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© Copyright 2021 Brenda Swenson retains copyrights to all images (artwork and reference photographs). All images on this site are property of Brenda Swenson and may not be used in any way for commercial, financial or personal use without written consent. Brenda Swenson retains all rights to republication (printed and digital) and anything but personal viewing of artworks.

Saturday, April 18, 2020

Negative Painting Demonstration, Matilija Poppies

The matilija poppy is frequently called the fried egg flower. One look and you can see why. The petals are bright white with intense yellow centers. They can grow to a height of 8 feet, with the flowers up to 6 inches across. The plant thrives where I live in California. In the wild, they are also known as "fire followers". Why? They often grow in areas that have been devastated by wildfires.

Negative painting requires focusing on the space between shapes. A photograph will not solve that problem. Photographs are a tool and inspiration but not to be relied on too heavily. The sooner I respond to what’s happening on the paper and quit looking at the photo the better off I am.

I start by drawing the Matilijia poppies with a 2B pencil on Arches 140lb cold press paper. I'm especially aware of the space and shapes between the flowers and leaves (negative space). I want shape and size variety. I draw enough to get the general shapes, but not too much. I intentionally leave areas understated so I'll have opportunities for negative shapes to develop in the painting process. 

I start with 3 colors in the underpainting. To determine which colors I make color swatches. The paints need to be the same consistency as whole milk, to encourage ample mixing on the paper. I'm looking for colors that relate to my subject (warm or cool dominances ) and have good mixing ability with each other. The 3 paint colors I selected are: Cobalt Teal Blue, Hansa Yellow Medium, Anthraquinoid Scarlet.
I can use semi-opaque colors in the underpainting but after the underpainting ALL paint colors need to be transparent. What is opaque and transparent? Learn here.

#3  UNDERPAINTING  (i.e., the first, thin transparent laying in of color(s) in a painting)
I tape my watercolor paper to a board. I wet the entire watercolor paper with clean water and introduce the 3 paint colors separately into the wet surface. I encourage the paint to mix by tilting or rocking the paper. I don’t overwork the surface with the brush. I leave a third of the paper untouched with paint. As it dries the paint will continue to move. I want light/whites to remain on the white petals. Let throughly dry.

#4 START GLAZING  (i.e., a transparent wash of color(s) laid over a dry, previously painted area)
I pull French Ultramarine and Quinacridone Gold into the mixing area of my palette. I let the paint mingle in the center but keep pure color towards the edge. The idea is to get rid of everything except the important lightest lights (white petals and a few leaves). I start in the upper left hand corner and work clockwise. I paint hard edges against the petals and soften as I pull away. I vary my colors slightly with a greener dominance on the bottom. Let throughly dry.

I pull out fresh paint into the center of my palette. The paint puddles can touch in the palette but a lot of mixing is still happening on the paper. I use Quinacridone Burnt Orange, Phthalo Blue (GS), French Ultramarine and Green Gold. I carve out shapes with hard edges against the petals. As I move across the lower section I want my colors to move from blues into deep greens. My favorite mix for deep greens is Quinacridone Burnt Orange and Phthalo Blue (GS). With each brush load I shift the green, slightly by adding in French Ultramarine or Green Gold. Let throughly dry.

At this stage I like to work the background and the flowers at the same time. I make another pass underneath the flowers to suggest additional leaves with the same mixture as before. I also paint a few positive leaves and buds above the flowers. The Matilijia centers are Permanent Yellow deep with a touch of Quinacridone Burnt Orange on the shadowed side. The shadows on the flower petals are light Cobalt Blue with a touch of Permanent Yellow Deep near the flower centers and Green Gold toward the edge of the petals.

To say these are difficult times is an understatement. Everything we know as the "norm" must be re-evaluated. 
In recent years the California landscape has been blackened by wildfires but today the landscape is healing and new growth is taking place. More color than I’ve seen in years. We are in a firestorm of a different kind (COVID-19). The matilija poppy is a good reminder that we will heal, thrive and bloom, again!

One thing I know is true…I am a creative person. The best days are when I sketch and paint. I feel happier, more positive and alive. Creative people are the lucky ones. We don’t need much…a little inspiration, paper, paint and brush.

Paper: Arches 140lbs Cold Press
Paint: Daniel Smith Watercolor
Quinacridone Burnt Orange, Anthraquinoid Scarlet, Permanent Yellow Deep,Quinacridone Gold, Hansa Yellow Medium, Green Gold, Cobalt Teal Blue,Cobalt Blue, French Untramarine, Phthalo Blue (GS)

Be creative, positive, helpful…and well,

© Copyright 2020 Brenda Swenson retains copyrights to all artwork. All images on this site are property of Brenda Swenson and may not be used in any way for commercial, financial or personal use without written consent. Brenda Swenson retains all rights to republication (printed and digital) and anything but personal viewing of artworks.


  1. Thank you for this tutorial on negative painting.

  2. Thank you for that beautifull tutorial.

  3. Thank you for such a detailed, clear description of how you paint. I'm having a go at watercolour during lockdown & I'd only just understood about transparent and opaque. It's also wonderful to hear that the plants are returning after the fires. I work as a garden designer & in the UK we call these flowers Californian tree poppies. They are one of my favourites.

    1. Sally, I love the name you've given them, California Tree Flower. Perfect description. Are you are to grow them in the UK?

  4. Yes, but only in a very sunny spot against a South facing wall. They're doing very well in a garden I designed on the South coast.