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How to Paint Expressive and Realistic Paintings

By Malcolm Dewey May 21, 2017 Lifestyle

Sometimes you can have your cake and eat it too. Many painting enthusiasts in my classes want to paint realistic works. Perhaps this comes from photography where a sharp picture is appreciated.

Everyone who has a smartphone has a great camera on hand so it is easy to understand why this is the case. But unfortunately, this does not translate to paintings as expected.

So, what is the real issue and how can we solve it?

Paintings and Photos Communicate Differently

I am a photo enthusiast as well as a professional painter. I love both mediums, but they are very different too. As different as prose is to poetry. Both communicate in different ways, but no less profoundly when used well.

In this article, I want to show you how to paint in a way that lets the paint communicate freely. I also want you to have a realistic image that is more than an accurate drawing.

Loose Impressions Tell More

It seems like a contradiction that an impressionist type of painting can communicate more than a painting based on realism alone. But I am jumping ahead. Let us first look at the beginner’s painting to see where the problem lies.

In almost every case the beginner tries to paint everything she sees in the photo. As difficult as this seems she also wants the painting to be an accurate copy of the photo. Something like photorealism perhaps? The result is a tight and inhibited painting that is usually overworked. No wonder that many beginners get frustrated.

How to Solve the Tight Painting Syndrome

The first requirement to painting is to relax and have fun. If you are fighting your way through a frustrating painting then it is a sign that something must change. Usually it is the artist’s expectations that are misdirected.

Use the photo only as a guide. Rather, aim at painting with your heart by responding to a scene emotionally. How do you feel about the subject? Neutral? Then find another subject to paint. Blissful, in your element and at peace? Now you can paint that!

Let the Paint Do the Work

Oil and acrylic paint are juicy and sensuous mediums. Especially oils have a lovely buttery quality you can mould with your brush. Or spread with a painting knife. Use the paint this way. Paint in blobs, thick strokes and textured swirls. This is the language of paint so let it speak.

Try to avoid the tendency to smooth out every brushstroke until it is flat and lifeless. This is harder to do than it sounds. Even experienced artists cannot resist fiddling with each brushstroke until it is gone, leaving no texture or energy.

Think of Van Gogh’s brushwork for inspiration. Life and energy writhe through his paintings thanks to his brushwork.

But is it Real?

Of course, painting like Van Gogh may be asking too much for most artists. Especially if you want a more realistic impression of a scene. However, as I said, you can have the best of both worlds. Instead of linear painting where you are coloring in a drawing with paint I am arguing that drawing with shapes will give you more satisfaction.

You see, a shape is the evidence of each brushstroke. Now imagine shaping each brushstroke according to what the subject is doing and how you feel about it. Vigorous dabs may suggest wind through the trees. Or crashing waves. Long swirling brushwork may suggest a rutted country road. This means putting down a brushstroke and leaving it alone. Then another brush mark next to and so on.

Each brushstroke can be made smaller with new layers. The result will be to sharpen the image enough to have a realistic painting. But stop before it reaches the overworked stage. Some parts must be suggestive rather than accurate illustrations. This gets the viewer’s imagination working. The result is an engaging painting. Lively and true, but not abstraction either, or hyper-real.

Loose Painting is the New Impressionism

Impressionism tended to get bogged down in the theory of techniques. At least to scholars. To artists, impressionism evolved over time. Now, representational paintings that are loose and expressive are in favour again. How you achieve this is not bound up in one style, but rather open to interpretation of every artist. This is a wonderful freedom to have; the exact opposite to tight painting that inhibit artists and fails to communicate fully to the viewer.

Inspired by the Masters

Yes, the traditional impressionists can inspire and guide you. Consider Claude Monet, John Singer Sargent, Emille Gruppe, John Carlson and Edgar Payne. There are more modern artists to consider too like Kevin MacPherson. What about the wonderful Russian impressionists like the Tkachez brothers, Sergei and Aleksei? Or the more modern Bato Dagurzhapov? I suggest creating a few Pinterest boards on these and others in the genre to get a better idea of the loose style.

Making a Start

If this seems like too much and you are not sure where to begin, take a look at the course How to Loosen Up Your Painting. On this course, I have set out various demonstrations and current paintings that I have worked on. Plus, I add more topics regularly. All with the aim of encouraging artists to let the brush and paint express more about the scene than merely reproducing a photo. You can preview the course and get a special offer here.

Have you tried painting? What other creative hobbies do you enjoy? Do you have a question about how to get started with painting? Add it below and I will try to help you.

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The Author

Malcolm Dewey is a professional artist and writer. He is passionate about painting in oils and watercolor. Malcolm loves landscape painting. He teaches painting to artists of all levels. Working online on his website and in personal lessons Malcolm helps other artists paint better with structured painting lessons. His Facebook page can be found here.

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