Dear Artist, 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.

“Maggie Two Sun”
pastel painting
by Harley Brown

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.

“Cheyenne Journey”
pastel painting
by Harley Brown

Best regards, Robert 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.   Harley Brown

Heather from life




Sitting Bull



            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  

“Girl talk”
watercolour painting
by Loretta West

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  

pencil drawing
by Janet Summers-Tembeli

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  

“Spruce Grouse”
acrylic painting, 13 x 18 inches
by Shari L. Erickson

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. There are 3 comments for The possibilities of overworking by Shari L. Erickson
From: Kay Christopher — Sep 26, 2011

Wow, that is a stunningly beautiful painting!

From: Kris — Sep 27, 2011

“Of course this has nothing to do with painterly vs. detailed!” It has everything to do with stylistic preferences! Even the most detailed painting can’t communicate the whole story. It’s up to the imagination of the viewer to carry-on.

From: Shari L Erickson — Sep 27, 2011

Thank you for your nice comments about my painting!

  Educational letters by Robert Sesco, Charlottesville, VA, USA  

original painting
by Robert Sesco

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  

“The Gypsy Woman”
oil painting, 20 x 23 inches
by Frans Hals, 1628

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?   There is 1 comment for Chaos within fluidity? by Tatjana Mirkov-Popovicki
From: Carol Barber — Sep 27, 2011

I agree with Tatjana, the painting examples that went with the fluidity letter were not what I was expecting or hoping.

  Painterly tips by Bianka Guna, Toronto, Ontario, Canada  

“Relative Reality 104”
acrylic painting, 24 x 36 inches
by Bianka Guna

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! There is 1 comment for Painterly tips by Bianka Guna
From: Michael Jorden — Sep 27, 2011

I believe John Singer Sargent alluded to this angle when he said “start with a whisk and finish with a broom”. Though his portraits often looked effortless and painterly he would place one brush stroke, walk away 20 feet to view it and then walk back to the easel to place the next.

  Fluidity in monoprinting by Louise Francke, NC, USA  

“Lily abstraction”
oil painting
by Louise Francke

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. There is 1 comment for Fluidity in monoprinting by Louise Francke
From: Susan Kellogg, Austin, TX — Sep 27, 2011

Definitely a new take on the stately lily! I like the idea of your process.

  What do you mean? by Lillian M Wu  

“Purple Peony”
watercolour painting
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. There are 2 comments for What do you mean? by Lillian M Wu
From: Terry Fortkamp — Sep 27, 2011

What a beautiful painting! Makes me feel your beauty.

From: Darrell Baschak — Sep 27, 2011

Lillian, this is a masterful watercolour, I love the use of greens and purples. Although you can buy carpenters pencils in art stores a cheaper alternative would be to get them at the lumber yard!


Archived Comments

Enjoy the past comments below for Fluidity

From: marvin Humphrey, Napa Valley — Sep 22, 2011

Another great point! Fluidity is a much better term than “looseness” when dealing with tightness; it connotes control, not haphazard sloppiness. When drawing, our best work is done while standing and working from our whole body, a little like fencing. The wrist, however, should remain supple, slightly flexible.

From: Robert Sesco — Sep 23, 2011

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.

From: Jackie Knott — Sep 23, 2011

I prefer to see a bit more technique in my own work and am taking efforts to improve that. However, it seems that contemporary art is overly concerned with brush technique. The vigor and liveliness we see in Harley’s work, or any popular artist today, is absent from many Old Masters and historical paintings. We never see globs of paint, lines from brush strokes, or an irregular surface: only a smoothly varnished glass-like canvas or panel carefully free of such distractions. It makes me wonder how artists will change their technique if some other variation begins selling better. Smooth was the norm during several periods of art history and some aren’t “fluid” but purely sloppy … At some point we arrive at our personal identity of technique and have to paint our way, regardless what is selling.

From: Marlien — Sep 23, 2011

On Robert Sesco’s comment: isn’t that just why we keep reading these newsletters? the different subjects, the understanding of how others experience the live of an artist, the philosophical as well as the practical techniques etc, everything is valuable!! please do stay versatile, Robert!

From: Robert Sesco — Sep 23, 2011

Marlien, I read them all, I only encouraged that which is instructional vs. subjective. If one aspect of ‘professionalism’ means thick, confident brushstrokes, we can all apply this. But to measure passion, or illustrate individual solitude, or express love in words, these are like reading poetry: beautiful and perhaps moving, but not something that I can turn on like a switch that will help me to improve. There is anxiety prior to actually swimming, and no amount of instruction on the beauty of a long, luxurious swim, or the admonishments of how to arrange your inner environment prior to going into water over your head, will help as much as instruction on how to kick and breathe and stroke. At any rate, Marlien, I doubt seriously that Robert adjusts his letters because of something I write. You have nothing to fear, and I AM quite versatile, only thirsty for what makes a professional.

