Australian Fine Artist

Advanced Seascape Painting

Final in the Series of Five Monthly Workshops with David Chen

Loosening up Versus Painting Against the Contour

If you are like me, and admire the work of the Impressionist painters, you may look atyour work and think that it looks too ‘tight’ and wish you could ‘loosen up’ your method of painting.

Like me, you may also be confused as to how you go about doing this. This is where the concept of loosening up is usually confused with the method of painting against contours.

In this final workshop for the semester, this very portant method, that will help your paintings to gain some of that more immediacy and freshness, so often seen in the finest impressionist artworks, can begin to be understood and applied.

Against Versus Along Contours

We often use a technique when we paint and draw that will automatically lead to a tigher looking result. It is caled paintng along the contours. This means drawing in your subject and painting the background, for example, around and along the edges of the main objects. By leaving this fairly distinct line along the edge of your subject, you are automatically creating a stiffer and tigher result later on. By painting against the contours in areas around subjects, especially in spots you want to de-emphasize, you will soften the result and start seeing a looser and freer result. So simply put:

  1. Along the Contours means painting along the edges of your subject in an attempt to make it stand out against the background. This method often leads to artists creating repiticious shapes, like thre or more hills in a landscape, three or more rocks on a seascape, or flowers in a still life that are all similar shapes and sizes, and often lined up near each other.
  2. Against the contours to making the background help the subject stand out by cutting into the edges and softening them in places. This will also reaulst in the painting looking more united, as the subject will be a prt of the scene and not look like something that has been cut and pasted on top of it. Another version of this method is also called ‘lost and found edges’.

Artists to Look at for Examples

Some well known artists to look at for examples of painting against the contours are:

  • Van Gogh (1885-1890 period)
  • Cezanne (1885-1890 period)
  • Degas
  • Lautrec
  • Manet
  • Gaugin

Mixing It Up

All the artists listed above used both along and against the contour in the one painting to bring out aspects of their subjects whilst keeping the painting looking united. They emphasized areas and pushed others into the background and linked subjects to the areas around them by using these methods.

Loosening Up is not a Technique

Like many others, I went to David originally as I saw my paintings were far too tight. I thought that by loosening up my methods I could fix this. I had the right idea but expressed it incorrrectly. As David said today, loosening up is not a method, painting against contours and learning to pull a painting together by relating all the objects within it, is a method.

Loosening up is a state of mind, it isn’t working fast, it isn’t splashing paint around wihtout a plan. It is application with thought and a plan by applying techniques like knowing where to apply along and against the contours.

To Finish Off

As with the most academic methods of painting, start your work, even when painting against contours, with your darks. A puddle of ‘mother’ or master colours (possibly one cool dark and one warm one) will help you to start with a dark that you can gradually lighten tonally. You can dip into this to modify your other colours to help pull the painting together tonally.

Remember that rich darks will help to bring out your subject, they add luminosicty, feeling, emotions and atmosphere. They add to how you paint along and into edges so that you don’t have to rely on just one thing to bring out your subject.


Below is my painting from this session. There are two versions, the top one shows it with David’s changes and suggestions, the bottom one is studio altered, where I had a go at improving the scene in consideration of David’s thoughts, but still thinking about how I paint, as I am still working on developing my own style and palette.

David Suggested that I lighten a couple of areas, and I was already thinking it was too dark, and wanted to work on it later just for that. I added some marks to the foreground and added lighter spots where David Marked. It’s just a little oil sketch for the workshop, so the method is something that I want to concentrate on here in contrast to a finished painting for hanging.



If you would like to go on the waiting list for workshops with David Chen, you can contact him via his website at:

Note that David does not allow photography in his workshops so if you want to photograph your work it is suggested that you do so when you get home.

Please mention you have been referred by Janice Mills.

Comments on: "Advanced Seascape Painting" (1)

  1. Hi Janice,
    Just wanted to say thank you for your brilliant summary of David Chen’s Seascape painting workshop about painting against the contour and loosening up. You have expressed so clearly something no one has told me before.
    I recently saw David’s work in Goolwa art gallery , SA, and was so impressed with his capturing of the light.
    I live in Sydney and would like to do one of his workshops, I will certainly mention your name.
    Eva Fay

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