Today, we are asking the question, should I loosen up my art style? This episode was inspired by Rachel Reading in our Facebook Group. Rachel said she could draw realistic stuff if she spent hours on it, but she struggled with quick sketching. It’s a subject that is close to Sandra’s heart because it was something she felt was almost forced on her when she started creating art. She ended up being sick of hearing the words ‘loosen up!’

Podcast Loosen up art style

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Being told to loosen up my art style in college

I remember when I was doing my art course, my tutor flicking through my work again and again just poo-pooing the work that I’d put so much time and effort into… He would just flick past them like they were nothing. Then one particular assignment I had, was to sketch a room in the house, and this was at the point where I had stopped enjoying it because I already knew he’d hate it.

Deliberately creating bad art

But then I decided to turn it on its head and deliberately create the worst possible drawing I could, just to judge his reaction. At the time, my now grown-up son was around 7 and he had soaked the bathroom, so I decided to draw it, with a bit of guidance thrown in by him! I drew the sink on the wall without paying any attention to perspective. In fact, the sink was so off that it wouldn’t have even been attached to the wall if it were real. Then I let Charlie splash the paper with water and I grated some brown soft pastel over the wet parts. I also added some splashes of brown water along the top and let it drip down the page.

From start to finish, the whole thing took around ten minutes and when I was done, I asked Charlie what he thought, and he said it was rubbish! And I just thought, great, that’s exactly what I wanted!

The next time I went to see my tutor, he did his usual and started flicking through my drawings, until he reached that one and then he stopped and said, ‘Aha! Now that’s what I’m talking about! Finally, you’ve got it!’

Create art that comes naturally

So, my thoughts were that if I wanted my art college degree, I could actually do it in a year as long as I did everything like that, but then what would be the point? I wouldn’t have learned anything that I wanted to and I would just have ended up with a portfolio by an artist who just wasn’t me. That’s when I decided that art school wasn’t for me!

But interestingly, I bumped into him a few months later in Debenhams and he was so lovely! He asked how I was doing and he wanted to see the art I was doing now. At the time I was painting antique bears. Aside from saying how much he liked where my art was going, he said something else that was really interesting… He said, ‘hats off to you. I admire an artist who knows who they are.’ He said that his job was to push people out of their comfort zone, but some people just know what they want…. And I don’t know if maybe it was because I was older? But after that conversation, I understood his point of view and his methods of teaching.

Why do you want a looser art style?

But anyway, if you are thinking that you should loosen up, I think the first question you need to ask yourself is why?

Loose art is beautiful, but you shouldn’t loosen up just because someone has told you to, or because you think you ‘should’ because other artists are doing it that way. It will most likely happen naturally over time anyway and in my experience, it’s not something that should be forced, particularly because art should always reflect your personality.

It’s more important to create art in a way that comes naturally from you, otherwise, you can’t say it is from your own heart.


Working loosely versus more controlled art styles

I love working loosely. There is nothing I like more than working freely without too much of a plan. But sometimes I like the controlled work that I do a bit more. So I have a bit of a battle with what process feels good versus the end results.

I also get frustrated that I can’t be neat. So if you asked me to draw something with beautiful flowing lines, it’s just not going to happen unless I draw it out 100 times and trace over it on a lightbox and I then would be bored stiff.

I have come to terms with the idea that it’s pointless for me to try to be neat as I don’t enjoy that type of drawing – I am now embracing the looseness as much as I can and trying to push that

So I guess it’s about not trying to be something you’re not… If you have to try, it won’t work It’s about doing what feels natural to you and that may (or may not) change over time… naturally.

That said be aware that when you’re a beginner artist your lines may be a certain way as you don’t have control of them yet. So don’t give up on one way of working too quickly if it’s what you want.


Artists feel they should follow art trends

Beginner artists and even more experienced ones will all too often feel they ought to follow a trend.

After the impressionist movement, loose art became a beautiful new thing, but it did take a long time to be accepted in the art world. But eventually, it was embraced but that doesn’t mean to say that realism or tighter art isn’t also still a thing of skill and beauty. They both have their place and if everyone followed the same herd of sheep, art wouldn’t be nearly as interesting.

