Nature’s Secret for fresh, Loose Watercolors

Here’s an interesting observation: I have never had anyone say in a workshop, “I need to learn how to tighten up, my paintings are too loose.” However, I hear the opposite all the time. The question is, What do we mean by “loose”?  Richard Schmid wrote in his book “Alla Prima”, “…looseness should  describe how a painting looks, not how it is done.?

“Looseness” does not mean the abandonment of control, the spontaneous flinging of paint or swishing of brush in the vain hope that God or some other charitable force will somehow bring deliberation to your frenzied brush strokes. Nature doesn’t grow that way, and we should not paint that way. There is a pattern to Nature’s growth, and the secret to seeing it is in opening our eyes. I know, you probably think that your eyes are open. However, seeing and accurate observation are two very different things. I still keep “seeing” things for the first time that have been in front of me my whole life. Painting helps me to see them, and seeing them helps me to paint better.

When you look past what things are, and see the appearance of things, then you are on the step to painting in a more loose manner.  Instead of defining every item, you then paint how the world appears to you. If you really observe, you will notice that things are not as clearly defined as you imagined. Edges appear to blur and sometimes disappear. What you thought was a gray wall on an old shed is actually a blending of warm and cool colors with a startling range of hues.

To see this requires that you abandon the concepts of item identification and assignment of color to items. This underpinning of blended colors is the reality of appearance. But who in your lifetime patted you on the back for noticing it? No one! Instead you were trained to see the item, name it and correctly identify the name of its color. “What this, Johnny?” You replied, “A rock.” “And what color is it?” “Gray”, you said, and then you got the lollypop. Nobody noticed that the gray rock was actually a soft blending of yellow ochre that morphed into a bluish gay with bits of Sienna in it. That was too complicated. And so, like all the rest of us you went through life naming items and assigning a single color to them. Then you started to paint and all that learning became a giant hurdle you had to climb over in order to really see.

Since watercolor dries fast, the edges can be a problem. They become even more of a problem if you try to paint item by item. Each item then has hard edges around it, effectively separating it from every other item. Even if you follow the excellent advise of seasoned watercolorists who say (as I have often said), “Don’t paint items, paint shapes” you can still end up with a disconnect throughout the painting.

For that reason, I begin with the intermingling of colors I see behind the separate items. This pattern of colors is not bounded by item or shape; it is a foundation that embraces everything. I have included a demonstration begun at a recent workshop. It was not meant to be a final painting, and you will readily notice its shortcomings in design,(I made a boring construction by placing the building exactly in the center.) However, you can see the color moving from warm to cool, from sky to building to ground with no boundary. The connectedness achieved with this approach creates a fresh and energetic presentation despite the bad composition. And another great plus besides the freshness and connectedness is the flexibility. Nothing is nailed down tight, so I can still go into it and add to the image-as long as I don’t over-stroke and make mud out of it. But that is the nature of real looseness-it is flexible, and deliberate – the result of careful, purposeful brushwork

This is the hidden pattern of color as seen in nature (with just a little exaggeration)


Sometimes it takes boldness to save a sinking ship.

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