Loose Watercolor Painting

A common thought expressed by participants in the workshops I teach is the desire to learn how to “loosen up.” Accompanying this desire to loosen up is the belief that this looseness is somehow linked to speed and randomness in wielding the brush. I see brushes flying back and forth ow dabbing wildly in an attempt to achieve a loose style.

What they are really after has nothing to do with the speed or random wild brushing. In fact quite the opposite. Looseness is not HOW the painting is done. The looseness they are looking for is in the final appearance of the painting. It is a product of careful observation and deliberate application of strokes. When I am painting I ask myself one simple question. I say, “Carl, What do you really see?” That question makes me look past the identification of what is before me and see how close the values are, where the edge is defined and where it is not, where colors flow naturally from one object into the next, and where things do not appear as I would expect them to be.

If we carefully observe we will discover that a lot of what we think we see is really the result of our brain’s ability to fill in the blanks. To take a few clues and extrapolate the rest.If we then deliberately include that same lack of completion in our paintings the resulting appearance is called “loose”. Our trouble is not in being too tight, but in being too literal and in defining every edge . When we clearly define every edge of an object, we effectively divorce it from its environment, and no amount of detail will re-unite them. If we leave those lost edges that we actually see we provide connection points, places where the edge of one shape is connected to its adjacent shape.  This is not an artistic device, it is a fact of nature, of visual reality.

So don’t abandon control and fling the brush around hoping that those accidental strokes will produce the coveted looseness. Look carefully at the world around you and notice the looseness there, the random edge quality that has been hiding in plain sight. Then deliberately make it happen in your paintings. I have found that water moves the watercolor pigments around on the surface much more freely, and more effortlessly than my brush can.

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