negative painting in watercolor

Negative Painting in Watercolor Explained

Do you know what negative painting is in watercolor? 

This is where you nod your head and say… hmmm… yep… sure thing !

Actually, I was pretty confused about this topic. I’d heard about negative painting several times but I wasn’t really sure what was involved. I was curious to learn more, so I delved into a stack of watercolor books, websites, and art references to get a better understanding of this rather puzzling topic. And below, I’ll tell you everything I found out, and how you can use negative painting for yourself in your watercolor compositions.

Negative painting sounds like a complicated concept but once you understand the basics it’s actually quite straightforward.

What is negative painting?

Every scene that you paint is made up of both negative and positive space. Positive space is the subject itself. Negative space is the area around and in between your subject. In general, positive space is the thing you want to draw attention to, and the negative space can be used to enhance the subject. You can make positive and negative space work together to create interesting compositions.

example of positive and negative space

So you’ve probably been doing negative paintings for a long time, you just didn’t know it ! Ok… Great. So how does this interest watercolor artists?

Well, as I see things, using negative painting effectively is an incredibly useful compositional device. Understanding how to use positive and negative space is something that will enrich your watercolor technique.

Want to know more about negative painting ? Keep reading...

Using Negative Painting Effectively

I think composition is something we often overlook when painting. Composition is the arrangement and organization of visual elements in an image, and there are a few things we can do to make better compositions. Exploiting negative painting is one of those things. You can think of negative painting as a means to designing better compositions.

There are various ways to use negative painting to improve composition. Let’s take a look at how this works.

Balance between Positive and Negative Space

Finding a balance between positive and negative is one way to get a good composition. This is a fairly classic way of organizing the different parts of a painting. If the subject and the space around it are represented in fairly equal shares, then the resulting composition is relatively pleasing to the eye.

If you do a painting of an apple, you tend to focus on the apple (the subject of your artwork), and not so much on the area surrounding it (the negative space). But when you come to frame your watercolor, you try to get the apple to sit nicely within the boundaries of the frame.

balancing positive and negative space

By balancing the amount of negative space around the object you can produce an attractive composition, and the negative space becomes just as important as the positive subject.

Restricting Negative Space

Limiting the negative space on the page is another way to design an interesting composition. Reducing the amount of negative space in relation to the positive space helps to create focus for your subject. This is the kind of artwork where you get in close to an object and maybe cut the edges with the boundaries of your paper. It’s kind of like zooming in to draw attention to the subject.

restricting negative space

I think this method can work particularly well with macro painting, where you paint a small object up close. Floral watercolors are often portrayed this way.

Emphasizing Negative Space

Another trick you can try is exaggerating the negative space. By increasing the amount of negative space surrounding a subject you can also create a successful composition. In this example, the negative space dominates and has a higher impact in the artwork. This kind of composition makes me think of landscape paintings where the sky is the predominant feature of the scene.

exaggerating negative space

This method requires a certain amount of planning and design, but it’s a good way of using the concept of negative painting to your advantage.

Using Value and Negative Painting.

This part gets a little tricky to explain, so grab yourself a coffee and bear with me !

As a quick reminder: value refers to the relative lightness and darkness of the colors in your painting. For example with regard to black and white, white represents the lightest value and black the darkest. Very often artists also talk about tone. Value and tone are basically the same thing.

​A good use of values is very important in any piece of artwork. Values help to describe three dimensional form by painting shade, shadow and highlights. But value is also a useful compositional device when applied in conjunction with negative painting.

Here are some comparisons so you can see better how this works:

value and negative painting

In example 1 a white apple (the lightest value) is placed against a black background (the darkest value), and vice versa in example 4. These two situations represent the highest contrast and have the highest visual impact.

On the other hand, examples 2 and 3 are painted with a mid tone of gray and have lower contrast, and less visual impact.

The higher the contrast the greater the visual presence of the subject of your painting.

But take another look at examples 1 and 3 where the negative space is painted with a darker value. Notice that the white apple appears larger against the black and grey backgrounds compared to the examples against a white background.

This is a useful optical effect. It works because of the magnifying effect of a dark surrounding space and the compressive influence of a white environment. In example 1, White against black has the highest level of contrast and has the most forceful weight.

Using darker values for the background of a painting is what most watercolor artists think of as negative painting. What's interesting about this technique is the way it can enhance the composition of any watercolor.

Negative Watercolor Painting Techniques

When you apply a negative painting technique you will need to control the relative values of the negative space (the background) and the positive space (the subject).

This means isolating in some way these two components during the painting process.

If we simplify the concept of negative painting, you basically have two options. Paint a dark valued negative space or use a light valued negative space. With a dark valued background the subject tends to be brought forward in the composition. On the other hand, a light valued background can help to create a focal point because of the high level of contrast between the negative and positive space in the composition. Both options are good, and both use negative space as a compositional device.

Ok… so what are the techniques used for negative painting? Well… to be honest any traditional watercolor technique is valid with negative painting. I think it depends on your own personal preferences. The only exception is perhaps when you choose to paint a dark toned background surrounding your subject. In this case you may want to alter the order of working when you begin a painting.

If that’s the case, then you should probably consider the following techniques:

Working from Dark to Light

There are no rigid rules when it comes to watercolor painting, but generally in watercolor you work from light to dark. Because of the transparent characteristics of watercolors this is the most prudent way to paint. Basically, if you paint a dark valued shape, it’s difficult to make it lighter at a later stage.

