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painterbear 02-23-2007 06:57 AM

NEGATIVE PAINTING Article for Watercolor Handbook

What is negative painting, and how can you use it in the most effective manner in your work? This article will explain the term, illustrate how it can be used in watercolor paintings, and provide links to threads from the Watercolor Forum which show it in action.

Definition: As you begin drawing your composition, you will employ two kinds of spaces that fit neatly together like the pieces in a jigsaw puzzle. The actual subject matter—the people or objects that will be the focus of the painting—are positive shapes. All of the remaining areas between and around the positive shapes are negative spaces.

Although you may not intentionally have tried this technique, you have already used negative painting in your work. Whenever you placed a darker tone behind a lighter one in a painting—as you brushed a blue sky around white clouds, a barn in a field, or a ship at sea—you were painting the sky negatively while bringing out the positive shapes of the clouds, the barn, or the ship on your paper.

In this example, the tree on the left was painted with positive brush strokes, while the one on the right was painted negatively by painting around its shape with the blue wash of the sky and the green one in the grassy area.


Planning: The purposeful use of negative painting can bring a new level of excitement to your work.The interrelationship between the positive shapes and the negative spaces is an important compositional element. It should be carefully planned, along with the other parts of your painting, before you begin applying your paints to the paper.

To heighten your awareness of negative spaces, look closely at a couple of paintings by your favorite artists. Now make thumbnail sketches of them by drawing just the negative spaces that you see in and around the subject matter. (See the negatively-painted tree above.) By concentrating on these spaces, you will learn how the artist used the forms of the negative spaces to bring the subject matter into greater focus and integrate it into the background. This exercise should help you plan the negative spaces as well as the positive shapes in your own compositions.

Practicing: To get started with negative painting, choose a simple subject with ins and outs in its outline—a picket fence, a tree, or a rocking chair, for example. Make a contour drawing of the shape on your paper. Then mix a light wash of a single color. Now paint around the subject with your loaded brush. When you have finished, the object will stand out against a colored background just as the negatively-painted white fence does in this illustration.

Terry Christensen’s beautiful painting, Rag Rhodie, shows how effectively this technique can be used for maximum impact. Look closely to see how Terry formed a cluster of five rhododendron blossoms by negatively painting around their petals, using lost and found edges, to cut them out from the background. Then she added some positively-painted stamens and green leaves to complete the delicate painting.

Adding Depth: When painting negatively, how far you extend the paint beyond the positive shape you are forming can vary from just a short distance as Terry did in her painting, and then the color is faded out with clear water; to covering the entire background beyond the positive shape. Then, the color you use for the first negative wash can become the base color of a positive shape that you develop with your next negative wash, and so on. Used this way, negative painting can add great depth and dimensionality to your work. When using this method, be sure to start with light washes because each subsequent wash deepens the previous ones, as you can see below.

In the three stages of this painting, additional leaves and several layers were created as described above by adding washes one on top of the other to create depth and color variation with the fallen leaves.

Employing the Technique: Negative painting can be used at any time in your work:
(1) In the planning or compositional stage;
(2) As you apply the first washes to preserve the whites or light areas instead of using masking fluid which leaves hard edges when removed. This will give your finished painting a fresher look and softer edges; and,
(3) In the later stages to develop new shapes or add depth by negatively painting a deeper tone or different color over a previously-painted area.

In the thread Negative Leaves & Found Flowers by Juneto, she began with a multi-colored wash over the whole sheet of paper, carefully leaving large areas of white in the central spaces. She proceeded to "find" and develop a variety of floral shapes, stems, and leaves with negative and positive painting. Closeups of elements in the painting bring the details into sharp focus and are coupled with a very informative discussion by June and the viewers of the thread.

Reference Materials: Here are two excellent books for those who enjoy pouring paints. Jan Fabian Wallake combines pouring with negative painting in her book, Watercolor: Pour It On!, and in her book, Painting Outside the Lines, Linda Kemp advocates making negative painting the entire focus of a painting after starting with a pour. I decided to give the techniques a try and after reading these books and shared the process in this WIP, Thinking Negatively.

More Threads on Negative Painting Techniques: I took a workshop based on Linda Kemp’s book. Using exercises from the book that we had followed in the workshop, I posted these demos showing three different ways to create a negative painting:

Wet Into Wet Grapes ; Into the Forest, Using a Template; and Fantasy Landscape.

In the thread Negative Painting—How?, Sue Galos asked the question so many others here have wondered about, and she received a number of interesting and very informative responces.

Stephie20 gave an excellent explanation of painting in the negative spaces after the first wash has been applied in a painting. She invited people to join her for a Negative Painting Paint-Along. This thread generated a lot of discussion about negative painting and featured a number of paintings from different artists who joined Stephie in the Paint-Along.

When Dale Zeigler wanted to add background foliage in his painting of a Tropical Fruit Vendor, he applied his knowledge of negative painting to create depth and variety to the leaves behind the figure.

Finally, in Don’t Be Negative...It’s a Cyclamen, Roun2It used a wet into wet wash a lá Linda Kemp to start his painting and then added several layers of negative painting to develop the flowers and leaves; then he did it all over again in two more versions to show how varied and vibrant this technique can be.

So, I hope this encourages you to give this technique a try and helps you to remember to accentuate the ... NEGATIVE ... in your work to add zest and depth and FUN to your paintings.

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