Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Negative Painting with Watercolor

Negative painting is one of the most exciting approaches to watercolor I know! The technique is a unique approach of painting around an object to define it in a composition. When working in watercolor we have the challenge that other mediums do not. It's what we don’t paint that becomes the most important element. Think of yourself as a stone carver, chipping away, until only the most precious lights remains.

There are many techniques to saving the “lights” of the paper. I have experimented with masking fluids and tapes to save the “lights” but found the end result was either harsh or cutout looking. I preserve the “lights” of the paper from the very beginning... by painting around them.

Opaque & Transparent Paints: It is best to avoid opaque paints (such as cadmiums & gouache) for negative painting. Opaque are fine for accent marks at the end but not for glazing. The technique requires numerous glazes which will become muddy with opaque paints. To determine if your paints are opaque or transparent do a simple test. With a permanent marker draw a bold line across a piece of watercolor paper. With paint the consistency of cream paints over the line. If the line is obscured at all it is opaque.  

3 paint colors

Step #1, Line Drawing: When I draw for a negative painting I am especially mindful of the space and shapes between the roses and leaves (negative space). I want to have shape and size variety.  I draw enough to get the general shapes. It is important not to over draw. Allow opportunities for additional shapes to be developed in the painting process.

Underpainting: To determine which 3 colors I will use for the underpainting I make numerous 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 paint be the same consistence to encourage good mixing on the paper. I am looking for colors that have the underlying feeling of the subject matter. The 3 colors I selected are Daniel Smith: Quinacridone Gold (QG), Cobalt Blue (CB), and Quinacridone Rose (QR). In the photo you'll see these colors on the bottom left.

Step #2: I wet the entire paper with clean water and introduce the 3 paint colors separately onto the wet paper (Quinacridone Gold (QG), Cobalt Blue (CB), and Quinacridone Rose (QR).  I paint at an angle to encourage mixing as the paint runs down the paper. I don’t over work the surface with a paint brush but encourage the paint to mix on the paper.  Let thoroughly dry.

Reference Photo
Step #3: Start glazing. I will add additional paint colors but I will use the 3 original colors through out the painting process. I consider these my “mother colors”. I paint hard edges against the rose and some of the leaves, and soften edges with water as I move out from the subject. This is what I call the “adolescence of a painting”, because it looks and feels awkward. Let thoroughly dry.

Step #4: With each glaze I create new negative shapes and darker values. I sometimes soften edges with a light spray of water while the paint is wet.  Let thoroughly dry.

Step #5: In the final stage I paint the darkest darks and smallest shapes. I use a rich deep green made with  Daniel Smith Phthalo Turquoise and Italian Burnt Sienna. While the green mixture of paint is still wet on the paper I drop a small amount of Permanent Alizarin Crimson. The addition of this red livens up the greens. You can see an example of this underneath the left rose.  I am selective to place my darkest darks near my lights to intensify the focal area. I finish with a few details. 

Hope you find this bit of information helpful and I've inspire you to try your hand (brush) at negative painting!

Happy Painting!


  1. A really fine post. Thank you.

  2. Thank you for the info. I wish there were pictures to go with each step in the process. I'm new at painting and trying to take in all that I can! I appreciate your blog and your generosity with sharing your expertise! :)

    1. Colleen, Negative painting requires a bit of experience. May I suggest you read my earlier posts on the subject. You'll find step by step photos to help you.

  3. What a beautiful rose, and your painting is even better. Do I have your permission to try this using your rose?

    1. Elaine,
      Thank you for asking!!! Yes, you have permission.
      I hope your hand is healing quickly. The surgery looked painful.

  4. This is beautiful - inspiring!

    It's cold and icy in my neck of the woods, so I guess I'm painting today. I love days without interruptions.

  5. ¡Muchas gracias! Muy valiosa su enseƱanza.

  6. I tried this today after checking our you instruction video several post back. It was fun but I'm not certain that I did it right. I'll watch the video and try again. Thanks for this terrific blog experience.

    1. Nice to hear I inspired you to try negative painting! The blog and YouTube is limited to size and length of demonstrations. If you are serious about learning more you might consider my DVD. It's 2 hours and shows two complete demos. Here's a link: