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Why and How to Loosen Up Your Painting

Why and How to Loosen Up Your Painting

May 30, 2020


Willem de Kooning, Untitled XXV, 1977 Sold for $63 million in Christies action in 2016

Imagine if Willem de Kooning had got stuck in the detail, and had two editors like writers are supposed to have! One to sort out his overall composition, and the other to fix up his grammar and spelling. This painting would never have come into the world.

The Problem

One of the greatest banes of visual artists lives is the problem of getting lost in the minutia of a painting. We always start well, with big, bold flourishing strokes of gesture. We love the underpainting because we know it's an underpainting, and we can do what we like - we just don't care, and so we are like children again, full of expression and energy. We forget about perfection. There's a clue there! Take note for later. I have never started a painting that I didn't want to stop at after the first fifteen minutes of this mad orgy of exciting activity. We all ask this - If only I dared to preserve this raw energy, this energetic, honest form. The truth of it is these first moves.

The main question I hear in my live workshops is, how do I stop getting so tight with my work? Firstly, I want to assure you that this is not a rookies issue. From my decades of being an artist, I happen to know that not only do I encounter this, but this is also a constant struggle for most professional artists with decades of experience and success.

Every artist no matter the level gets into this place, this horrible, frustrating, repetitive nightmare. The rabbit hole where nothing good happens, but we can't seem to stop going there from time to time. The more we do, the more we have to do, until hours upon hours, or weeks pass and then we throw the brush across the room, launch out of our hunched over crippling focus and run out of the room screaming, longing for something, anything else.
Usually, the urge is to find some task that we can just do and complete. We do the dishes; we mop the floor, we make the bed, because it's clear, it's done when it's done.

Out of Order” Helen Norton 1996

There is no grey area. It's black and white! The sink is clean, or it's not. The bed is made, or it's not and so on. Then we start saying things like I HATE ART, I want a regular job, art drives me crazy because I can't loosen up and it becomes a choir, and that's not art, I have failed, I am a failure, bla bla bla!

 Well, - guess what? Even though choirs are clear enough, in their measure of completion - painting loose can be clear on closure also! It's all about trust and the courage to believe it to be true. Yeh, I know, it's a head thing, like everything. So let's dig in a little bit. Remember this is not the essential, or comprehensive guide, just a few tips today for moving forward on the problem.

Another common problem starting-out artists have is the problem of 'how will I know when it's finished?' Well, that question belongs to the same club. They cause each other and are slyly interlinked

Mr Minutia and Mrs Never-Finished

Keep an eye out for how both of them can provoke the other and occasionally they switch about. Create two categories in your mind in case you see them rocking up and work out which one is directing you. Draw them as ugly faces and pin them to the studio wall. Mr Minutia and Mrs Never Finished are co-dependants who facilitate each other. Give them a character. It helps to remember. They are the enemy of productivity and creative flow. They are married and often rock up when you are tired. So, don't paint when you are tired.


I was motivated to put these jottings into a little blog to help my students currently taking my Free Online Acrylic Workshop. This workshop is explicitly targeting this problem with a method.

The method is that I deliberately flip and swap around between the three paintings, and I do the entire bundle in about one hour. I don't work on one until its finished. I am training myself to not get attached. This really does help to stop the drilling into minutia. Of course, I don't expect you to finish the three paintings in an hour if you are following me, but once you have the method, try not to take too much longer than two hours! Try to imagine these paintings are just play-things or practice. Imagine you are working with melting butter or better still - ice. It's best not care about these works, because guess what ... you can do so many more painting and very quickly if you get the method - if you get the way of working fast! The technique, which I encourage you to follow along with as closely as you can (meaning use strokes and actions in the same way relatively speaking) is to learn from how I move fast to create the works. You can do it.

A great way to explain this is what happened when I tried going to the gym to do a step class. I was utterly hopeless. No coordination at all! All left feet for two weeks. I kept thinking, I can't do this, I can't, why bother? I stumbled and bumbled my way through, and fell behind and wanted just to walk out because the instructor was a loudmouth who made fun of stumblers to try to encourage them?Well up hers! Eventually, I got there and could keep up. I nailed it. My view was that while being challenged by solving the problem, I had changed my attitude to getting fit. I wanted to get fit, but because I was free from the trials of 'following to learn' (which I am hopeless at due to my independent nature) I then decided to leave the ridiculing room and its loudmouth instructor, and took up long hikes and runs in the bush instead with my dogs.

Becoming an efficient 'stepping sheep in the room' bored me, but following the process for a while got my muscles moving and wanting more. Think about that guys. We are not inclined to follow the leader and especially not the pack, because we are creative, but we do need to put down our lone ventures occasionally to follow someone to break cycles! I felt like a bored Borg (that is quite a feat) once I learned the steps, just as you will when you master the process of painting loose. Creatives are leaders, therefore you will learn and then get on with your own work, leaving me behind, I hope!

 I got no joy out of acting in unison because I am a creative thinker! I know there is merit in being one of the group, but we all have our personality we must honour. However, if we want to improve our process or more so learn something new, and break patterns, we have to try to let go of our control for a bit, and let someone show us their way.

For example, (let's get back to painting) when you are following along in the workshop, (the focus is on loosening up), so as crazy as it seems (anti loose) try not to go off on another tangential method. Just hang in there, and keep holding my hand - I mean you hold your brush as if it's my hand. Walk in my shoes, stay in my steps. Use the same big brushes, do things as I do them, slosh, whoosh and all that. I am not trying to make you a mini-me; however, I want you to get out of your thinking patterns for long enough to work this way. Yes, it takes longer when you are mimicking someone but trust the process!

The Courage Needed to Loosen Up

Becoming tight is so easy for us to do. Take a look at these three pictures. Pablo Picasso painted these self-portraits - at fifteen, twenty five and ninety years old. I can imagine the jokes some could make without the captions or knowledge of his work! Even though the one on the left is hardly 'tight', it's still a very different approach (style of expression) than the one on the far right, which he created not long before his death. He had not
lost his marbles nor was he suffering from dementia when he created it. He simply had the confidence to paint fast and to paint precisely how he was feeling. I imagine this may well be how I might feel at ninety when facing the close proximity of our end. Don't we have days like this already?

There is so much we could glean from this on so many levels. You may not like his last portrait on the right, but it is a raw and honest work, mimicking no-one, impressing no-one and probably painted/drawn very fast. He had cut the crap, as we do when we get older hopefully. He was free to paint the truth. It is valid and important to do this. These works are a great reminder of the power in doing it.

I encourage you to try this from the bottom of my heart. Yes, the old saying is, you need to learn the rules to break them etc, but don't let that lead you down the rabbit hole - especially if you are not sixteen years old. What matters more is honesty and action. Action is eloquence - thank you, Shakespeare! Make them, make them, just do them. If space is an issue, work on paper so you can keep them in a folder or a drawer, so they don't take up space. No excuses, you do not need a big studio or even to quit your job.

Why Should We Do It? Science Vs Art

We are trained to clean up the edges in our lives. To refine and make everything, including ourselves, presentable. I have these struggles in various areas of my life, and most of them are not about painting but patterns of thought.

 As artists, we have permission like in no other creative industry to NOT clean things up; far more so in fact than many other genres of creatives. Imagine a writer's problems! Authors subject themselves to various refining processes to make things presentable to the reader. Not just a 'copy editor' who cleans up the grammar and spelling, but those other essential Capital E, editors who help writers make the story work. They tip it upside down and turn it out to see if it flows, if the rhythm works, the beats beat, the pulses rise and fall. Creative writers are artists, but most of them go through a grinder before their work lives and breathes, other people's grinders!

Imagine if Willem De Kooning had two editors? Ugg! His work would be cleaned up out of existence before it even got out of the studio, no longer the vigorous, exciting, energetic explosion it is, and I would hazard a guess, he would no longer wish to make them anymore as a result. Put simply - PAINTING IS DIFFERENT to many other art forms.

So, why are we behaving like book editors around our paintings then?  

Visual art is exempt. Use this Licence. Stop over editing your work.

Remember - You May Need to Learn HOW to Loosen Up

Remember the rules of hitchhiking if you can't just break free of your tightness. Go along with someone else - a stranger - for the ride for a while. Hitchhikers give up control of their lives when they climb in a strangers car. You need to do the same.

You may need to 'learn' how to loosen up and not from your own inner nagging couple Mr and Mrs mentioned above. Sounds crazy but it's true. Copy me, follow me (or your favourite demo loose artist). No diversions. Stay focused, COPY COPY - someone else and you will end up getting the steps sorted out.

Doing this can break patterns of automatic action embedded in our own psyche. Ironically, through copying another artist you can break your old patterns. Its basically re-activating 'limb' physiotherapy for your habits that have stiffened up like an unused limb. We adopt someone else's action in order to break our own. Don't worry, you will return to yourself, you can't help but do that, as I did when I left the gym, but you would have expanded your skills.

When we can already paint we have well-worn ruts (like a well-travelled dirt road), and we keep falling back into them not thinking that what we have to do is go entirely off the track to the side and bush bash as Aussies like to say. No roads and there are snakes and spiders and all that too. It's even worse for artists with some degree of skill and gets harder as we go up in levels of experience as painters. The bigger our reputation the harder it is to get off the blockage. We should not have issues right? Wrong.

Remember - Picasso went in reverse it seemed from tight to loose, and that made him a great artist. He started with figurative

"The Great Adventure", Helen Norton

and formal work and deliberately smashed that to become unique (and fast has a lot to do with being authentic in the expression). He painted something like twenty thousand paintings in his lifetime. I have painted about two thousand (those that have gone to market or show), and probably the same amount that never got out there. I thought I had done a lot but Picasso puts me to shame!  

When you paint loose, you are not being imprisoned by 'the process', instead you are using the process as your vehicle only as you (the artist) report on the journey you are on - in this life - the only one you will get. That is far more important than the process. We have cameras to record all the 'actual' minutiae of life. Nature is an artist - all we need to do is walk out the door and look! By all means, paint what you see, but what more can you do than aspire to be an organic camera? Can you tune into another dimension as well - your feeling about it - by not spending vast amounts of time fussing over a small detail?

Benefits of Being Loose

What we do not have so clearly shown in our rational thinking records, and what science has failed to be able to record - is the irrational emotional state that is so important in our human experience. That is why art and story exists. To do this, to show this. Science tries but always fails at explaining everything.

I stand my ground. Art, story making, and music succeed in this like no other medium. Therefore we will never be done with it. Let's not make our art science. Let's make it a warm, wild animal, that bites, purrs, cries, screams, gentles, weeps and laughs. Paint the pain of the polar bear, not just its big white body. Make your work show the subtleties if you like. What is breath to you? There is a great viral video out there- Teddy has an Operation. If you have not seen it, you must. This is art. This is how funny and yet pathetic science is - in the face of a teddy operation. It is the most elegant embrace of this principle. I will let it speak for itself. Treat yourself.

Why do you think the video is viral? Because it's beautiful and poignant and speaks to our human truth, our story, that our heart is filled with impossible unicorns and how we actually feel. This kind of nuance in how we express ourselves can be the feeling you show in your work if you are not wasting time over the pursuit of perfection when lost in detail and being tight. It simply takes too much of your time. You won't live long enough.

Another reason we need to loosen up is very much because if we do, the brush will no longer be an obstacle or a force when we do, it will be an extension of our body, our soul, our heart. Yes, we do need to think, but let's try to leave the judgment out long enough to see how we can paint our teacup or dog this morning as if it were a feeling and not an object! How we pat that dog, or drink that tea. There are times in art where we do have to objectify things to paint them, but not in this instance. The impression will do the job and it is much quicker to capture leaving you free to do more of that work.

I have gone a bit awol and deep here, but the key is, if you are doing a loose workshop with me, follow me literally if you are struggling to loosen up, (as counterintuitive as that sounds) so you can get inside (my) actions without questioning them - that is where you stop thinking - and just do, be, copy, follow and then once you have 'worn my shoes with me', have a try yourself with the same actions you have just done, but with your own subject. Like me in the gym, it may be annoying but try to tolerate the lack of control and concentrate on your hand and mine. Not unlike skydiving for the first time - you have a chaperone.

By all means, in this process, interface with your subject in a way that is "expressive" or emotional if you like. But you may find initially you have to just focus on the steps, the process, and then once you master it, you can go nuts. For me (on the exercise analogy)- it was to take my sure footedness into the bush to clamber over rocks and fallen trees every single day now for years.

Let me know how you go in the comments below and subscribe to the website to get newsletters and all that jazz.

Happy painting!

Link to the workshops including the ‘Free Three’

Link to the Teddy Has an Operation Video

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