A loose style looks effortless and almost accidental, but that's very much by design. I have found that if I want my paintings to appear relaxed, energetic and expressive, I need to spend time planning, and the best way to develop a new painting is in the warm up stage.

Warm ups are where breakthroughs happen. When we are playing with paint, exploring new ideas, and developing our self-expression, we relax the conscious self so the unconscious can emerge. Here are 20 ways you can warm up and develop your own personal loose style:

Loosen Up Your Colour

  1. Choose 2-3 colours and create a wet-in-wet wash, allowing these colours to flow together. Get to know the new hues created by their co-mingling. Look for interesting neutrals as well as vibrant new dark-value hues to use in future paintings.
  2. Colours that disperse easily in a wet wash are a great choice for creating vibrance, especially if they have some opacity to them. Fill a piece of paper with a dark wash, and drop in lighter value colours while still wet. Make note of the hues that retain their identity instead of disappearing into the darkness.
  3. Sedimentary colour; finely ground pigment sits on the surface of the paper instead of soaking in. Test this by painting a wash of colour, then use your brush to trickle water across the slanted surface. The sedimentary colour will wash away while the staining colour remains, creating interesting texture.

Mark Making Explorations

4. Your signature brush style will happen when you are most relaxed. Choose subjects like bamboo, twigs, fences, or wire and try to paint each section in a single stroke.

5. Try unusual mark-making tools - twigs, wads of string, the side of a credit card, a palette knife.

6. Use your mark-making tools not just for fluid paint. Try dry brush, clots of crumbly old paint, fresh blobs of pigment and everything in between.

7. Use your mark-making tools to lift paint, not just to lay it down. Wet and blot gently, scrub to lift, scrape and dab to move paint after it has dried on the paper. (Good paper will hold up to rougher treatment)

8. Bold strokes make the most impact. Look for ways to vary your line width, not just through the painting, but even in a single line, the width should not always remain consistent.

Depicting Your Subject

9. Simplify every element in your scene and paint it as a shape you can name (triangle, square, oval, etc).

10. Paint your subject in as few brush strokes as possible.

11. Set a timer and limit yourself to 2-3 minutes for a single object, 10-15 for a scene, to help you develop better editing skills.

12. Value contrasts are key to powerful painting. Convert your reference photo to a high contrast, near black & white version (watch my tutorial here) and paint your scene in a single dark-value colour. Then try a 3-value version. (light/medium/darkest value)

13. Subject focus. Take a page from a sketch artist’s book and paint the same subject repeatedly - paint small pieces of that subject (i.e. tree, root, single leaf, bark texture), paint it until you can almost do it with your eyes closed. Effortless looseness is born out of familiarity.

14. Small paintings often feel like less pressure than large ones. Paint a dozen quick & small (3” x 5” or smaller) paintings of a simple scene (tree, sky, land, for example) using a variety of colours. Use them to inspire your next larger painting.

15. Paint from memory. Lose the reference photo and try painting what you remember and value most about the scene/person/object.

16. Don’t draw. No pencil allowed - trust that your brush can do the drawing as you establish major shapes and values. This allows you to go with the “flow” of the painting and change your plan if new directions emerge as you paint.

Relax!

17. Drop a paint-loaded brush on clean paper, then design a painting inspired by the mark your brush made. I love starting with a dirty paper to keep me from attaching too much importance on making a “perfect” painting.

18. You can often turn an overworked painting around by painting a dark background over most of it, illuminating by contrast one part that you like.

19. Use a palette knife to streak some gestural strokes of masking fluid on clean paper. Once it’s dried, paint an abstract, using the masked area to guide your composition.

20. Distract yourself. If I’m not laser-focused on my painting, I can feel freed from perfectionistic tightness. Listening to energetic music is one way I relax my focus, move more loosely and let my subconscious play.

Have fun! Looseness comes from remember that YOU are the most important thing you bring to your painting. Your vision and self-expression are more important than accuracy and realism, and when your painting is full of personal meaning, you get to be your own favourite artist.

What do you do to channel your looser style? Leave a comment below: