How to Paint Loosely With Acrylics

When I was in high school drawing classes, I was always envious of the kids who’s drawings were dramatic and loose. I craved that kind of confidence and freedom in my own drawing; the artwork was so much more interesting to look at! I made some progress through high school and college, but it wasn’t until I was older that I learned to paint loosely in my art practice.

Acrylic painting is a versatile medium that allows artists to create a variety of styles and techniques. Like me, many artists find it more liberating and expressive to paint loosely with acrylics. In this tutorial, I’ll share the benefits of painting loosely, techniques for achieving a loose style, and tips and supplies for creating expressive and dynamic acrylic paintings.

What Does it Mean to Paint Loosely?

Painting loosely refers to an approach to painting that emphasizes spontaneity and expression over precise details and realism. This approach typically involves using broad brush strokes, bold colors, and simplified shapes to create a more energetic and dynamic painting. The goal is to capture the essence of the subject rather than create an exact representation of it.

Benefits of Painting Loosely with Acrylics

Painting loosely with acrylics has many benefits for artists. This approach allows for more creative freedom, encourages experimentation, and can lead to a more dynamic and expressive painting style, which to many collectors, is just more interesting to look at. It can also be a great way for the artist to simply blow off some steam!

Loose painting is a way to alleviate stress.

Painting loosely is a great way to relieve stress and anxiety. It can be used as a form of meditation, where you focus on the creative process rather than subject of your painting or your worries. Painting loosely helps you express yourself in a way that’s not always possible when writing or speaking. You can use loose painting as an outlet for tension and anger–the larger, abrupt gestures and bold strokes used within the process itself will help you move through emotions that might otherwise get in the way of relaxation!

You’ll create artwork that reflects your mood and personality.

Another great thing about learning to paint loosely is that it allows you to express yourself through your art. When you’re painting loosely, you can get in touch with your emotions and moods and let them flow onto the canvas. This will help reveal who you are as a person and an artist, and show your unique perception of the subject you are painting.

You’ll have more freedom to try new things.

The more you paint loosely, the more you’ll learn about yourself and your style. Since you aren’t concerning yourself with exact details of the subject of your painting, you’ll be more comfortable exploring a variety of techniques and mediums, which can help you find your voice as an artist. And that’s really what this is all about: finding what works for you!

You may even discover that your favorite subject isn’t always the one you think it is–and that’s okay! It’s important to allow yourself room for exploration. The result is a one-of-a-kind piece of art that has your own unique mark on it.

It’s fun.

Once you start to paint loosely, you’ll realize how fun it is. Rather than focusing on realism and painstaking details, your gestural experimentation can bring joy and surprise. By embracing the process of creating art rather than focusing on the final result, you’ll find yourself feeling happier overall.

Tips to Help You Paint Loosely with Acrylics

Much of learning to paint loosely is about removing the usual restrictions and limitations that can slow the painting process down. In some cases, learning to paint loosely involves a little more preparation in order to optimize your ability to be spontaneous during the actual painting process. Below are several loose painting techniques you can use to enhance your artwork.

Plan Your Composition

Before starting to paint, it’s important to plan your composition. This can help you focus on the most important elements and create a strong visual impact. When planning your composition, you might just visualize the main parts of the painting, or you can even sketch it out. Just focus on simply the most important aspects of the subject matter – things like focal points, edges, and space between objects. Use your sketch or simple reference points as a guide once the paint starts flowing.

Mix Color Palette Ahead of Painting

Mixing your color palette ahead can save time and allow you to focus on the painting process. Choose the colors you wish to use, and blend any custom colors ahead of time. Additionally, limiting yourself to your pre-mixed paint colors will help you maintain the loose feeling of the painting because you’ll have to use your color values strategically, rather than getting caught up in mixing an exact color to match a detail.

Stand Instead of Sit

Standing at an easel can help to paint loosely

Standing while painting can help create a more energetic and dynamic painting. When standing, you have a greater range of motion in your arms and body, which allows for more expressive brushstrokes. If you are sitting, you may be more inclined to paint in a more controlled and precise manner. Furthermore, standing can also provide a better perspective of the painting, allowing you to see the overall composition and make adjustments as needed.

