Pastel Painting Tips | 4 Ways to Loosen Up

Evolving as a painter can be analogous to human development. Before a child can run, they must first learn to crawl, stand and walk. The coordination required to achieve these feats is attained through trial and error with a lot of scrapes and bruises along the way. But, after considerable practice, these actions become automatic motor movements. We don’t have to think about it anymore; we just do it.

Asheville Fall (pastel, 9x6) by Richard McKinley

Asheville Fall (pastel, 9×6) by Richard McKinley

Painting is similar in that first we must learn the basic lessons to accurately draw, denote light and dark value relationships, and represent harmonious color. Just like learning to walk and run, it takes considerable thought and a lot of practice to achieve proficiency in our chosen painting medium.

Loosen Up: The ultimate goal for most artists, as they mature as painters, is to produce paintings that exemplify a mastery of the medium, signify a personal style, and successfully communicate emotional intent. As discussed in a recent post about “bravura,” this takes self-confidence and a sense of purpose to achieve. But even when the ingredients for bravura in painting are present, there is an ironic side-effect that can occur from all the training: It can lead to painting motor skills that consistently produce over-rendered subject matter, producing finished paintings that appear tight.

If you struggle with this and wish for a looser painterly appearing outcome in your work, there are a few things you can try:

  • Paint the painting upside-down. By working with your reference material turned upside-down, which can be done when working from life by placing a mirror to your forehead and tilting it at an angle until you see the scene in it when looking up, you take away symbolic mental recognition. When it is hard to recognize the objects, you will tend to paint simple shapes, making it easier to loosen up.
  • Paint with your non-dominant hand. This may be difficult to do initially, since it will feel totally unnatural and you will feel like you have no control, but the end result will appear looser. Over time you will gain more and more control. The positive reinforcement gained from seeing that the sloppy results obtained with the non-dominant hand look good will encourage you to loosen up no matter which hand you’re using for painting.
  • Repeat a previously successful painting. By painting the same scene again, you can focus on the application of materials instead of contemplating the composition of shapes, values and colors. You will be more confident of the outcome, making it easier to loosen up.
  • Play different types of music while you’re painting. Sound can have a profound effect on gestural movement when painting. Find something that will get your hand moving rather than reinforcing a methodic application.

It is important to remember that there’s nothing wrong with highly refined detailed paintings. Some of us are meant to methodically walk, some to exuberantly run, and some to spontaneously dance while painting. It is the crossing of the painting finish line that matters.




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