Tuesday, February 4, 2014

I'm Positive About Negative Painting

Watercolor and gouache on YUPO paper 9x12
“We can complain because rose bushes have thorns, or rejoice because thorn bushes have roses.”
― Abraham Lincoln

Next week I’m excited and honored to be doing a YUPO painting demo for an art club in the area. In preparation, I painted this little abstracted garden this morning using transparent watercolors, opaque gouache and a 9x12 YUPO pad.

Here’s what I started with—basically a wet in wet abstract watercolor which I let dry overnight. So you’ve got an interesting base painting like this, then what? Could you leave this as a more abstract painting? Of course. But I like options...
Shape "hunting" with watercolor pencil on the original painting.
As an artist who paints in both oil and watermedia I can’t imagine not having negative painting as a key option and skills. So I wanted to share 5 negative painting tips that I hope will help you the next time you face a painting challenge.
  1. Consider the power of your mind’s eye. We need to be skilled shape makers and finders as painters. Negative painting fine tunes these abilities. In other words, what do you see in those big blobs of paint? A figure? A tree? An octopus? Keep looking…..And enjoy the process.
  2. Want to push your more non-objective abstract painting over to a more representational painting? Negative painting helps you modify what you already have like I did today. It’s also a great way to “fix” or “salvage” a so-so painting you might have in the studio.(Don't we all have a few of those??)
  3. If and when you negative paint over an existing background don’t be shy. Consider a bold value contrast that will really “pop” your image. For example, try black (or near black) over a very light painting or light negative painting around darker shapes.  Along the same lines if your base painting is very high chroma try a more neutral negative painting again for contrast.
  4. If you enjoy painting nature and organic subjects like I do I think negative painting often looks less forced and more natural than positive painting.  That doesn’t mean you can’t paint any branches positively but consider using more interesting negative shapes as well—such as sky holes.
  5. Take your time. Don’t rush negative painting if you’re not used to it. If you need to use a non-permanent light drawing tool (i.e. pastel pencil, watercolor pencil, soluble graphite, etc.) to help you find the shapes before you commit to paint.
P.S. If you want to improve your watercolor negative painting skills check out Linda Kemp's Painting Outside the Lines. She also has some videos on Artist TV Network.


  1. It came out great. I love to do a painting like that with no image in mind and then see what the paint "speaks" to me. Beautiful.

  2. Thanks very much Dawn--I find that this negative painting practice is really helping me today as I work on a much more complicated still life. Cheers and happy shape finding!