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Creating a Loose and Dynamic Painting

We will be running this course at regular intervals on Facebook. Share your work with our group and recieve feedback from Bob and the team. Join our private Facebook Group.  All skill levels are welcome! This is a FREE/Pay what you feel course, donations can be made here.

 What is the aim of the course?

These lessons will instruct you on creating a unique painting with the aid of a rough sketch. You are not aiming to copy a scene but to allow something truly creative to happen on your canvas. This is an exciting approach to painting with unlimited possibilities. We hope you will join us!

You will be making a painting that reflects your experience and NOT a clear record of what you’ve seen. The subject is not the focus, if you are painting a building it will be no more important than the sky or a shadow or clouds. You will complete a painting that focuses on all aspects working harmoniously. This will be done following a specific structure as outlined below. The journey may challenge you, but  it is an exploration to allow your painting style to evolve. There are no quick fixes, we hope you will  keep coming back to this course to practice these concepts.  

How to succeed at this course

  • Put away precision.
  • Read and re-read the instructions.
  • Don't think about what you're trying to produce. See what works for the painting as you go.
  • Keep focused on the instructions.
  • Think of the course as activities rather than producing a finished piece of work.

Materials needed?

  • Sketchbook and pencils or charcoal
  • A3 size (11 x 17″ or 279 × 432 mm) scrap canvas - art shops will often have off cuts of canvases (you could also use canvas paper). You want to use something you could easily throw away.
  • You can use whatever materials you prefer. Pastels or watercolours would be perfectly suitable.
  • Use the colours paynes grey and burnt umber for stage 2.
  • For stage 3 use ONLY these colours: white, black, yellow ochre and red. (For this course it's important to have a limited palette.)

Online resources


Stage 1: The rough, messy sketch

For the first activity you will need to copy the image below, it has been done with charcoal although a soft pencil will be fine. The aim is for you to become familiar with the messy lines that look abstract and how they form a recognisable image.

After you’ve completed this exercise we’ll show the the full image.

This rough sketchy technique is what we’ll be encouraging you to do throughout this course.

Section of a drawing with messy lines

It's important that you finish your sketch before looking at the full image. Once you have finished, click on this link. Have a look and see if you can spot which part of it you drew.

If you look closely at the full image, you will notice that the subject is not defined by clear edges or lines. Many of the marks seem random yet we know what the image is. Also take note of the direction of the line, especially in the trees, is it what you would have expected?

We will be using these ideas when we start our sketch.

Next, take a close look at Bob's sketch. Notice the direction of the marks, the trees are not drawn with straight lines, they are composed of quite circular and scribbly marks.


Image of sketch

  • Complete a number of small thumbnail sketches (minimum of three). A5 is a good size (5.83" X 8.27" or 148mm x 210mm) as it restricts the amount of detail you can put in. You can always draw a number of rectangles on a larger page.
  • Draw a rectangle within which to sketch. The space around the rectangle allows you to adjust the working area if the composition requires it.
  • Take your sketchbook to a location; cafe, beach, river or woods.

  • This a sketch not a detailed study! You will be looking for a subject that you find visually stimulating and exciting.

  • Your aim is to get a general feel of where you are sketching, it is not a photographic record. Try not to spend more than 10 minutes per sketch. 

  • Include dark and light areas, fill in areas of large structures with general messy sketching, hint at the subjects that are there but do not focus in on them, they are no more important than any other aspect of the sketch.

  • Keep re-reading these instructions as you go to cement these concepts in your mind.



The concepts we are looking at in this course can be difficult to grasp. This is a simple activity that helps you to see what you’re looking for in your own work and why you need to do messy and abstract marks. It doesn’t require any drawing just looking and taking a picture.

This is an activity that most of us will have done as children. You look up at the sky and find shapes in the clouds, some can seem so detailed. Essentially that is what we are looking for, you can find shapes in anything with random marks or patterns.


  • Find a piece of slate, or stone, a rough textured wall, wood or even the clouds: any surface with "accidental" or natural tones, shapes and marks. Take time to find something interesting.

  • This does not need to be large.

  • Imagine that you are looking at an abstract painting.

  • Spend time looking very imaginatively at it.

  • Look at it from a different direction and give time looking carefully from each angle.

  • Now look for a recognisable image. The image could be of a person (in any position), animal, tree, landscape or part of some of these. The subtle tonal changes in a surface often hold rich imagery!

  • Expect to find 'GOOD DRAWING'! and new ideas in the surface. See below how ‘well drawn’ the horse’s head is.

  • Once you find it, take a photo and post it to the group describing what you see.

This will help when you’re making messy marks on your page, you’ll start to see recognisable images and be able to work with them. The accidental marks hold the most creative ideas.

Example: Bob took this photo of some driftwood, he found an image of a horse’s head.


Stage 2: Monochrome stage Tonal with cool and warm

Instructions (this can be adjusted to pastels and watercolours):

  • Take a scrap of canvas stapled onto a board (suggested size A3) and draw a rectangle leaving sufficient room around it to extend the painting area if needed.
  • It is now time to start putting loose marks on the scrap canvas by copying your sketch. Transferring your sketch is part of the creative process. Allow your painting to develop as you copy. Make sure you are working on the painting as a whole right from the beginning, not focusing on a specific detail.
  • Keep your marks free and messy, do not change the way you do things.
  • Use a cool neutral like paynes grey and a warm neutral like burnt umber. Begin by using only one of these colours. The paynes grey for all the cool areas of the scene the blues, greens, greys etc. The burnt umber is used for the rest, but don’t try and keep the colours separate.
  • The monochrome stage means you can get the whole tonal structure of the painting without the complications of the colour. (When this is done sensitively it is surprising how much colour is suggested by the interaction of the two neutrals.)
  • It is important that the composition, tone and dynamics of the developing work are the focus.(Don’t try to draw what you think it should look like.)
  • You may want to consider working on a number of paintings at the same time because when returning to a painting its strengths and weaknesses are much more obvious because of your detachment.


Mount St Michael by J.M.W. Turner (1775 - 1851)
(Image from:

If presented with the (photographed) scene of Mount St Michael just off the coast of England, we would probably begin with the main topographical feature drawn with some degree of accuracy.

However, in Turner’s painting, the whole work is constructed with ‘accidentals’.  It is a dynamic structure around a central ‘white’ vortex.  The image of the Wreckers salvaging timber in the foreground is balanced by a similar colour and tone in the sky.  The masterly quality of this painting is in the way the paint has been applied and not in its faithful recording of detail.

Detachment: A frame of mind which sees as for the first time. Which sees ‘what is’ rather than ‘what was intended’.

Advantage of working within a rectangle on the canvas

Working on a scrap canvas with a preconceived rectangle doesn’t need to restrict you. It means if you need more sky for example or need a tree to extend out of the rectangle area you can do that.

The aim of this stage and the importance of memory

  • You’re trying to create a painting that works for itself.
  • The painting will lead and you have to follow.
  • Be careful about thinking you’ve made a mistake. It’s important to give the mistake a bit of time because the mistake can turn out to be one of the best ideas.

As soon as you move away from trying to remember items, placement and angles, you begin to access a lot more memory of a different sort. As your you add more and more marks and your canvas fills, real memories of what you have seen will take a greater and greater part in the process of developing the painting at this stage. And it's that kind of memory that perhaps we take with us further into the future, details and precision are not really a very significant part of that.

It's the paint that offers you these memories and to some degree you have to take the risk of allowing it to do that and not to steer any more than you absolutely have to.

As your painting develops, keep in mind that the composition, tone and the dynamics of it are the really important aspects. Allow the painting to become less of a record of what you saw and more of its own unique image.

Memory doesn’t operate at all like a camera, we don’t see a scene as a composed collection of carefully identified items, it’s more fragmented and confused. Once you’re working, all of those memories can be brought together and they develop under their own steam.


Stage 3: Adding colour 


Read our blog  Adding Colour from a Limited Palette.

This stage is not a change in the way you work: YOU ARE STILL FOLLOWING THE PAINTING rather than the subject (that is to say problems are solved by further experimental marks, and not by referring again to the original subject.) 
Be ready to wipe marks off if they don’t feel right: the remnants of the marks sometimes turn out to be just right! 

You move onto this stage when your canvas is mostly covered. Colour is another instrument in the ensemble and it will bring another dimension to it. 

  • It is now time to introduce some more colours. Only include: white, black, yellow ochre and red.
  • Paynes grey and white will give you a blue, add yellow ochre and you will have a green like colour.
  • If you have used a warm neutral and a cool neutral in your monochrome stage, you will notice that the work is already suggesting colour. Try to develop a sensitivity to this.  It can be very remarkable and powerful, and leads you in ways that you didn’t expect.
  • Don’t just go for blue in the sky and green grass!
  • You need to continue to be experimental with the marks you make throughout this whole process. Put colour on in the same manner you put paint on for the monochrome stage. 
  • Keep developing your feel for the composition as you place colour. Don’t think about what makes sense for the image or scene but what feels right for the painting. 
  • Keep looking at the whole painting, don’t be afraid to change shapes lines, and angles of things, make things bigger or smaller to allow the painting to work. Try to avoid thinking about accuracy, i.e if a tree or any structure needs to be bigger to fix a compositional problem, do it. 
  • Something significantly wrong doesn’t necessarily need heavy lines to correct it, you can sometimes use tentative and exploratory marks to cause significant changes. 
  • This is a stage where you can easily get drawn into detail and your work tightens. If you find yourself focusing on one area, move to another. Try not to give one area more priority over another. And if all else fails put your work to one side, and work on something else. Whilst working on the alternative piece a glance at the troublesome one can often tell you all you need to know. 
  • Continue as you begin, making marks boldly and responding to the sense of composition rather than the subject. The painting is not a subject with something happening around it. 

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