First, why would you choose to paint a subject with as few brush strokes as possible?

An artist may choose to paint with as few brushstrokes as possible for various reasons, including:

  • Aesthetic Effect: Fewer brushstrokes can create a more minimalistic, clean, and modern look, emphasizing the simplicity and purity of the subject.
  • Style: Minimal brushwork is often associated with styles such as impressionism, abstract expressionism, and minimalism, which focus on creating a strong visual impact with a minimum of detail.
  • Technique: Some artists aim to simplify their work and convey the essence of their subject with as few marks as possible. This can demonstrate mastery over the medium and control of the brush.
  • Emotional Impact: Using fewer brushstrokes can also add a sense of spontaneous energy and movement, making the work appear more dynamic and energetic.

I came up with this exercise to push myself to be more intentional with each stroke. To consider placement, value, color, and the shape of the stroke before placing. And to rely on bigger, bolder brush strokes to suggest what I was seeing. My goal was to develop a style that is a little more painterly and loose vs. being so tight and realistic. I’m a big fan of Jane French’s portrait style and I wanted to try on this style of painting.

I figured that if I counted each stroke and limited myself to 50 strokes, that would really push me to achieve my goal.

The Process

My plan was to create three paintings of the same subject. One with 50 strokes, one with 100 strokes, and one with as many as I need but utilizing the same bold brush strokes approach.

I chose a relatively simple subject – a glass with tulips. The leaf structure and the flowers themselves are fairly simple shapes. I chose to work at 9″ x 12″ so I would be forced to use some bigger brushes. I allowed myself as many strokes as needed to get in a background and a sketch of the subject and then restricted my strokes to the tulips themselves. It turns out that 50 strokes was too ambitious of a goal. I got to 50 and only had half of a painting. I decided to move my mark to 100 strokes.

Ultimately I did 2 paintings. The first, the leftmost in the picture above, was done with 100 brush strokes. And then for the second, I made some background adjustments. I wanted the color to be darker and less orange so the subject would stand out more. I held myself to 200 strokes. At that point, I took a picture. But I really like where this was heading so I decided to build on it from there and came up with what I’ll call finished – the third, furthest to the right in the photo above. This came in somewhere around 350 brush strokes. So I only added another 150 strokes on my 200 base, the middle photo.

What did I learn?

  1. I can do more with each brush stroke than I previously thought I could. By twisting the brush or angling the brush while making a mark, I could follow the form of the subject – which really helped simplify but also create flow and dimension.
  2. Not to blend every stroke – this was a big thing I was trying to push myself to do. I have a tendency to smooth things out as I go. Limiting the number of brush strokes you can make really puts an end to blending.
  3. To load my brush with more paint. To make a big, bold mark, you need a lot of paint. This also forced me to mix larger piles of paint – my tendency had been to make tiny piles so as not to waste paint. But even with bigger piles, I used it all lol

Looking to loosen up your painting style?

I’d recommend trying this exercise. It reminds me the blind contour drawing exercise which I use regularly as a warm-up before a drawing session. I’ll be coming back to this exercise again and I’ll be trying to push it even further. Perhaps I’ll even get one down to 50 brush strokes.

Have you tried this exercise? Post a picture of your result. I’d love to see how it turns out for others.