Newsletters and blogging have been on the backburner of late; however, I was chatting with my lovely cousin, Karine, about negative painting and realised that sharing the painting process was a perfect blog subject.
Thank you, Karine, for inspiring this blog. I wish we lived closer together, but at least the world seems a little smaller with technology at our fingertips. Thank you also to Lise Holt (https://www.facebook.com/LiseHoltArt), my lovely artist friend, for proofreading this blog (I am prone to making typos because one hand types a bit faster than the other, and I don’t always see the mistakes).
What is negative painting?
Most often, when we draw and paint, we focus on drawing/painting an object or positive space.
Negative painting is focusing on the background or space around the object.
Why would anyone focus on painting negative space?
Many artists paint the negative space before they paint the positive space. There are a few reasons for this, including that it is often easier to get neater, crisper positive image edges if the negative space is already in place. It is also often easier to convey the sense of a distinct foreground and background when the background is painted first.
Negative painting is a little different. Many negative paintings produce images that induce a sense of distance and perspective without the positive areas or objects ever being painted in isolation.
It is easier to show this through a series of photos I took while painting a simple negative painting – they can be more detailed and complex as an artist hones their negative painting skills.
NOTE: This technique works with traditional media (like watercolour) as well as digital art, using layers.
I sketched some simplified fish forms all over the page. I took care to draw fish overlapping each other and took care to space them unevenly (randomly). Overlapping objects is critical when negative painting and the composition is more aesthetically pleasing when there are several layers overlapping. As a beginner, try sketching about three layers.
At the very least, paint on a watercolour paper block or tape your paper to a board. For the best results, paint on stretched paper or a surface like Crescent watercolour board.
You only need one colour for a simple negative painting, but as you gain confidence, using several colours can be fun and rewarding.
I use a small cocktail dish to mix my watercolour paint with water – For an A4 page, you will need approximately 2 to 4 teaspoons of water mixed with your paint. The first layer will be painted with a high water : paint ratio as the colour needs to be quite pale. If the colour is too dark, you will not be able to show distinct layers.
I tilt my board at a very slight angle (I use a second small cocktail dish, which is about 1.5 cm in height, placed beneath the top of my board, creating the perfect angle to allow the watercolour and gravity to do their work.
Using a large damp brush (a flat, mop or large round), carefully paint across the top of the page. You want the bottom edge of the paint to pool – this is called the leading drop. If you notice that the paint is not pooling, dip your brush into the paint again (this is called loading the brush). Continue painting across the top of the page.
In the same way, paint across the page again, touching the loaded brush to the leading drop, which will run to the bottom of the newly painted strip.
Continue to the bottom. If there is a pool of paint at the bottom, dry the brush and then dip it into the pooled paint. The brush will absorb the paint. Rinse the brush and dry it. Repeat as required.
Allow to air dry. If you are in hurry, allow to air dry until the wet sheen leaves the painted surface and then dry thoroughly with a hair dryer. The paper needs to be 100% bone dry before the next layer is painted. Once the page is dry, it will be fairly flat again. While the paper is wet, it may warp slightly. If you have stretched your paper, the warping should be minimal.
In this layer, the fish at the top of the stack will be UNPAINTED. Before starting to paint, I select the fish that need to be left unpainted – the rest will be painted over again.
Using a smaller brush (I like using a ½ inch flat), paint across the page (as in step 5), but this time, paint around the fish selected to be at the front of the scene. By painting (glazing) the rest of the page, you are creating a deeper saturation of colour in the background. I like to increase my paint : water ratio, so that each layer of paint contains more pigment than the previous layer. This way, my negative background is very dark.
I try to keep a leading drop, so if I notice the leading drop is drying, I add a little paint to it.
Sometimes, if the paper warps, or as the paint dries slowly in small, detailed areas, you may notice textural marks, which look like ‘cauliflower’, occurring. This is because the paint is flowing into dried or drying paint. This is called ‘back-run’ but is more commonly known as blossoming or blooms. One of the benefits of glazing many layers in negative painting is that the layers often conceal any back-run textures.
Select the fish you wish to paint around. In this layer, you will paint around these new fish as well as the fish left painted in the previous layer. You will paint over all the others. Each time you repeat this step, you will be painting around more fish and increasing the saturation of colour in the background. After each layer of paint, dry thoroughly before commencing the next layer.
NOTE: If you are only painting three to five layers, try to divide the number of fish out between the layers. Some cellulose papers will only manage 4 or 5 layers of watercolour. Cotton paper can manage many more layers and give more scope for highly detailed negative paintings.
When completed, your painting will have the darkest value of the colour in the background negative space and the fish will be lighter than the background. The fish ‘appearing’ in the close foreground will be the lightest in tone, while the fish ‘receding’ in the background’ will be darker, but not as dark at the background (negative space).
If you have found this blog about painting techniques interesting, please comment and let me know what watercolour topic you would like me to cover in the future.
Until next time…