Imagine walking around a gallery and everything there was loose and impressionistic? Or if everything was in a realism style. The best thing about art is its diversity! And I think if every artist follows their instinctive style, whether that’s loose or otherwise, then the art says a lot more about the artists themselves and speaks a lot less about what’s the current trend.


The way you learn can affect your art style

When I was at college they always said we should draw with sweeping lines, but we rarely practised this except occasionally in life drawing. I’ve heard Proko say on his podcast Draftsman, that he went to an Atelier school – he said how much they practised creating a perfect line the first time. So I think the way you have been trained will definitely influence how you draw. I guess the perfect balance would be to have been taught how to draw what would traditionally be considered well, so then you could break the rules and draw what felt good to you.


How Sandra’s sketchbook has changed over time

My sketchbook shows a completely different side to me, because I do love loose sketches and strangely, as opposed to my paintings, it feels more natural for me to sketch in a much looser style than it does for me to do more refined sketches like I used to.

And that came about simply with the acceptance to let go and embrace the fun of it and not take my sketchbook so seriously. So in the end, it became quite natural. But, if I had ‘tried to be loose, it wouldn’t have worked for me. It would just look forced. I think it’s about time and also confidence in your own abilities. Once you know you can draw, you don’t worry so much when a sketch isn’t perfect. It just is what it is.

But it’s interesting that while I embrace being loose in my sketchbook, I have no interest in taking that to the canvas. I enjoy the pleasure that both styles give me, and my paintings show my other side.

Sandra loose sketches

Sandra’s loose sketches

Drawing Exercises to Loosen up Your Art Style

If you do want to loosen up, the worst thing you can do is ‘try,’ because it’s unlikely to work if it comes unnaturally to you. You need to find ways where it will happen because it has to, such as timed drawings.

Let’s look at some ways that can help us to naturally loosen up if we want to.


Timed drawings

I used to hate timed drawings, but I quite like them now. They take away the hesitancy and you just have to start, and that’s half the battle won.

timed drawing

Tara’s 5 minute sketch

Blind contour drawing

Another thing I used to hate is blind contour drawing, but again, having done quite a lot of it now, I enjoy it, and it’s another great way to loosen up if you want to. And some of my favourite pages in my sketchbook are blind contour drawings.

For anyone who doesn’t know what a blind contour drawing is, it’s when you put your pen on the paper but you don’t look at it, you just look at your subject and follow your eyes with your hand. You can get some quirky results.

Sandra's blind contour faces

Sandra’s blind contour faces

Semi-blind contour drawing

Another thing you could do is semi-blind contour drawing. And by that, I mean you start in the same way as your normal blind contour, but you periodically look down at your page. This gets some really interesting results and is slightly more controlled.

Water Soluble Medium and Spray

You could also draw with a water-soluble medium and periodically spray water on it. There is an element of surprise in this, because you can’t control the results.

One of my favourite sketches in my sketchbook was the one I did when the two of us were sketching just outside St. James’ park in London and I think it’s your favourite of mine too. We’d been sketching for around ten minutes when the heavens opened and we got hit by a torrential downpour. It was so unexpected, that before we managed to dive under a porch, my page had been soaked! And I had been using water-soluble ink, so it had bled everywhere. I instantly thought it was a disaster, but you saw it and loved it. I couldn’t see it at first, but as it dried, I started seeing what you did. It was a good job you were there because I would have thrown it away!


Draw with scribbles or force your pen/pencil to keep moving

I really like the effect of just creating loose scribbles to draw something. It means you can’t be precise and has a lot of energy to it. It’s the same with keeping your pen moving

Holding your pen or pencil nearer the end takes away control

This is another great way to lose your ability to have total control over the outcome. If you hold your pen at the end there is no way of being so precise. You can also try taping your pen to the end of a paintbrush and holding that at the end to make it even looser. Remember that just because you start a drawing this way doesn’t mean you can’t work into afterwards holding your pen normally

Wet your paper and then work into it with a water-soluble medium

It’s almost impossible to be precise if you’re working on dampened paper with water-soluble media. As soon as you put the media on the surface it will start to spread. If you’re using watercolor pencils you can also wet the end of those. In my Necolors Course, I created a canal scene that was all wet in wet. I wet both the crayons and the paper which means the whole thing is loose.