But this rule may not be appropriate if your subject is enclosed by a dark backdrop.

Instead of painting the subject first (the positive space) you flip the process and begin by painting a strong background color around the object. The volume of the subject becomes defined by the background. Instead of filling in the silhouette of the shape first, you concentrate on the darker area around the subject.

You start your watercolor painting with a mix of darker paint, and paint a wash of color into the negative space. This technique requires good brush control, but because your mix of paint is darker, you don’t need to worry too much about the smoothness of the wash. If you get dry edges or backruns this adds some texture to your artwork, and you can always glaze a second layer of paint on top to help cover up.

Preserving Whites and Masking

If you want the subject of your painting to have crisp hard edges then you can always opt for a masking technique to protect the light valued shapes while you paint the dark valued surroundings.

example of masking fluid in use

This is particularly useful for complicated shapes with irregular edges. Using masking fluid or masking film is a useful technique which results in a well defined edge when you remove the masking. The advantage of this method is that you can paint the dark negative space around your subject with a free flowing wash,  without having to worry about the lighter shapes you’re trying to preserve.

Wet on Wet Negative Painting Technique

You’re probably familiar with wet on wet watercolor painting. Wet on wet simply means we paint onto an already wet surface. This technique can be useful when creating a negative painting with a dark negative space, especially if you want a smooth colored wash for the background.

Wetness is a very important aspect of watercolor painting. When you apply a brush load of color to paper, the colored pigment will only flow where the paper is wet. You can spread the paint around on the surface of the paper, but the pigments will always remain within the confines of the wetted surface.

With wet on wet painting we prewet the paper with clear water to allow the colored pigment to flow more freely across the damp surface. This can be used to your advantage to control the edges between positive and negative shapes.

Wet on Wet Negative Painting Technique

By pre wetting the negative space and leaving a dry space around the positive shape, you can paint with a wet on wet technique around your subject and let the paint spread out to fill the negative space.

Just make sure you cover the whole of the negative area so that you don’t get any hard edges in the negative backdrop as the paint dries.

Negative Space Watercolor Painting Example

In this example of a leaf composition I used negative painting by increasing the value of the negative space around leaves, which has the visual effect of bringing them forward in the painting.

negative space watercolor painting

For some reason this way of painting seems to be the traditional method of creating a “negative painting”. It is true that using a dark valued background can enhance the subject of a composition. But I hope you can see from the examples above that this is not the only way to use negative space. Backgrounds can also have a light value. With a little thought negative painting can be used any way you want to design a composition.

​​Notice how the dark negative space around the leaves defines their shape and seems to project them forward. Depth is also an important feature of this composition. The leaves and negative spaces have been painted with both dark and medium valued hues to express depth and distance and enhance sense of three dimensional space.

This contrast between the light and dark shapes in a painting can help create a focal point because the eye is attracted to the point of greatest contrast.  

I used a glazing technique for this painting. By building up successive layers of paint the colors become gradually deeper.  

If you’d like to have a go at this painting then you can download my template here so you can draw the same sketch outline as me.

Step 1 - Begin by tracing a sketch onto watercolor paper. I used a light table for this but you can also put your paper up against a window if the conditions are bright. I Tried to be particularly attentive to the shapes and spaces between the leaves. Once your pencil outline is ready, tape the paper down onto a board for painting.

negative space watercolor painting step 1

Step 2 - My aim here was to preserve the white of the four leaves which I intend to show as the brightest leaves in the composition. I applied a wash into the negative space around the preserved leaves using a medium strength green mixed from Phthalo Green and Raw Sienna. This was painted using a variegated wash to add some interest.

negative space watercolor painting step 2

Step 3 - Once the first wash is completely dry I painted a second glaze of blue-green mixed from Phthalo Blue and Raw Sienna. Because I'm glazing, this new layer of paint darkens the values even further. I used this to my advantage to darken the shadows and at the same time preserving the second layer of leaves. This increases the sense of depth.

negative space watercolor painting step 3

Step 4 - After leaving the paint to dry again, I keep glazing, this time with a wash of Sap Green and a little Phthalo Blue. I’m deepening the furthest shadows and suggesting a third layer of leaves further back in the composition.

Step 5 - When you’re happy with the background start painting the leaves. Using Sap Green paint each of the leaves but leave a highlight along one edge. The aim is to conserve some of the white paper. Paint with a wet on dry technique and paint hard edged shapes on the leaf fronds.

negative space watercolor painting step 4 to 6

Step 6 - As a final touch i added a graded wash of Sap green over the leaves. To do this I pre wetted the leaves and then charged color into the wet areas of the paper, applying more pigment to the center of the leaves than the edges. Be careful to still preserve some of the white at the tips of the fronds.

Conclusion

Any scene is simply a series of interlocking silhouettes or shapes. Try to think about the shapes around an object (the negative space), just as much as you consider the objects you want to paint (the positive space). I think it’s useful to keep in mind that negative space can be a supporting feature of your work and it’s just as important as the positive objects you want to express. Try to plan the relationships between each.

Used well, negative painting can be a valuable method to bring out the positive shapes in your watercolor paintings.

Next time you pick up a brush, maybe start by painting the negative parts before you get to the subject !

Have fun !

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