One phrase I often hear from artists is “I wish I could paint more loosely!”, which is interesting as we spend a lot of time in art class learning how to do the opposite. Or maybe it’s not so surprising, as the grass always seems greener on the other side!

In any case, if you’re looking to break some barriers, then here are a few quick tips on how to loosen up your painting style.

Tip #1: Forgo the Sketch

Don’t get me wrong – it’s often good practice to do a sketch (or a few sketches) of what you’re planning to paint. This is so you can play around with your composition and get the correct positioning and proportions for whatever you’re trying to paint or draw.

But spending too much time on a sketch will tempt you towards getting all the details “just right” in the final artwork, and you’ll eventually find yourself trying to stay within those lines you’ve spent so much time perfecting.

If you absolutely must have a sketch, I recommend doing just one and keeping your lines very loose so you can make adjustments while you’re painting. Otherwise, don’t even bother and go straight to painting or inking.

Tip: You can also “draw” with your paint instead of with a pencil to at least give you a rough idea of where the large shapes go. These will eventually look like rough edges for your painting or be covered entirely, but either way, it should lead to a looser style.

Tip #2: Wiggle Your Lines

You can make your brushstrokes or lines even looser by doing warm-up exercises with your hand and wrist before painting! Doing this will help relax your hand, reflecting on how you paint.

If you want to exaggerate this effect, you can intentionally wiggle your hand while painting or drawing. I’ve seen many urban sketchers utilise this technique, as it gives more charm to an otherwise bland urban scene.

I find this technique more effective with inking than painting, but you can try it with both! The equivalent technique in a painting would be flicking your brush, creating dry textures, or using the “dry-on-dry” technique to get those rougher edges.

Tip #3: The Bigger, The Better

[Image above is based on a photo of Akihabara, Japan from @tokyotokyooldmeetsnew]

Another easy way to force yourself to loosen up is to use large brushes only, or use a thicker pen width if you’re inking.

I highly recommend a large flat brush, as you can still get some finer details with its edge while covering large areas quickly. A large mop brush will work as well, even if it doesn’t come to a sharp point! Old brushes are another alternative, though they will give a messier effect.

You’ll be forced to rethink your brushstrokes, but also realise that not every stroke has to be ideally “within the lines” or be straight and smooth.

Additionally, larger brushes create more opportunities for “happy accidents” to happen, especially when paint bleeds into other wet areas. You’ll see that watercolour has a mind of its own!

Tip #4: Time Yourself

You won’t be able to paint or draw clean and neatly if you’re on a time limit, so give yourself one! I recommend starting with half your average time (e.g. if you usually take an hour to create a piece, set the timer for 30 minutes and see how you go).

If half that time is too long, make it a quarter or a sixth. Eventually, you’ll be creating stuff much faster than you thought possible! But you do want to find your personal “sweet spot” – that is, where you feel you have enough time to get some details or more careful brushstrokes without having to overthink them.

[Image above is based on a photo of a European Starling from @danielselinsofia]

The bird on the left took 20 minutes in the above image, while the one on the right took 5 minutes. Which do you think has a better balance between painting loose and having enough details?

Tip #5: Practice!

Like any acquired skill, you’ll need to practice, so it’s okay to mess up your first few tries completely! You may also need a little time to adjust to liking the imperfections or getting the right “feeling” on how to create good imperfections in the first place.

Tip: When I mean “good imperfections”, I mean things that are “happy accidents”, where it may look like a mistake or an accident, but you like the look of it anyway. “Bad imperfections” are just mistakes that look like mistakes. Although some artists still like these imperfections, I guess to each their own!

In addition, “painting loosely” doesn’t equate to “painting carelessly”. You still want each brushstroke done with intention and purpose. But you’ll need to practice to get a good understanding of which details to keep and which to leave out.

An example would be the bird I painted in 5 minutes. While I could continue painting every detail of every feather, I chose to concentrate the most detailed brushstrokes around the eye. The body, in contrast, has more of that “loose” style.

It’s also a good idea to analyse and review your work after each practice session. Examining your work will give you a better understanding of what’s working and what you need to improve on, making it almost as important as the practice time itself!

Other techniques you could include are splashes or sprays of paint, though don’t overdo them, as you’ll be entering “bad imperfection” territory.

Not For Everyone

That’s it for tips! I hope incorporating at least one of them into your art practice has helped you loosen up and realise that it’s a good style to try, even if you end up deciding that it’s not for you.

I would also venture to say that it’s always a good idea to learn the rules before breaking them! While the basic techniques in making art may seem too constrained and too “stiff”, you need a solid foundation on things like contrast, shapes, and colour theory to get a good composition, even when the form of tradition has been broken.

Whatever your art style is, here’s to learning something new and improving ourselves throughout this journey!

What style do you prefer? Do you have any tips for painting looser? Please share with us in the comments below! Additionally, if you’re interested in getting more tips on the creative process, feel free to subscribe to our email newsletter. You’ll be updated with our latest product releases, workshop schedule, and flash sales, too!

Nicola Tsoi is a practicing graphic designer and illustrator based in Hong Kong. During her downtime, she likes to watch birds do funny things, search for stories, and bake up a storm. She keeps a pet sourdough starter named Doughy. 


  • Susan Browning said:

    Great, practical ideas. I’ve been working on simple 5 minute watervolors and it’s really helped. Plus some of the little paintings are keepers!

    June 01, 2022

  • Susan Browning said:

    Great, practical ideas. I’ve been working on simple 5 minute watervolors and it’s really helped. Plus some of the little paintings are keepers!
    Etchr Studio replied:
    We’re glad these tips have been of great help, Susan! Enjoy making more
    art! :)

    April 02, 2022

Leave a comment