Monday, 22 October 2012

Do you know how to be LOOSE?

Paul Cezanne - detail from "Apples, Bottle and Chairback"
...and I do NOT mean in the moral sense!   I so often read about artists wanting to be more "loose" in their work, loose as opposed to tight.  But I then they really know what this means?

What it does not mean is to be speedy and slapdash.  To "throw" colour at your canvas, or paper, in the hope of achieving something which looks "loose" and effortless.  

Let's consider the opposite of loose.  Tight.  Well, you cannot get much "tighter" than a painting which looks exactly like a photograph, with every edge crisply defined.  Now, before the pro-photographic-finish painters start complaining, I am simply saying that this kind of painting is TIGHT, not "no good".  There are other "tight" types of painting and drawing- here is an interesting take on the drawing by Albrecht Durer, made even "tighter" than the original, take a look:

Yes, of course, it is a "tight" drawing, every detail beautifully observed - but now look at the original drawing, and see how there is a softness, an almost-looseness if you like, around the cuffs and a suggestion of the continuation of the arm:

There is a lot to learn from these two examples. The first is of course still well-drawn, but the way it has been chopped-out, giving us hard-edged version on a white background, provides little of the beauty and sensitivity of the original, drawn on a tinted ground, with the ground playing a vitally important part of the image, and with some "looser" suggestive marks which help the image to sit comfortably within its surroundings.  Even the way the drawing is placed within the rectangle, the balance between the drawing and the negative space around the hands, is an important part of the whole.

So, we know a little about tightness.  Tightness can often be about LOTS of detail...not always a bad thing, as we can see from the second of the two examples above.  It can also be about details and edges and tightness to the point where the sensitivity is lost along the way.  Tightness can become mechanical and tedious- every blade of grass, every leaf on the tree.  

What, then, is "looseness"?  If we just ensure that we use softer edges occasionally;  if we allow details to be left out, if we deliberately avoid slow carefulness in favour of speed and spontaneity, will we then achieve looseness in our works?

Well....we might.   But more importantly:

To achieve artistic "looseness", what we do need is confidence.  And confidence comes from, believe it or not, paying attention to detail!  Not details like the fuzz on a peach or a pattern on a carpet.  I mean by paying attention to the things which make paintings work well - detail in the sense of ensuring that we have, under our belt, a detailed knowledge of all the basics, the "building bricks" of his craft that every painter can, and should, learn about.  Confidence as a painter comes from learning as much about tone, colour, shape, form, measuring, planning, composition - and more -  as you can, so that the learning becomes, eventually, second-nature.   Learning all you can about techniques too, trying out many different ideas along the way, discarding some, spending time on others.  You need to do everything you can to strengthen both your abilities, and your knowledge, they go hand in hand.     A good drawing will be spoiled if you slap on colour willy nilly, getting the tones wrong, the colour garish.  A good understanding of tone and colour will not be enough to rescue a piece where the perspective is all over the place and proportions are sloppy.  Lovely colour and beautiful tone values and excellent drawing may look admirable...but sadly boring and forgettable, if the design of the piece and the underlying structure has not been considered.  

"Loose" paintings are in fact often highly organised and carefully planned, even tho the end result looks fresh and spontaneous and swiftly painted.    Some may develop with certainty, others require great effort before they are resolved.  The "looseness" you see in some artists' works  is often the result of a great deal of struggle.  "Looseness" is something you need to work towards, it is not a special kind of technique that you can be shown how to achieve.  There are little tricks you can try - someone who paints with a size 0 brush and their nose half an inch from the paper, could well benefit from being forced to work on a grand scale with big brushes....but this is about breaking a habit... it is not the whole answer.

let's look for a moment at a "loosely painted" image:

Paul Cezanne - "Apples, Bottle and Chairback" pencil and watercolour

Cezanne had an obsession with the relationship between forms on a flat surface and in real life, achieved often through the use of swirls and flurries of pencil marks, together with carefully worked translucent touches of watercolour.  He would sometimes even leave areas incomplete - but careful examination of his works shows that often, these spaces are areas which catch the most light.  (take a look at the life-size detail of this image, at the top of the blog). Cezanne was very aware of the visual power of suggestion, and would stop long before the painting began to look overworked.
It is important to realise that this image was painted during the artist's later years.
Many of Cezanne's paintings look "loose" yet this is a painter whose early training was intensely disciplined, with an insistence on value accuracy. He often worked from the model, putting a black and a white handkerchief next to the model in order to fix the two poles between which to establish his values.

  • Ask yourself if you are the kind of painter who likes to concentrate on how many bricks there are in the wall, or tiles on the roof .  If you are, then you have not, as yet,  recognised that it is not the small details which make the painting work. 
  • Do you leap into the painting without any preplanning at all, because you are itching to get to the colour and have no patience for thumbnail preplanning?  If so, then you will have more than your fair share of problems to sort out, correct, adjust, as you paint, which will destroy any sense of freshness and spontaneity.  
  • Do you seldom bother to read and learn about the language of colour, thinking that it will all look ok if you can just accurately copy the colour of what is in front of you?
  •  If you fall into any of these categories, perhaps the time has come to have a bit of a rethink?

 There is no right or wrong way to paint, but one thing is for sure.....starting with good drawing, and a good understanding of the important basics I have mentioned above,  will enable you, eventually,  to become freer and bolder and looser with the painting, because you are starting from a firm foundation, with the knowledge and ability to recognise the difference between slapdash and loose.


  1. Jackie, I love this post! I shared it as usual to my Facebook page because it has great information for my artist friends. It made me realize when I say I am trying to be "looser" what I really mean ... it was hard to describe it to others. You did a fantastic job! I also included in my explanation a story about painting last weekend two days at an Arts in the Parks event. Different artists during the days would say ... I want to paint that loosely. It surprised me! I had not realized someone would think my work was "loose." I am now looking at my work through "new eyes!" Thanks!

  2. Excelente post. Verdaderamente lo complejo en pintura es tener la habilidad para simplificar, saber sugerir. Sin desmerecer la técnica hiperrealista, por supuesto, ésta es cuestión de además mucha habilidad, prestar atención y tiempo, sin embargo crear una imagen atractiva en pocos trazos es extraordinariamente complejo.
    Aquí me quedo, con permiso.


  3. Thank you Jackie for this insight. I often think my creative adventuures are too tight... or forced.

  4. Great post, Jackie. I agree that the basics of drawing are so important. The more I draw the more I realize that nothing can make up for a poorly constructed drawing.

  5. Wonderful information here, and just what I needed! Thanks!


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