From: Bill Skuce — Sep 23, 2011

Ah, there is only one Harley Brown… Apart from Harley, I find in what you have said with reference to fluidity a misleading mix of concepts, expressions and techniques squeezed into a word not meant to contain them all. It seems that if you were attempting to redefine or extend the meaning of fluidy you might well have, just as unabashedly and to avoid confusion, invented a word instead of taking such liberties.

From: Robert Sesco — Sep 23, 2011
From: Starr Kolb — Sep 23, 2011

This point of fluidity is so well taken. I explain the exact same concept to glass cutting….yet I fail to apply this with my own actions with paint. I think I am lacking the confidence still. I have been putting in hours and hours, as my husband is traveling lots and I am home alone. When I get to 2000 hours or 2000 paintings I will show you my novice efforts. I have seriously committed to the ten year plan/10,000 hours in paint which started at Hollyhock. Still trying to find my way….thank you for pushing me.

From: Edna V. Hildebrandt — Sep 23, 2011

Fluidity sounds like free flowing strokes uninhibited and moving easily along the way. When met with obstacles, like rocks and boulders, the flowing river will bring forth some interruptions to break that continuous flow. What a wonderful concept to give a piece of work some sort of mystery for the viewer to inspect and discover. Perhaps this fluidity could come naturally or be developed. How do we know if we have it?

From: Eloise Lovell — Sep 23, 2011

I like the idea of a long fluid stroke. Thanks for the tips.

From: Briar Emond — Sep 23, 2011

I just wanted to take the time to thank you. Rick Taylor passed on your link to me and just as he said, I look forward to reading your teaches and thoughts bi-weekly. I’ve taken to incorporating your lessons into whatever painting I am working on at the time. It is a fun exercise and always pushes me forward. Having no training or knowledge of my joy for painting until 2 years ago, I treasure your insightful thoughts and guidance. With 2 small children it is hard to commit to any out side education. You coming to my house twice a week is just perfect. Thank you, it means a great deal.

From: Betty Newcomer — Sep 24, 2011
From: Fred Wong — Sep 24, 2011

Fluidity is also a part of “activation” that part of a work of art that moves the eye around within the picture plane. Generally circular in nature, it is a line, often a dotted line, that moves back in on itself. One doesn’t know why people follow these lines, but they do. Perhaps it’s because we love mysterious curves.

From: Gavin Logan — Sep 24, 2011

Fluid elements are most often achieved by working from the human figure. The natural confluence of curves and shaped volumes in undraped models is the best training for fresh fluidity. Quick drawings do it best.

From: Michael McCarthy — Sep 26, 2011

Water color technique helps plus lots of quick gestures from live models.

From: daniela — Sep 26, 2011

Harley Brown’s work is certainly very accomplished, but I did not see long flowing confident strokes of the brush, maybe, as with the old masters, you have to see the work in real life, and not online from a photo image. Confidence is what I think you are trying to tell us to express, Robert. As much as I like to bag art college, the very fact we had to work all of the time, often fast, and often on great big paper where all the goofy looking work showed up what we needed to work on, confidence and improvement in technique is what we got, and, yes, those long flowing brushstrokes would then emerge with doing and doing and doing!

From: Len Lim Ho — Sep 26, 2011

Take a look at Harley Brown’s nude in the previous clickback, Daniela. Note the beautiful cool light on the neck and shoulder area which forms into a langourous line describing the form and adding elegance and a center of interest. Then look across the body to the warm light that proceeds wanderingly down the whole front of the body. It is these sinuous linear shapes that make the figure appealing. Imagine, for a minute, if they were blocked in and more intermittent — they would certainly make the girl less alluring and the painting less interesting.

From: jen lacoste, cape town — Sep 27, 2011

It would be interesting to discover if John Newman’s stroke caused him to suffer a shift in colour perception also… his right-handed works appear positively dull next to those glorious, glowing left-handers.

From: Daniela — Sep 27, 2011

I was definitely not knocking Harley Browns work, I love it , it is accomplished and beautiful and fluid. I was thinking more that Robert was talking about the fluidity of technique that comes with work and confidence, the work that comes when you no longer ‘drive with the brakes on’. And it shows.

From: Carril Karr — Sep 27, 2011

The change in John Newman’s colour palette is interesting. Was that also post stroke? I practise using both hands for drawing just in case (I am getting old) I have a stroke. Left hand different but just as good. Carril Karr. New Zealand

     Featured Workshop: Victoria College of Art
092711_robert-genn Victoria College of Art Workshops   The Workshop Calendar provides up-to-date selected workshops and seminars arranged in chronological order. 

Se Vende Tortillas

watercolour painting, 11 x 14 inches by Donna Dickson, San Miguel de Allende, Mexico

  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!”    

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