Tips for Loosening Up, Plus a Bonus Giveaway

Watercolor illustration of a bear and snail in a forest by Jessica Lanan

Hello, dear readers! Today I have a mishmash of a post to share with you, so I hope you’ll bear with me. (Ha.)

I have been on a bit of a quest lately to loosen up my technique. If you also struggle with this, know that you are not alone. It takes an enormous amount of practice to get the “quick and effortless” look instead of the “catastrophic disaster” look, so we watercolorists often get very tight and controlled in order to compensate. Of course, there are many different ways to work with watercolor and some artists do the “controlled” thing extremely well, but if you’re looking to loosen up, here are a few techniques I’ve stolen from other artists over the years that I’ve found helpful:

  • Using brushes that are much larger than I find comfortable
  • Minimizing the number of washes. The entire background of this image was one big, wet wash, not twenty-seven separate washes detailing every single leaf and bush
  • Using a lot more water and paint than seems reasonable; enough that I often end up having rivulets of liquid draining off the paper
  • Getting to know the paint. Many colors lighten in value or lose saturation when they dry, so it needs to be even darker than you think when you paint it on
  • Waiting for a wet-on-wet wash to completely dry before moving on to add details
  • Varying textures. I used some dry brush technique in the trees to simulate pine needles
  • Painting lots of really bad paintings that will never, ever see the light of day. I plan to burn these so that no one can accidentally find them when I die
  • Working as fast as I possibly can
  • Occasionally closing my eyes. (Just kidding! Or not…?)

I hope those help someone out there just as they helped me!

In other news, copies of The Story I’ll Tell are here, so I can also do that second giveaway that I promised you several weeks ago.

The post office didn't do the best job ever on this one

The post office didn't do the best job ever on this one

Fortunately, the books are just fine.

Fortunately, the books are unscathed!

Leave a comment below if you’d like a chance to win a signed book! I’ll announce the winner next Wednesday.

UPDATE: I’ve realized that it can be hard to think of something to write as a comment. So feel free to share any good painting tips you have, or books you’ve read lately, or whatever 🙂

Thanksgiving Greetings
Portfolio Piece Rehash: The Mouse at Home


  1. by Miranda Ireland on November 18, 2015  12:32 pm Reply

    Great advice! Thanks for sharing

  2. by Priscilla Alpaugh on November 18, 2015  1:19 pm Reply

    I am completely in love with your bear image! Beautiful work.

  3. by Ruth Harper on November 18, 2015  3:59 pm Reply

    Jessica, your work is WONDERFUL! It's the warmth & lighting you create that's so captivating. I can't wait to get my own copy of The Story I'll Tell (one way or another, lol!) - yippee!

  4. by Jen Betton on November 18, 2015  4:13 pm Reply

    Great tips! That bear is adorable! I sometimes find prepping two paintings (so I can quickly switch to another one if I screw up the first) lets me be less precious and looser. Frequently I don't have to use the second piece of paper and I can paint another picture on the back!

    • by Jess on November 18, 2015  6:20 pm Reply

      That's such a great idea, Jen! Having a spare drawing on hand would make it so much less precious.

  5. by Mike Buffington on November 18, 2015  9:13 pm Reply

    I've been enjoying these post, Jess. Great to keep updated on your work, too!

  6. by Kath R on November 19, 2015  10:07 am Reply

    Loose is hard - with oil paint also. Big brushes do help but it's a constant struggle. Plein air forces you to go fast since the light is constantly changing - so that's kind of good.

  7. by Dow Phumiruk on November 22, 2015  5:30 pm Reply

    Hi Jessica! Love your artwork! I just came across your blog. Congratulations on your two books!! :)

  8. by Joanne Roberts on November 23, 2015  6:14 am Reply

    I just discovered your gorgeous art via PiBoIdMo. Consider me a new follower. Thanks for the great painting tips. Fearlessness is definitely what I lack. But having a clear idea of where I'm going (with value, color choices, etc.) helps me to concentrate on technique and seems to improve my illustrations. Thanks again.

  9. by Eva on November 23, 2015  8:45 am Reply

    I love your work. I am an artist and illustrator trying to set up a blog and join this crazy business, or trying to find my niche. Love your website/blog. Thank you for the help, I definitely need to loosen up in my work too!

  10. by Lisa Chu on November 25, 2015  1:38 pm Reply

    I love your work. And I love your tip of, "Work as fast as you possibly can." Helps to be painting outdoors on a cold day or with high winds, too. :)

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