How to use negative painting in watercolour

Negative painting is a beautiful technique in watercolour, and it’s not used nearly enough! It can be a little fiddly depending on your subject and how much detail you put in, but it’s a great way to get depth into your paintings.

What is negative painting?

Negative painting in watercolour is where you paint around the subject to highlight it by darkening the background. It creates a sense of depth and space, visually ‘pushing’ the lighter areas ‘forward’ in the scene.

Negative painting often uses the white of the paper to create the highlights and builds darker values by painting around them. The more layers you use, the deeper and darker your backgrounds will appear.

example of negative painting in watercolour with leaves

What can I use negative watercolour painting for?

Negative painting works well with subjects that have a lot of contrast and a deep, distant background. Here are just some ideas:

  • Landscapes with rolling hills and mountains
  • Busy jungle scenes with plants and animals that overlap
  • Fields of wildflowers
  • Overlapping leaves like a tangled vine
  • Underwater scenes such as coral reefs
  • Portraits where you want to highlight the person by darkening the background
  • Abstract patterns with a sense of depth

How do you create a negative painting effect in watercolour?

The easiest method for negative painting in watercolour is to sketch your shapes and paint around them. Add a second layer of shapes, paint around both of them, and you’ve got a negative painting!

Imagine that you’re working backwards through your scene and paint the space around the parts that are closest to the viewer.

negative painting in watercolour step 1 tutorial

Step by step negative painting tutorial

Here I’ll demonstrate how to achieve a negative painting effect with a tutorial of an abstract pattern showing overlapping circles.

  1. Preparation is key

First, lay out the top circles – these will be the lightest and the closest to the viewer. I drew around some different sized lids.

  1. First wash

Put down a light watercolour wash around your subject, leaving them white. You need to be neat around the edges. Allow to dry completely!

  1. Sketch the next layer

Now add the sketch for your next layer, being careful to hide behind your first shapes.

negative painting in watercolour tutorial step 2

4. Add the second wash

Now paint around both sets of shapes, just filling the negative space around them. You can use the same value of wash or go slightly darker, depending on whether you want a very high contrast. Allow to dry fully.

5. Keep adding layers

Keep going in the same way, allowing the work to dry before the next layer. The finished piece should have a good level of depth and contrast.

negative painting in watercolour step 3

Top tips for the best effects

Let it dry properly

Negative painting will take a few layers – it’s vital that you let them dry fully or the layers will smudge. It needs patience but the results are worth it!

Contrast needs to be high

Negative painting should have a strong contrast, with the lightest sections at the front of your painting. Keep the first layers of paint lighter and work towards a darker value as you get towards the background.

negative painting in watercolour the finished piece

Sketch in pencil

It’s really important to start with a pencil sketch, otherwise it’s easy to lose your place in negative paintings and end up covering up something you shouldn’t! But use a light touch or the lines will be visible through the paint layers. You can always sketch then slightly lighten the marks using a rubber eraser.

Focus on neat edges

The layers come from the contrast between your shapes and the darker background, so be as neat as possible around your shapes to give a crisp finish.

Tape your paper down

This watercolour technique uses a lot of water, which can cause the paper to buckle. Tape it down onto a flat surface to keep it still and help the paint dry evenly.

Negative painting in watercolour can seem complicated, but if you work methodically you should be able to create work with stunning depth and contrast. Start simple and aim for more complex designs as you build confidence.

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