Fast and Loose

Short on time but long on patience, I often need to quickly put pen to paper in my journal, get a first wash of color down, and then come back to finish later. The result is a journal full of sketches that took five minutes to start but five days to finish. I don’t really mind—working fast and loose has its merits. For one, my sketchbook would be empty if I waited until I had a big block of time for art. It has improved my hand-eye coordination. And it has kept in check my prior tendency to be slow, controlled, and precise.

Tips & Techniques– Practice a few 30 second, 1 minute, and 3 minute contour and semi-blind contour drawings with a fairly simple subject. Fruits and vegetables are perfect. Work in pencil or pen, but don’t erase. See if you can get most of your subject down in just a few minutes. Next add a loose and light wash of watercolor. Let it dry. Then repeat; add two or three more layers of paint to deepen the colors and add depth.

One trick to this method is to suspend judgment in the early stages. My sketches often look downright sloppy at the start, but I know that the watercolor will transform them. You can always tighten up as you progress, but it’s hard to make controlled sketches seem loose after the fact.
I introduced this technique with participants at a recent workshop on illustrated watercolor journaling that I offered at the Vermont Watercolor Society. Look how great this 1-minute sketch by one of the participants turned out with a just a couple of washes of watercolor.

24 Comments on “Fast and Loose

  1. Wonderful advice. As a beginner, I am still hung up on the quest for perfection…Taking hours to draw and include all the minute details. Thanks for this lesson.

    • Glad to hear that. Perfection is fine and you will learn a lot in its quest, but it can be stifling, too. I like the chance to let that go in my journal. I hope you find the right balance for you.

  2. Good morning, Jean … I kept a copy of this “lesson” for practice when our local farm market opens later this spring. Love to draw fresh veggies! Plus they taste worlds better than the supermarket fare! I tend to try for perfection but blind contour drawing is fun and turns you loose!!! This will be fun to do.

    • Thanks Evelyn! Glad the tips may prove useful. It strikes me now as ironic that I have to work at making sketches seem effortless.

  3. I will have to give your ideas a try! I’d like to learn to paint looser – and I love your style! 😃

    • Thanks Jill! I’ve had to really work at getting looser and for awhile, I didn’t think I would be able to. Working in pen doing semi-blind contour drawings has really helped.

  4. Beautiful sketch and great lesson, Jean. I need to reread (and do!) this. Every. Single. Day. I’m completely charmed by loose sketches such as yours, but so very critical of my own. Working hard on that.

    • I hear you, Susan. Try to keep that self-criticism in check and keep going! (I think I need to take my own advice myself tonight– not the most successful painting day here!)

      • Hope your painting days have gotten better!

  5. Very helpful, love to see the before and after. And what it takes, love your work

  6. I agree so much about suspend judgement, and that the colour will bring it together – I have learnt that so often my sketches look disastrous for a while, then finally come good. Your composition is great, very satisfying, and such lovely clean bright colours!

    • Thanks Anna– good to know this resonated with you. With so many peppers to choose from, I just kept adding to the page until the composition came together. I used W&N watercolors to start, but switched to Dr Ph Martin’s Hydrus watercolors for more intense color to finish.

  7. Thanks for the great suggestion! I’m always short on time, and then when I do spend time I can so easily get bogged down on too much detail!!
    And always, Jean, your artwork is exquisite, no matter what the subject is!! I admire your skill, artistry, and dedication and perseverance!

    • What a very nice response! Thank you! See if you can start more quickly and save the detail for the end (either the end of the drawing or the end of the painting or both).

  8. I join in on thanking you for the reminder on “don’t look down!” drawing. Perhaps loose can be felt as exciting and detailed described as intriguing. Those words could probably be improved on………But most of us do fight the initial fascination with detail.

    • Me too! I love detail and enjoy getting lost in it. It’s just not always the most helpful way to start. Thanks for checking in and following.

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