Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Negative Painting

What is negative painting?Negative painting is one of the most exciting approaches to watercolor painting I know! Negative painting is where more focus is placed on the space around and in between the object. Most paintings benefit from a variety of positive and negative painting. Many people ask, why not use masking fluid instead? I have tried masking fluids and tapes to save the whites of the paper but nothing is as beautiful or effective as negative painting. Rarely do you come across an object that is pure white and masking fluid leaves a distinct look...hard edges.

If you struggle to see negative shapes try working from a black & white photo. Here I have shown the reference photo in black & white and color.
I begin a negative painting with an under-painting of 3 colors. To determine which 3 colors I will use I make color swatches. The swatches will contain a red, blue, and yellow. The colors do not need to be true primaries. When I mix the colors it is important to have the 3 colors be the same level of wetness to encourage good mixing on the paper. I am looking for colors that mix well and create an underlying feeling of the subject colors. Cadmium and opaque colors do not work for negative painting. The 3 colors I selected are Quinacidone Gold, Cobalt Blue, and Rose Violet. Once the under-painting is complete I can add additional colors but I well use the 3 original colors through out the painting process.

Steps to Negative Painting:
1. Draw design. Be aware of the space and shapes between objects (negative space).

2. Wet paper with clean water and introduce the 3 paint colors. Tilt paper or use a spray bottle to help paint move and mingle. Don’t over work the surface with a paint brush but encourage the paint to mix on the paper. Let Dry.

3. Start glazing. Paint hard edges against subject and soften edges with water as you move out from subject.

4. With each glaze you’ll add new shapes and darker values. Completely dry between each glaze.

Pencil in new shapes between glazes if you are getting lost. Don’t get dark too fast, build up layers.

Happy Painting!


  1. Brenda,
    this is exactly what I needed to hear these days. I have been working on two different sunflower pieces, following along with a wonderful watercolorist I admire alot, but she uses cad red, cad yellow and ultramarine blue. I knew after the first one that I didn't want to use the cads, but I thought I would give it one more try and sure enough, it just doesn't keep the freshness that my transparent colors do.
    I love the idea of black and white and I have used that in the past, so thanks for the reminders. It really seems to work for the negative painting I am trying to conquer. Your art always just wows me and I can't wait to try my sunflower pieces in my own transparent colors that I love so much.
    peace and abundance,

  2. CheyAnne, It's nice to hear when one of my lessons is just what someone needs to the right time. Happy Painting!

  3. I so appreciate your step by step explanation, but I would be helped even more by seeing a painting as it progresses step by step. I have wanted to try negative space painting for some time... love the effect!

  4. The use of color swatches is a super step in assuring that the blending that happens on the paper is going to be the result you've imagined. Like it.

  5. Brenda - I have tried this type of painting before...I do get lost...great thought to pencil over top so as to not to lose the plan. I also like the idea of those trial swatches - such a great tip - thank you so much for sharing. I know what I will be practicing on this week-end!!

  6. It's lovely of you to share with us both your family news and your painting too. thank you.