Top tips for painting loose in watercolour

Sorry it’s been quiet. Having the children around does not make for having a clear head to get painting. However, I have been busy planning my new weekly classes (which start tomorrow – very exciting) and thought I would put together some top tips (using *top* in a very broad way) for loosening up in watercolour. Nothing here is rocket science and other people have produced lists (Richard Stephens, Andrew Pitt) and they go on a bit – but honestly, they will really help you if you find your work is too tight and lacking in freshness and energy:


What is loose to you? It does not mean slapdash or careless (or necessarily fast). Fresh, spontaneous, full of energy perhaps?

Before you begin work out what it is that attracts you to the subject – aim to capture that – everything else is unnecessary detail.

Paint for fun and with a spirit of adventure.

Simplify – visualise your subject as a simplified painted image. Do a thumbnail sketch so you know your lightest and darkest areas. This is your plan, though you can deviate of course.

Paint shapes not things. Try and see what is really there, not what your conscious mind thinks should be there. Start with big shapes and work to smaller ones.

Explore negative painting – can be great for regaining a bit of control.

Consider pen and wash. If you have controlled pen work, you can get looser with your washes without losing the plot totally. Can be a good half way house.

Use a limited palette (6/7 colours) – strong and clean colours and let them be watercolours ie let the water do the work for you. Think about complementary colours too, warm/cold combinations. Get to know your pigments – transparent/opaque, staining etc

Lots of clean water (two jars, one to clean one to mix) – get a spray bottle – change your water frequently. Water is what brings the paint to life.

Let colours mix on the paper as much as possible, rather than pre mixing in the palette.

Try to get the finished result in one go – don’t rely on glazing and over painting. Be direct. Go for the darks first time. Aim for 85% done first time. Let it dry, walk away. 5+% adjusting and a few % detail at the end. Doesn’t add up to 100% as leaving it a bit under done is better than over done!

Paint generally from light to dark, but get a few darks in early on in your focus area (an animal this is likely to be the head or eye). This helps set your range from lightest (white paper) to the darkest. Think about tone (ie light and dark) and not just colour.

Paint from back to front – background to foreground.

Use big pieces of paper (you can cut it down later and this gives you more freedom) and the biggest brush you are comfortable with and big pots of clean water. Only use a small rigger or detail brush for the last few per cent.

Aim for soft, hard, lost and found edges – ie a variety. Don’t be afraid to leave some bits up to the viewers imagination. Aim for variety within areas too.

Don’t be worried by mistakes – try and work with what the medium gives you. Drips, blooms, variation – accidents are often the best bits.

Avoid dabbing/prodding with your brush. Use full strokes and the belly of the brush (or use the point with purpose).

Less is more. Stop too soon, not too late. Give yourself a rest if you start to fiddle – walk away and come back with fresh eyes. If you are repainting areas, stop. Can you leave anything unfinished, so the viewer has to do some of the work?

Paint standing up if you can – use your whole body, or at least your whole arm. Hold your brush nearer to the end.

If you wear glasses, take them off and paint in a blur!

Use colours that express your feelings, not just the colours you see – purple cows are fine!!

Explore textures, but only use techniques where they add something, rather than throwing everything you know at one piece of paper. Splatter, drips, salt and cling film may just be inappropriate to your subject.

If you are not sure about something, look at it upside down or in a mirror or prop it up around the house and do something else, so you see what is really there and not what you think is there.

Enjoy paintings – it is only a piece of paper, so if it goes wrong, work out what you like about it and what you don’t, then turn over and use the back.

Use the best materials you can afford – artist quality paints and decent paper will give better and more rewarding results.

Don’t be afraid to cut your painting up or use a mount to cover up a bit you don’t like. It is your painting. Even if a portion isn’t working, some will be and you can make a smaller pic or a card or a book mark….

Use small amounts of white gouache right at the end if you need to for fine detail (cat’s whiskers or a highlight in the eye). It’s good if you don’t need to, but not the end of the world if you do.


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