because of too much emphasis in one area. Save the juicy thick brushwork until almost the end and always remember to enjoy the journey, this is the real thrill of painting. Feel the sun on your face and thank God you are alive, it will be reflected in your work! Remember, you have nothing to lose, it’s just paint and a little slice of canvas, so have at it and create a little piece of yourself while you are there! If you feel the painting is starting to go south, step back and clear your mind. This is not the time to tighten up; success is often one step past defeat! Don’t think, “What can I add?” Think, “What can I eliminate?” What can you simplify? Ask yourself, where did the painting start to lose its focus? How has it veered from the original concept? It may well be that the thing you thought was wrong is not the problem at all; it could be the mass or object next to it. Correct that and see how it affects the painting. Keep the painting as a whole in mind at all times and don’t be afraid to take out something that is just not working, that’s one of the reasons for a painting knife. Scrape, baby, scrape!

I hope this helps. The next time you are in a gallery or a museum, study the paintings that really speak to you. Try to understand them in artistic terms like drawing, color, value, edges and brushwork, why the painting works. Make a sketch of it and record in words your feelings and try to come away with something you can employ in your own work. Above all enjoy what you are doing and pass on your knowledge to others; you will receive far more than you give!

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