Negative Painting Exercises Guaranteed to Improve Your Paintings

Have you ever thought about how some artworks are so much more captivating than others? 

As if something is drawing you in but you can’t seem to put your finger on it. This is something I’ve wondered as well…

One of the reasons could be because of how the artist has made use of negative space. You can learn to do this too!

In this article, I’ll go over the basics of negative painting, how it works, and 3 negative painting exercises to help you improve!

Let’s get started…

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Negative Space and Positive space

In art, positive space refers to the subject matter of your painting. It is the part that is meant to draw the viewer’s attention.

This includes the main objects which could be an animal, a mountain peak, a figure…etc

Negative space refers to the area around the main subject. 

This includes the background and the elements positioned behind the subject.

How to use negative space:

You can use negative space for the following purposes:

  • Visual Balance– Being able to achieve a balance between negative and positive space can enhance the overall composition of the painting and make it more captivating.  Having visual balance means there is a sense of unity where the negative space simultaneously works together with the positive space.
  • Definition– By painting around the main subject you can define its shape.
  • Drawing attention- How you make use of the area around the subject matter can help draw the viewer’s attention. For example, creating a background with a value darker than the main subject will draw attention to it by creating a contrast. 
  • Realism– Adding some shading and strategically placing elements or leaving empty spaces in the background can help make your focal element more realistic.
  • Depth- You can use the negative space to create a sense of depth within your painting. For example, adding mountains in the distance if you’re painting a landscape. This will also create realism.
  • Breathing room- Adding empty spaces in the background allows the viewer to have some breathing room. If the painting is filled and doesn’t have a focal point it can feel overwhelming for the viewer. 

Negative Painting in Watercolor Explained

Negative painting in watercolor is a technique where you paint around a subject to define it. It is an excellent way of adding depth and enhancing the main subject in the composition of your painting. 

When painting with watercolors, you generally start by painting the main subject and then add the background after. 

However, with the negative painting technique, you paint everything around the subject first.

Using the negative painting technique you’ll find yourself paying more attention to values and shapes which will also help you improve! 

You’ll also be able to simplify your painting by only including colors, values, and elements that aid in redirecting focus to the main subject. 

Exercise 1- Simple shapes with negative painting

This first exercise is the easiest and helps highlight the basic concept of negative painting! 

You’ll paint simple shapes by painting around their outline. You’ll then continue adding more layers from light to dark.

Easy negative painting exercise with watercolors

Step-by-step exercise:

The first step is to draw the outline of the shapes. Start with the circles which will be the positive space. Next, draw some squares and rectangles (shapes with 4 edges) behind the circles. 

Finish the sketch by drawing some triangles underneath the squares and rectangles. 

Negative Painting Exercise Step 1- Drawing the outline

The second step is to start painting! To paint the first layer, choose any color, and with your brush paint around the circles. I used Quinacridone Rose (PV 19).

You can use the pencil drawing as a guide but it doesn’t have to be perfect as long as you can tell which shape it is.

After the first layer has dried, choose your second color (slightly darker value than the first layer) and paint around the squares and circles. I used Q. Rose mixed with a touch of Ultramarine(PB 29).

Negative Painting Exercise Step 2- Painting the layers

Finally, add the last layer by painting around the triangles with the darkest value color. Make sure to avoid painting over the circles, squares, and rectangles. For this layer, I used more ultramarine in the mixture.

You can see how I managed to paint the shapes in different layers by painting around them instead of actively painting them. 

This is the basic concept of how the negative painting technique works in watercolor.

Exercise 2- Underwater rocks

To practice negative painting, you must choose a subject where you can incorporate the technique into your painting. That is why I have included 3 different negative painting exercises.

The second negative painting exercise is painting underwater rocks!  

You simply paint around the rock shapes then add a final glaze over them to indicate blue water.

Colors Used:

  1. Cerulean blue
  2. Cobalt blue
  3. Prussian blue
  4. Lemon Yellow
  5. Burnt sienna
  6. Ultramarine
  7. Rose Madder
  8. Paynes Gray

To begin painting the first layer, wet the area where the water will be and drop in strokes of blue. I used a mixture of cerulean blue and cobalt blue for the lightest areas (the top).

I then slowly incorporated Prussian blue for the darker areas of the water around the bottom.

Make sure you leave some white spaces between the strokes.

Next, mix together Prussian blue with a touch of lemon yellow in a thicker consistency. While the paper is still wet, paint around some of the rocks in the middle, this will create some softer edges indicating water.

Painting the rocks with the negative painting technique:

Let the first layer dry, then add the second layer by painting around the rocks negatively. Using the same color mixtures as before, paint around the rocks.

Make the rocks near the bottom more defined and darker in value. You can add some Payne’s Gray to Prussian blue to paint the darkest value.

Be careful not to cover up those soft edges of the rocks around the middle area where they begin to fade. 

Use more blue when painting the darker areas and more sea green where the light touches the water. 

Let the paper dry then gently glaze over some of the rocks with sea green.

Negative painting tutorial

The next step is to paint some water reflections near the top using a light blue mixture (Cerulean blue + Cobalt blue).

