The term painterly applies to both the approach and technique that the artist uses when painting. Paint is applied in a loose, spontaneous manner.
A painterly approach puts less of an emphasis on realism and more on creating appealing colour combinations and composition.
The viewer may see visible brushstrokes in the finished painting with colours that meld together. In a ‘painterly’ painting, details may not be distinguishable, but tonal graduations and texture are used elegantly to create the illusion of detail. The term ‘loose’ is used interchangeably with ‘painterly’ to describe the style of the painting.
Many famous artists have used this approach, including Lucian Freud, Singer Sargent, Francis Bacon, Matisse, Cezanne, Van Gogh and Monet. Abstract artists, expressionists and impressionists could all be described as having a painterly style.
This technique and approach is perfect for beginners. To create striking painterly effects, it’s useful to have a grasp of some basic painting techniques and colour theory.
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Supplies needed to create a painterly effect
A painterly style can be achieved with any kind of painting medium. You can even create a loose style with oil pastels.
There are a few tools you can get which can make the process feel smoother.
- Paint: oil, acrylic, watercolour, oil pastel
- Consider using a limited palette
- Surface: canvas, paper, wooden panel
- Large brushes, stiff brushes, flat shaped brushes, palette knives
- Thickening mediums: for oil, for acrylic (optional)
Techniques you can use to create a ‘loose’ painting style
The impasto technique involves thick applications of paint that retain visible brush strokes and texture on the canvas. Apply paint with a stiff brush or a palette knife. Wonderfully dynamic effects can be created by using this technique.
This technique applies to oil and acrylic painting. To create an impasto effect, paint can be thickened with a medium (cold wax or Liquin impasto for oil, thickening gel for acrylic).
Van Gogh often painted in short, impasto, loose brush strokes, varying in colour. When you get up-close to his work, you can appreciate the textured effect.
Read more about this technique in our impasto guide.
Alla prima (wet-on-wet) technique
To paint alla prima (wet-on-wet), build layers of wet paint on your surface. The aim of painting alla prima is to finish the piece, or the section of your painting, before the first application of paint dries.
This technique suits oil and watercolour painting perfectly. If you want to use this technique with acrylic, you will have to get a slow drying medium.
Oil paint takes around 2-3 days to dry, so as long as you paint fairly quickly, it’s achievable to finish the painting before it starts drying. However, if you want to paint more slowly, get a slow drying medium to delay the drying process of oil.
Painting wet-on-wet is a fast and spontaneous way of working. Some brilliant painterly effects can be achieved from working in this way. Colours meld and swirl together.
Singer Sargent favoured this technique, as you can see in his painting ‘Simplon Pass’ above.
To use this technique, I’d recommend getting some stiff brushes for acrylic and oil.
Another thing to keep in mind is the way in which colours are layered in the painting. Start with fast drying, transparent colours like earth pigments such as burnt umber, that you might use in darker areas of the painting. Titanium white is slow drying, so it makes sense to apply this later in the painting process, use it in mixes to create highlights.
Tips for painting more loosely
Thicken your paint
Supplies: Thickening medium for oil, thickening medium for acrylic.
A distinctive element of many paintings painted in a loose style, is that the texture of the brushstrokes are often visible on the canvas. Of course, this is only possible with viscous mediums such as oil or acrylic. To create thick textures, paint impasto. Mix a medium such as Liquin Impasto, or cold wax into oil paint. Choose a thickening gel if you are working with acrylic. Mediums can help add body to the paint and speed up drying time.
By using a medium, you can extend the paint mixture, creating a much larger volume of colour. This can allow for thicker applications as you won’t have to worry about using as much of the paint itself (which can be expensive to buy).
Use texture to create areas of interest, express the salience of objects and subjects and establish perspective (make objects appear closer by painting with thicker texture). All these elements will come together to add another dimension to your artwork and make it stand out to the viewer.
Stand up at an easel
Supplies: easel, hand held palette
Again, this tip doesn’t apply to watercolour painters as much, but more to those working with acrylic, oil or pastel.
