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Learn to Paint Loose with Extreme Painting

"Loosen up! Loosen up! Loosen up!" I sound like a broken record sometimes. And while I've given you pointers in my acrylic painting tutorial videos about how to work looser, I've never given you any exercises you can use to train yourself to be looser, have I? Well, now I have. Read on, folks!

First, let's talk about how we train ourselves to do something. ANYTHING! Not just painting. Let's say you want to build strength in your muscles. You want to be able to easily carry around your 45-lb child without wanting to pass out or having your arms falling off (is a 45-lb child too old to be carried around all day?). Anyway, you might go to the gym and lift some weights. When you do, are you going to lift 45 lbs only? Probably not. You're probably going to push yourself to lift much more than that, because that will help you quickly build the strength you need, so you might lift 80, 100, or even more! Now that you can easily lift 100 lbs, little 45-lb Johnny isn't so hard to pick up and carry around, is he? That's exactly what we're going to do today. We're going to practice some EXTREME PAINTING (you have to say that really loudly, like a wrestler in a spandex mask), so that when you settle down to do a painting you want to enjoy, painting a little bit looser is much easier for you.

So how are we going to practice EXTREME PAINTING!? We're going to take the things we want to be able to do easily, and we're going to push ourselves to the breaking point! Take it as faaaaaaaaaar as we can. Make it as difficult as we possibly can. That way, when we want to apply those techniques to a painting, things we struggle with now will be a little easier, because hey, you won't be asked to tape the tip of a paintbrush handle to the tip of your finger! No, I'm not kidding. Yes, you can bail now, but think of all of the learning you'll miss out on!

Ok, here are the rules for these exercises. Yep, rules. Yes, you have to follow them! Yes, even that one rule you really don't want to follow! I'll know if you cheat (by law, I have to tell you that I won't actually know if you cheated, and that I only said that to scare you into following my rules, but please pretend like I'm watching when you want to break the rules, ok? Thank you for your cooperation.).

Rule #1 - Be fearless!!!

It's only paint. No one's going to jail if what you paint looks terrible. There are no fines. No one's going to point and laugh. And if someone does point and laugh, just point and laugh back at them. It will confuse them, and they'll run away. If you ARE afraid to do something, then you BETTER do it, and do it TWICE!

Rule #2 - Do not judge!!!

Who cares if it sucks? Who cares if it rocks?! Neither of these are the point. The point is working those art muscles with some EXTREME PAINTING!

Rule #3 - No negativity!!!

"I'm wasting my time." "I'm wasting paint." "This is stupid." "Jane is stupid for making me do this!" "My painting looks stupid." I mean, those thoughts are probably gonna go through your head, whether you mean them to or not. When they do, though, counter them! "I'm not wasting my time, I'm learning something new." "I'm not wasting paint, because the only wasted paint is the paint not used." "Jane is stupid for making me do this, but I'll probably forgive her when I see how these projects have helped me." :)

Rule #4 - Do not try to make a pretty painting!!!

Like, why would you even add that kind of pressure? Are you going to try and pick up your 45-lb kid while you're lifting 100 lbs at the gym? Please don't...

Rule #5 - Smile!!!

I know you've heard that smiling makes you feel better and can trick you into believing you're having fun, and that stuff is true, yo! Just don't be creepy with a fake clown smile, ok? Remember, I'm watching, and clowns freak me out. Also, sing, maybe dance a little, hum, make this an enjoyable time for you!

Rule #6 - If it feels like you're doing it wrong, you're doing it right!!!

Don't stop! It's all part of EXTREME PAINTING! (That wrestler voice in your head should be starting to take on a big stadium echo at this point.)

Rule #7 - When you’re done, set it on fire (safely), rip it up and throw it in the garbage, paint over it, put it in a scrapbook, frame it, give it away, do whatever you want to do with it, but finish it!!!

You never know when you're about to make a breakthrough, learn a new technique, or gain that last bit of muscle memory you needed. See it through to the end. The only way you can truly fail is to give up.


This isn't some dumb homework assignment you don't want to do, and if it is, you're doing it wrong (and not in the rule #6 kind of way). Take this time for yourself. If these are skills you want to learn, you have to spend the time on them. Practice is the only way you're going to master anything, and there is no quick fix, no magic way to get around practice. You have to do it.

Phew! That was a lot of info and a ton of rules! If you're ready to get moving, learning, growing, and become a stronger artist, it's time to move on to the EXTREME TECHNIQUES we're going to focus on. Ready? Ok!

  • Hold your brush at the very tippy-pointy™ end of the handle. I'm serious. I want you to be in danger of dropping that brush. Cover the ground with paper and wear old clothes that you don't care about. We want NO excuses as to why you can't hold your brush that far back. If it helps you to remember, wrap a rubber band around the end of the brush where you need to hold it (thank you, Regina, for that tip!!). If you find that you're still choking up on the brush, tape the tip of your index finger to the tippy-point™ of the brush handle. No, I'm not kidding. Don't be scared! It's just tape! It's not like I told you to use staples!

  • Stand as FAR back as you can. Make yourself have to REACH! Arm outstretched as far as it will go! If you sit to paint, push your chair back as far as you can! Be aware of your posture and positioning to the canvas the whole time. If you notice that you're moving in closer as time goes by, force yourself back as far as you can physically go. I'm not talking about pushing yourself back as far as you can comfortably go, but as far back as you can physically go while still being able to touch the brush to the canvas! It feels super awkward. Do it. It's good for you.

  • Reduce visibility. Whatever that means to you. Turn the lights down low so you can’t see what you’re doing very well/paint by candlelight/squint your eyes/take off your glasses/wear sunglasses/paint with a blindfold/etc.

  • Try to cover as much area as you can in one brushstroke. Didn’t cover the whole area?/left bits of canvas showing? Oh well! Leave it!! Don’t touch it!!! Now you see the value of an underpainting :)

Alright, friends. I hope you're pumped UP! It's now time for our EXTREME PAINTING events! You will need 4 junk canvases. Any size. Any material. Old canvases. New canvases. Paper. Whatever. No excuses. Grab an old cardboard box if you have to. You can do #1, 2, or 3 in any order you like, but do all of them before you move on to #4. Here we go!

EXTREME PAINTING #1: Scribbling!

EXTREME PAINTING #2: Paint outside the lines!

EXTREME PAINTING #3: Put it down and leave it alone!

EXTREME PAINTING #4: Make a real painting! No jumping ahead. Remember, I'm watching you. (Again, legally I have to tell you that I'm not in fact watching you. I'm just using scare tactics to get you to do what I want.)


EXTREME PAINTING #1: Scribbling!

Why am I making you scribble? Let's go back to the gym, shall we?

There you are. You've got your legwarmers on (so very 80s of you!), and you're ready to do some aerobics. But before you begin, you know it's wise to do some stretches, right? Gets you warmed up and your muscles ready to work. You can think of scribbling as your pre-painting warm-up.

Before you get started scribbling...

  • Grab a junk canvas or a piece of paper

  • Any color of paint (as long as it will show up)

  • Any brush you're comfortable scribbling with (don't use a nice brush if you want it to stay nice)

  • Make sure you're following ALL of the rules above

  • Make sure you're following the EXTREME TECHNIQUES in one way or the other

Now check out this quick video I made just for you.

By cutting loose and scribbling in this way, you've started working toward creating the muscle memory needed to apply paint loosely and freely. It doesn't mean you have to scribble like that when you're doing a painting, but the more you scribble for play or practice, the more comfortable you'll become with those loose movements, and the easier they'll come to you naturally. The next time you're watching one of my videos and I tell you to scribble in the sky or distant trees, you'll easily be able to recall the muscle memory needed without thinking too much about it. When we're nervous to try something, we tend to tighten up because we're unsure of what the outcome will be if we cut loose. Now that you've scribbled your guts out, you know it's not scary.

Whenever you find yourself tightening up again, grab the same junk canvas and another color of paint, and just go back to Scribbletown!™ You'll get to the point where you'll start making little scribbles in your actual painting to remind yourself to loosen up as you're painting.


EXTREME PAINTING #2: Paint outside the lines!

Painting outside of the lines is going to be a hard one for a lot of you, I know. It's ok. I promise we'll all make it through this together! Staying in those lines was ingrained in most of us from a very young age, and things we learn at a very young age are super hard to let go of. And, not to contradict your mom, but guess what? Coloring outside the lines is perfectly acceptable behavior!!! That's right. I said it. #SorryNotSorry #YesItsAnOverusedHashtag #SorryNotSorryAgain

Why would you even want to paint outside the lines? Well, sometimes you wouldn't want to, but sometimes you might want to give an object a soft edge. Or you just might want to make elements look like they're part of a scene rather than just superimposed on top of it. Softer edges make that possible, and they're achieved by painting outside of what you'd otherwise perceive to be the lines.

Before you get started painting outside the lines...

  • Draw something on a junk canvas or paper, or download and print out THIS image

  • Grab any color of paint

  • Use the same brush you used to scribble (it's still taped to your hand anyway, right?)

  • Make sure you're following ALL of the rules above

  • Make sure you're following the EXTREME TECHNIQUES in one way or the other

Now check out this quick video I made just for you.

So, how did it feel to paint outside of the lines? Was it liberating? Scary? Both? By show of hands, who didn't do it? Yeah, I see your hand over there. I was watching you the whole time anyway. (Legal disclaimer: No, I wasn't.)

It doesn't matter what your painting looks like. Go crumple it up and throw it in the trash, if you like. But when you feel that need to squeeze your brushstrokes between the lines again, I want you to print out another one and really go outside of those lines! Heck, do the scribble exercise on the coloring page! That will really make some of you angry at me (hehe). The more you allow yourself to go outside of the lines, the freer and less stressed and confined you'll feel while working on a real painting. A little discomfort now while no one is looking will make painting for reals so much more comfortable.


EXTREME PAINTING #3: Put it down and leave it alone!

Blend, blend, blend, blend, blend, blend...

Ugh! Now it's just all one solid color!

Add more paint.

Blend, blend, blend, blend, blend, blend...


Who's familiar with this? I am! It can be so hard to lay down two brushstrokes of different colors and just look at them being all separate. Your eye is drawn right to that spot where they meet. Your brain says "Just barely dash over it, bro. It will be enough, I promise." So you do it. Only now, the line is still there, but it's different! You might have even added a little more paint by mistake! UGH! Now you have to just dash over it one more time. And again. And again! And before long, one solid color is what you have. Flat. Uninteresting. Now the question is: Do we add more paint and hope we don't over-blend it this time, or do we just live with it?

How about neither! Let's learn how to put it down and leave it alone. See this apple? I want you to (quickly) draw this apple on your paper or junk canvas. Seriously, quickly. Drawing the apple isn't the point. It doesn't matter if it looks like it fell out of the tree, rolled off a rocky cliff, and got run over by a truck. Just draw something that kinda, maybe, sorta resembles an apple. You don't have to show it to anyone. I want you to look at the different colors you see in the apple, but don't agonize over exact colors. Use totally random colors if you like. The point is to put down a brushstroke, let it cover what it's going to cover, let it be separate from the other colors or blend, whatever happens naturally when you put it down. Don't blend one single brushstroke! Don't force one single brushstroke to cover the canvas, or be bigger, or anything! No forcing. The name of this game is put it down and leave it alone. So let's play!

Before you get started putting it down and leaving it alone...

  • Draw this apple quickly on your paper or junk canvas

  • Grab any colors of paint; the point of this exercise is the brushstroke, not the color

  • Use the same brush you scribbled with and painted outside the lines with. (I mean, it IS still taped to your hand, right?!)

  • Make sure you're following ALL of the rules above

  • Make sure you're following the EXTREME TECHNIQUES in one way or the other

Now check out this quick video I made for you.

How'd it go? I don't mean how does your apple look. It's probably a hot mess, and that's ok! Like hot, messy, baked apples... Great! Now I'm hungry!

So why did I make you paint such a ridiculous looking apple? It's about building some muscle memory as well as training your brain to see where the colors meet and knowing that it's ok to leave them alone. Does this mean you're never allowed to blend? Of course not! But if all you ever do is blend, you'll never be comfortable leaving colors bold and separate from each other. The more you do that and can make yourself leave it alone, the more you'll accept seeing brushstrokes in your own work. You'll also be able to blend a little bit lighter and know when to stop sooner.


EXTREME PAINTING #4: Make a real painting!

It's time for some honesty, friends. You're not allowed to move on if you cheated in some way on the first 3 exercises. Did you scribble just a little bit and then give up because it was boring and dumb? Did you really paint inside the lines except for that one little spot where you went outside the lines by mistake? Did you blend those brushstrokes? If so, go do it all again! You don't have to tell me you did it, but if you want to loosen up your painting and you didn't do it right, you're only cheating yourself. So pinky-swear to yourself that you did it. Ok, if you're sure, we can move on and make a real painting!

You know that one painting you've always wanted to do, but you just don't feel comfortable enough working loose to pull it off? Or maybe there's a painting you did, but you feel it would have been better if you could have just loosened up a little bit? That's what we're going to do here. It doesn't matter what you paint, but I want you to take the lessons you've learned and see if they've helped you loosen up.

No, you don't have to tape the brush to the tip of your finger this time. Hold the brush where you're comfortable, but keep in mind that you want to hold it as far back as possible. Pay attention and see if you're holding the brush even just a little further back than you were previously comfortable doing.

No, you don't have to scribble like we did in the first exercise. But do you feel that your brushstrokes are just a little bit freer?

No, you don't have to paint totally outside of the lines like we did in the second exercise. But do you feel a little less concerned with keeping tight lines and crisp edges?

No, you don't have to be married to every brushstroke you make like in the third exercise. But do you feel a little more aware of over-blending and a little more comfortable letting brushstrokes show and colors be separate?

Now decide what you'd like to paint. Make sure it's something that offers plenty of opportunity to paint loose and freely. If you need help deciding what to paint, I know a place (shameless plug). Once you've finished your painting, put it away. Don't touch it. Don't look at it. Don't think about it. For reals. Pinky-swear! Just remember where you put it, because you'll want it again later. Whenever you find yourself tightening up again, I want you to go through this entire exercise again! Each time you do, push yourself a little further, and always finish with junk canvas #4. Paint that same picture again. Then pull out the previous versions and compare. Are you seeing improvement in your ability to paint loose? What about the painting? Notice what things you like the most about each version.

Finally, I want you to remember that painting loose isn’t THE way to paint! It’s A way to paint. Maybe it’s not YOUR way to paint, but you never know until you try. Even if painting loose is ultimately not your goal, stepping outside of your comfort zone and trying something new is never a bad thing. You may have still learned something that you'll take and use in your own way in conjunction with the way you currently paint. As long as you felt challenged and you learned something, I can feel like my job is done :)

I would love to hear about your experiences with these exercises. How do you feel like they helped you (if at all)? What was the most challenging part for you? What was the biggest lesson you learned? What other areas do you struggle with? Maybe we can address it in a future blog post!

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