Continue adding water reflections just underneath the first rock. 

Notice how I started with broken lines and then switched to smooth strokes just behind the rock. This made the area behind the first rock more defined and darker. (I added Prussian blue here).

To paint the bottom rock, use a mixture of ultramarine and burnt sienna to create light gray. Once it dries glaze over the bottom part of the rock that’s sitting underwater with Prussian blue.

I didn’t make this rock too detailed because I wanted to draw more attention to the rocks underwater. 

I finished off the second and first rocks using the dry brush technique. For this, use raw umber and a mixture of ultramarine + burnt sienna + a touch of rose madder.

Finish off the rock by glazing over some of the dry brush texture with light gray. 

That’s how you paint underwater rocks using the negative painting technique!

Negative Painting Exercise 2 with Watercolors- Underwater rocks

Daisies (Negative Painting Exercise 3)

For the third and final negative painting exercise, we are going to paint a few daisies in a field. 

You’ll be practicing using the negative painting technique along with some blending techniques!

How to paint watercolor daisies as a negative watercolor painting exercise

Colors Used:

  1. Cobalt blue
  2. Cerulean blue
  3. Prussian blue
  4. Lemon Yellow
  5. Gamboge
  6. Pyrrol Scarlet
  7. Paynes Gray

Start by drawing the outline of the flowers as your guide (image below). 

You can use masking fluid to preserve the white of the daisies, however, I didn’t have any so I made sure not to wet them.

Wet the paper everywhere besides the flower heads and start dropping in light green. Use a mixture of cobalt blue + cerulean blue + lemon yellow for this step.

Mix some dark green using Prussian blue and gamboge then paint long strokes indicating the grass in the background.  

Continue by mixing some Pyrrol scarlet and Gamboge to make orange then add a touch of ultramarine to create a brown shade. 

Make sure it’s a thick consistency then add some spots into the wet paper to show the flower buds in the background.

The background is complete! Let it dry…

Using negative painting and blending techniques to paint flower petals

Using the blending technique, carefully paint around the outline of some of the petals.

Clean your brush and remove the excess water on a paper towel then drag and blend the paint to create a soft faded edge.

Negatively painting around the flowers draws more attention to them by bringing them forward.

Don’t go around all the flower petals, only in specific areas where. 

Do this with both light and dark green mixtures that we used in the first step.

Use this same technique to make areas around the bottom darker.

How to use the negative painting technique with watercolors with example

Once the paper has dried, use dark green to paint the flower stems. Dilute the mixture as you move down the stems.

I added Paynes gray, Prussian blue, and Gamboge to make a dark green shade.

Use burnt umber to paint the heads of the flower buds and grass. You can add a touch of Payne’s gray to the burnt umber to paint their stems.

Continue by painting the middle parts of the flowers. Work with the point of your brush and create tiny dots. 

Here, you can use Gamboge and Pyroll Scarlet.

The final step is to use light gray (Burnt sienna + ultramarine) to paint some subtle lines giving the impression of flower petals.

There you have it! Three negative painting exercises you can use to practice and improve your watercolor paintings! 

Negative painting watercolor ideas

Now that you’ve read all about negative painting in watercolor, you might be looking for more ideas you can use for practice. 

Here are a few ideas you could try:

Trees

If you’re painting a close-up of a tree you could use the negative painting technique to emphasize the shape of the tree. Simply work around the branches and outer foliage with the darker values.  

Fire

Painting a fire at night is another subject where you can use the negative painting technique. You can paint around the flames with soft and hard edges to give the illusion of fire. Finally, you can finish by painting the actual flames with yellow.

Negative Painting Grass

You can paint grass negatively by painting between the blades of grass. This is especially useful if you’re painting a close-up of grass. Another way is if theres a darker value behind the grass, you can drag the darker color to create an impression.

Bubbles

If you’re looking for a simple subject you could paint bubbles using the negative painting technique. You can paint a few bubbles into the background by making them less detailed giving your painting some depth.

Finally, you can paint a few up close as the focal point.

If you have any more ideas I would love to hear them in the comments below!

FAQ

Why is negative painting important?

Negative painting plays an important role in enhancing the composition of the painting. You can bring more attention to the main subject of the painting by creating contrast. 

Negative painting is used to create depth and dimension in your painting.

How does the ratio between negative and positive space affect the composition?

You can adjust the ratio between positive and negative space. Using equal amounts of positive and negative space creates a balance that’s pleasing to the eye. 

Meanwhile, using more positive than negative space will draw more focus to the details of that subject thus, creating an intriguing painting.

Finally, making the negative space greater than the positive will allow you to draw more attention to your subject by creating a sense of depth.

Can you use masking fluid in negative painting?

Yes, masking fluid can be very helpful in preserving the lighter areas when negative painting, however it is not a must to use.

How can you create rhythm with negative painting?

Rhythm is created by the use of repetitive patterns and shapes in the negative space. Especially when the patterns lead the eye towards the focal point!

Is layering necessary when using the negative painting technique?

Yes, layering allows you to gradually build up the values thus creating depth and dimension.

Does negative space have to be empty?

No, negative space can contain background elements that aid in the overall composition of the painting.

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