Standing up at an easel gives you the freedom to move around and encourages you to be much more gestural with your paint applications. It is something that helps to loosen your painting technique. By standing, you will be encouraged to stand back more often and look at your painting to see the whole picture. You’ll be much less likely to lean in and focus on tiny details whilst ignoring the composition of the piece, which painters tend to do more when they’re sitting down. Focussing on the composition rather than the details really is the objective of the ‘loose’ painting style.
The type of easel you choose will depend upon the amount of space you have and your budget. If you like to paint large, a H frame easel is the most durable option that can hold the largest canvas sizes.
With a hand held palette, you can move around with your colours, making it feel easier to stand up at the easel.
Get brushes with long handles
Supplies: long handle brushes
For oil and acrylic painting, long handle brushes balance in your hand when you’re standing up to paint, giving you better control.
You can choose where to hold them in your hand. Hold the brush nearer the bristles for precision, or nearer the end of the handle to make large sweeping strokes.
Paint with large brushes
Supplies: Large, flat brushes, palette knives
One rule that people are often taught in art school is to paint with a brush as large as they can manage for the subject they are painting. Square shaped brushes are great for painting large areas, they also simplify the painting, preventing you from agonising over detail.
With a few strokes of the brush, you can create a representation of your subject. Opt to use a palette knife instead for a choppier look, or use it to remove paint.
Plan your colour palette
Be as expressive as you like with your colour mixing. The aim isn’t always to copy the colours you see in real life. There can always be an element of artistic interpretation when it comes to mixing your colours. If you want to evoke a feeling from your painting, you could opt to choose a colour scheme before getting started.
In this oil painting by Monet, only greens and blues were used, with a small pop of yellow. This limited, cool palette creates a feeling of harmony, peace and calm.
Read up on limited colour palettes if you’re not sure which colours to select to start mixing.
Another tip is to mix all your colours before you start rather than as you go along. As stopping to mix colours can disrupt the flow of painting.
Plan composition first
One tip that might suit your painting practice is to plan how all the elements fit together on your canvas before laying paint down. By preparing certain elements like mixing colours and having the composition established prior to painting, it saves you from having to consider composition as you go along. So you can just focus on the process of applying colour and on your brushwork.
When I plan composition, I’ll have several reference photos that I will use as inspiration, then draw thumbnail sketches in my sketchbook until I find a composition that I think will work. Then I sketch out my composition on canvas. Sometimes I will spend time creating an accurate drawing, other times I’ll sketch very roughly—especially if I can’t wait to get started.
Having a good foundation, by mixing colours that harmonise with one another and by creating an aesthetically pleasing composition, you will have more time and space to get into the flow of painting, create wonderfully interesting brushstrokes and perfect your brushwork and technique.
Be decisive when applying paint
To achieve that painterly effect, be decisive, intentional and confident about applying paint. This is about knowing which colour to apply to the right section on your canvas.
The aim is to analyse the reference closely before actually putting any colour down on the surface, then applying the paint in the right spot to create the desired effect. It takes practice to achieve this, however. The best way to practice is by spending time looking at a reference, soaking in the light and colour and details you want to include before deciding how to translate this to canvas.
Many artists, such as John Singer Sargent using a loose painterly style are reported to have painted in this way.
Be selective about which details you want to include
Although a loose painting style is characterised by a lack of detail, that doesn’t mean you have to omit all detail from your painting. Study your reference and consider if there are any details that make the scene appear unique, or could add interest to your painting.
The key to spontaneity is letting go of the fear of making mistakes and your vision of perfect results. Have fun with the process of applying paint to the canvas, experimenting with different effects and taking risks. If you do make a mistake, you can always scrape thick paint away with a palette knife.
Create transitional shades
One technique you likely won’t be using much of if you’re trying to create a painterly effect is blending. So, to create realistic tonal transitions and the appearance of gradients, mix transitional shades between colours to apply in impasto-like strokes. The more transitional shades you mix, the more realistic your colours will appear in your painting. Transitional shades between colours also work to create harmony in a painting.
feature image: Cuno Amiet: Blumengarten
Loose painting style: Pin it!
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