Use a broader medium

You might switch to pastels or charcoal instead of a pencil or fine pen. Anything that doesn’t allow you to be precise.

Continuous line drawings

Another way to loosen up is to do continuous line drawings You are concentrating on just one thing which I think helps focus your mind and the fact that you have to go back over some lines will make you less precious. For example, if you want to draw a face, the only way to get to the eyes is to form a line from the outside of the face

Use your wrong hand to start the drawing and give some character

Start by drawing with your non-dominant hand, once you have got the basic drawing down finish with your good hand

Try drawing with a brush rather than a pen

I listened to a fashion event illustrator Jacqueline Bissett talking about how she had now swapped to using a different sort of brush for her work as she likes to make things difficult for herself. By using that new brush parts of her drawing can be more interesting and unpredictable.

Challenge yourself to deliberately make a bad drawing

One of the problems is that we get obsessed with the results of our art more than the process. Try deliberately making a bad drawing and see what happens. You might not like the whole result but you might like elements of it. I have mentioned this before, but my writing is terrible so when I wanted to add some text to some cartoons I had drawn I decided to make it worse. I deliberately made it wonkier so it looked deliberate.

Sketchbook backgrounds – mess up the blank page first

Another idea for your sketchbook is to draw over collage or backgrounds to take away the feeling that you need to be precise. Make a coffee ring on the page or anything to take away the preciousness of the blank page.

Tara's sketch over collage background

Tara’s sketch over collage background

Use colour first then draw into it

Try laying down colour first and then adding outlines to your sketch – ie lay down markers or watercolour basic shapes and then work into it. I really enjoyed working this way on one of our London sketching trips. I put down areas of alcohol markers to represent a face, a coat, trousers etc and then drew into it with a fineliner pen.

Draw without outlines

When we draw we generally work with outlines. Try forcing yourself to draw shapes instead and see what the results are like

What if you want your art to be neater?


I think it’s largely down to personality. If you are naturally inclined to draw or paint loosely, then realism is maybe something you shouldn’t be aiming for. Again, forcing something doesn’t often work and you can stop enjoying the process of creating art altogether if you do that.

Weirdly, what helps me, is to just relax and get in the zone. This helps me not overthink it. The way I do that is by listening to music or a podcast. It means I’m more patient and happy to take my time and my mind isn’t ‘too’ focussed on the art, so the strokes, whilst neat, aren’t too overthought. This way, my paintings still lean towards realism, but they also still have a painterly effect. Being neat doesn’t necessarily mean being overly precise.

I draw a map of shadows before I start my paintings. By doing this, the main three tones are already down and so the rest is much easier. And again, this helps me not to overthink things later on. The harder work is already done.

And I am definitely not a slave to my reference. I’m not a photo-realism painter at all. I like to do what’s right for the painting, rather than focus on exactly what’s in front of me.

Also, I use a medium that suits my style. A chunky marker or Neo-colours would be completely wrong for me. I use oils, and I use them because I can blend easily and over a period of time without them drying too quickly.

The main point to remember is that tightening up doesn’t necessarily mean being overly precise, just as ‘loosening up’ doesn’t necessarily mean getting it down, scribbly and fast…

Think of it more as ‘relaxing’ rather than loosening up and you will find that will help.


Be true to your own art style and personality

Be true to your own art style and personality. Don’t feel that ‘good art’ has to be loose. Great art comes in many different styles and the best art comes from those artists who paint naturally what’s right for them rather than some preconceived idea of what’s correct

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This week’s creative question

Q. Have your personal experiences (or situations) influenced your art? If so, how?

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The best answers will be read out on a future podcast.

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