I was giving my annual mentor-day where I sit down in a private room with 24 painters one after the other for a fifteen-minute show and tell. Meeting with a variety of personalities and levels of work in rapid sequence is wildly informative. There are those who seem to naturally “have it,” and others who really have to sweat for it. Those whose works have fluidity have an easier time convincing me that they know what they’re doing. They’re easier to advise, too.
Fluidity is the presence of long, languorous strokes, elegance, panache, dash and curves. To the sensibilities of most, like a long fluid line in a symphony, they give a feeling of completeness, mastery and intrigue. There is, of course, a place for short staccato bursts and all kinds of other notes, but it’s the long fluid line that beguiles.
Here are a few fluid ideas to lubricate your creativity:
Treatment of the media: The inherent stiffness of oil paint can be extended by adding more medium–stand oil, copal, or other dedicated extender. So too can acrylics be enhanced with judicious amounts of liquid medium. In acrylics, especially, I’ve found no limits to the addition of medium. With only the possible hazard of later transparency, more medium is better. Medium makes your stroke last longer. In watercolour, fat, fully-charged brushes triumph over mean little spindly ones.
Handling of the stroke: A confident, arm’s-length stroke will produce more fluidity than a tightened-up finger and wrist action. Master painter Harley Brown says that painters need to teach themselves not to bend their wrists. The combination of a well-loaded brush, full-body action and the brush held well above the ferrule does the trick.
Fluidity practice: Frequent drawing goes a long way to extending your painterly stroke. For example, the use of flat-sided, carpenter-type drawing pencils invites an elegant, thick-and-thin calligraphic effect that lives in its own delight. The “stroke length” of dry media such as pencils, chalks and pastels is much longer than your typical brush. Dry work promotes fluid habits.
PS: “The more we sketch and draw, the more we are able to make those fluid strokes we admire, where the brushwork appears so natural, as if the artist were enjoying each moment of his painting.” (Harley Brown)
Esoterica: There’s an art to cruising both your subject matter and your work-in-progress for possibilities of fluidity. Often, just finding one or two elegant areas — the bend of an arm, the crux of a tree — will beget others in echo. Further, fluid elements can be teased from your imagination and inserted into otherwise non-fluid subjects to good effect. Fluidity is often the giveaway of professionalism — and work so developed is more likely to become a fluid whole.
The medium’s the message
by Mary Dudley, NC, USA
What are some ‘other dedicated extenders’? I looked up Copal and it says over time it causes darkening of the colors. Is this really a good product for oil fluidity?
(RG note) Thanks, Mary. Many of the commercially offered Copal mediums are now synthetic Phenolic Resins that don’t have the same darkening and cracking problems of the older Copal products. Stand oil, noted for its slow drying qualities, is a type of specially treated Linseed oil, a time honoured medium. Other products such as Walnut oil are currently popular. Excellent, branded modern-day products are widely available and often based on Alkyd resins. Highly recommended is the range of Gamblin media that feature various types under the name of Galkyd. You might go online and take a look at the Gamblin Interactive Painting Mediums Guide.
Sumi-e for fluid lines
by Loretta West, Spokane,WA, USA
Taking classes in Sumi-e has done wonders to loosen up my brush stroke and create a fluid line. In Sumi-e much instruction is placed on how to hold the brush, how to stand, to breathe, to allow the energy to flow from head to heart to hand to brush. One can not hesitate with ink and must commit each stroke. There is no “do-over,” wipe-out or gesso to save you. There are wonderful warm-up exercises one utilizes in Sumi-e from making the ink (a centering exercise) to drawing squiggles, lines, and circles with the brush using the whole arm. I quite often start my painting classes with a few of these, insisting that students stand to keep the energy flowing. No slumping allowed! For those who are interested, a terrific book to own is Complete Sumi-e Techniques by Sadami Yamada.
No day without a line
by Janet Summers-Tembeli, Samos, Greece
The fluid line becomes the stroke of genius when the artist knows the form and feeling of their subject. I used to draw quick sketches of my paintings but have found that drawing my subject in detail enables me to approach the painting with heightened confidence. So those fluid lines in pencil become strokes of genius with the brush. Drawing in its own right is a supreme joy and it is a shame that drawings aren’t given the same level of importance as paintings to buyers and galleries. Nulla des sin linea… no day without a line!
The possibilities of overworking
by Shari L. Erickson, Oregon, USA
I’ve noticed a trend among some artists concerning the ever-popular “stop before you over work.” It seems to have become an excuse to take the easy way out. If I suggest that they try and overwork a painting on purpose to see what could be learned, they usually look at me with horror! I think doing so could give some perspective to the “over-worked” concept. Of course this has nothing to do with painterly vs. detailed! What do you think?
(RG note) Thanks, Shari. In wildlife illustration and other forms of verisimilitude, the cursive or stylistic evidence of the artist’s hand becomes less important and might even need to be nonexistent. Honouring the elegance of the subject matter, as in your marvelous birds, is probably enough. Your note made me laugh, though, because I once recommended a friend keep on overworking her already overworked painting… only with larger and larger brushes.
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by Robert Sesco, Charlottesville, VA, USA
Robert, I know I enjoy your letters because I never skip a single one. “Fluidity” is the type of letter I most enjoy because it educates. Many of your letters deals with the inner environment, but I want to encourage you to write more letters that are concerned with the outer environment, from the body to the canvas. The inner world is subjective, important, and ultimately informs the outer world. However, to understand that fluid, thick strokes are an indication of professionalism gives me more of what I need to become a professional than sharing how we feel inside as we paint. Thanks a million for this last letter. I hope to read more like it in the future.
(RG note) Thanks, Robert. Techniques and methodology are often specific to individual artists and I often find myself wandering into my own technical processes. “Fluidity,” while suggesting a broader context, was one of them. I look for fluidity and work at it. At the same time I’m fascinated by the stuff that makes artists tick, their motivation, their inner environment — and why some become proficient and others do not. You will have to excuse me if I also wander in that direction. There’s plenty yet to be learned there as well.
Chaos within fluidity?
by Tatjana Mirkov-Popovicki, Port Moody, BC, Canada
What you meant by fluidity and long strokes might be better described with different words. Fluid in my mind implies something that flows without firmness. Brown’s strokes are fast and don’t comply to a direction, but they are firm and it’s hard for me to call them fluid. It is difficult to describe their quality with one word. They are seemingly struck in random directions with flair and energy. Looking at them up close, the strokes look like chaos, and from far they form an image. Perhaps Frans Hals would be one of the earliest pioneers of this technique?
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by Bianka Guna, Toronto, Ontario, Canada
The best results are not attained with “dry” materials (pencils, pastels, charcoal…) but fluid ones: wet-on-wet, fluid acrylics (Golden) or thinned oils (with turpentine or mineral spirits…) Another tip is to use big brushes — and after painting more than 1000 paintings (a must !!!) being effortless and fast. Working in large format also encourages not to use the wrists too much, but use the arm and have sweeping, long, elegant fresh-looking strokes.
(RG note) Thanks, Bianka. Another favourite angle is to paint a painting that looks “fast” and “effortless,” but actually takes a long time and a lot of effort. Foolem!
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Fluidity in monoprinting
by Louise Francke, NC, USA
A week ago, I worked on monoprints abstracting photos taken over the summer. Two had definite possibilities of going further in oil. Not going back to the original photo, I returned to the monoprint. Then I used an Ampersand board for oils, laid out the colors I thought I would be using and added a few as I progressed. What I liked about the monoprint was the happiness and looseness the watercolor-based print evoked. I knew I wanted to carry that through in the oils but with even more vibrant colors. I used lots of medium to make it flow across the flat surface and stood at arm’s length gesturing with my arm and brush. Listening to upbeat music and dancing in the brief stand-back-and-look periods, the painting took off. I liked the beginning with a lot of white negative spaces but as more colors were added the white disappeared — only to be reclaimed near the end of my afternoon session with a rubber tipped brush emphasizing the lines. The oils still being very fluid allowed me to draw easily without stumbling. I also kept turning the board around as I worked — to make sure no corner went unattended. The objective was not so much the original water lilies but to make a comp which I could literally hang vertically or horizontally and still be successful. So, here it is. I am up for a crit from whoever might want to voice up.
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What do you mean?
by Lillian M Wu
I liked your suggestion of stroke handling, which I learned when doing calligraphy with a brush. But, can you tell me what is a carpenter-type drawing pencil? And what do you mean by “stroke length” of dry media?
(RG note) Thanks, Lillian. They’re flat, square-leaded graphite pencils that are available in most art stores. They’re sharpened with a knife to varying degrees of chisel sharpness. A small piece of sandpaper is handy for topping up the edge. The one I’m using right now is General’s Sketching Pencil USA 531 -4B. Another one with a slightly smaller square lead is the Derwent Sketching Pencil. Ted Kautzky’s classic book Pencil Broadsides, first published in 1946, champions of this sort of pencil. Stroke length is long in dry media because it will theoretically last until the marking part wears down, whereas even a well-loaded brush soon runs out of paint.
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Enjoy the past comments below for Fluidity…
Se Vende Tortillas
watercolour painting, 11 x 14 inches
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes Edward Vincent of Australia, who wrote, “The irony of it — a dry medium is more fluid than a wet.”
And also, Michael Young of Oakville, ON, Canada, who wrote, “My characterization has always been this: small muscles for tight, large muscles for loose, fluid.”
And also Zoe Evamy who wrote, “Keeping acrylics fluid is the most challenging thing!”