Squint to See What Matters:

Squinting your eyes can help you see the basic shapes and values in your painting. If you want to paint loosely, it’s important to focus most of your work on these large shapes and values so you don’t get mixed up in too much detail. By squinting, you can filter out all the extra stuff you don’t need to concern yourself with.

Paint Using Your Non-Dominant Hand

Painting with your non-dominant hand can help you let go of control and create a more expressive and naturally loose painting. This may feel super awkward and create unexpected brush marks, but it is a great technique to get you out of your head and force you to let go of some control. Often, the need for control is what keeps you from that loose painting style you wish to achieve.

Try a Different Brushwork Techniques

Sometimes it’s difficult to paint loosely because you’ve grown comfortable in a certain painting technique, and it’s hard to adjust your style. One way to loosen up is by trying a new painting technique that you wouldn’t normally use, because you won’t have as much control. Some acrylic painting techniques lend themselves to looser, more dynamic paintings, such as impressionistic or alla prima. You might even consider loosing the painting tools altogether and using your hands and fingers – this will really free up your ability to be expressive and get in close contact with your painting!

Finger painting is a great way to achieve a loose painting style

Don’t Think, Just Paint

This is an important but difficult artist’s mindset that is key to loosening up your artwork. Many of the previous tips are intended to help you learn this way of painting buy forcing you into it, but it’s important to be intentional about it. Letting go of perfectionism and overthinking can help create a more spontaneous and expressive painting.

It Will Get Worse Before It Gets Better

Most paintings go through many phases before they are finished. Often the first painting layers look suggestive and hopeful, but the middle phases of painting can turn quite ugly. This is normal! Don’t be afraid to experiment and take risks. Sometimes a painting needs to look worse before it can look better. The beautiful thing about painting loosely is you keep building layers that create lovely texture and movement you wouldn’t achieve with controlled and careful painting.

Finish With Only the Most Important Details

Finishing details on horse painting created with loose painting style

When it’s time to move your painting into the final phase of completion, consider what are the most important elements and details to tell the story you wish to portray in your painting. There might be one or two focal points that make all the difference. Don’t overwork your painting with extraneous details that don’t contribute to the overall artwork.

Have Fun

Last but not least, if you aren’t having any fun, then you are doing it wrong. If you want to paint loosely, you can’t take your painting too seriously. Enjoy the creative process, follow your intuition, and have fun with it.

Supplies to Help You Paint Loosely

Larger brushes with long handles: Using a large brush that holds more paint can create more expressive brush strokes and allow for a looser painting style. The larger the brush, the less precise your brushwork can be. Additionally, paint brushes with long handles allow you to change your hand positions, which is an easy way to adjust your paint strokes. Try holding the paint brush at the very end of the handle – it will naturally loosen your grip and require you to relinquish control as you paint.

Palette knife: You might have used a palette knife for mixing your paint, but it is a great way to apply paint when you want less control and precision. With a palette knife, you can dab and spread paint, but it is more difficult to control than a paint brush. This may sound like a negative thing, but if you want to paint loosely, this is another great way to force yourself to give up control.

Large Easel: In order to make room to stand and paint loosely, you can use a large easel to hold your canvas (or paper attached to a board). Some artists have ample free wall space they can attached canvas and paper too, but if you are limited on space, the easel can accommodate a wide variety of sizes and it’s portable so you can use wherever there is a big enough space for the footprint.

Acrylic Mediums: These are additives you can mix with your paints to create interesting textures and effects in your painting. In order to loosen up your painting technique, you may wish to thicken or thin your acrylic paints. If you are using a palette knife, you might prefer thick paint, so a heavy thickening medium can help to maintain the texture created with the palette knife. I personally prefer to use an acrylic flow enhancing medium to give my paints a drippy effect. Drippy, flowy paints and splatters are the epitome of loose painting, and they just make me so happy.

Painting loosely with acrylics can be a liberating and expressive approach to creating art. Using the tips and supplies outlined in this blog post can help you create dynamic and interesting paintings. Remember to let go of perfectionism and have fun with the creative process.

If you want more tips to help you learn to paint expressively, check out my post on intuitive painting.