Negative Painting

Negative space is the space around and between the positive shapes in a painting. Negative space is as important to consider as the positive shapes. The object, or subject, in the painting (a flower, for instance) is the positive shape. The area around the flower, the background, is the negative space. Negative painting is painting the negative space – the area around the positive shape. In watercolor, you do lots of negative painting to save white and light areas.

Try out negative painting. If you have a daisy to look at, get it out now. I have a bunch of silk flowers to use as inspiration. Real ones are even better if you have access to them. The daisy in Figure is simplified. I used the daisy as an inspiration, but didn’t closely follow all the detail that the flower showed.


  1.  Draw the outline of a white flower on a 5-x-7-inch piece of watercolor paper. Don’t forget the stem and leaves.

The flower is the positive shape. Take a minute or two to really look at the flower shape. Take time to make the edge interesting with all the irregularities that you observe.

  1. Activate your paints.

Choose the colors you want for the background and activate them if they’re dry. I used alizarin crimson, hookers green, phthalo blue, lemon yellow, and cadmium yellow.

  1. Paint clear water over the background.

As the paper soaks up the water, rewet the area until the background is shiny damp with no dry spots. If you get a puddle of water, pick up the paper and tip it back and forth, allowing the water to dissipate through the entire wet area. You want to have an even wetness everywhere in the background. Leave the flower, leaves, and stem dry.

       4. Paint the background before the water dries.

  • Take your round brush, pick up some green paint, and float it in the damp background. The paint will explode in the water. Put green in other areas quickly.

You must apply the background colors while the paper is still wet. If the paper dries in an area before you’re done, stop and let it all dry. Start again with Step 3.

  • Rinse your brush between colors and get red and drop it next to the green. The red and green should mix to a dark green. Add blue in some areas.
  • Use your brush to manipulate the colors where you want them to go. Pick up the paper and tip it one way, then another, to let the water blend the colors together.

When you like the background, lay the paper down flat and let it dry.

  1. Add the flower details.

The center of the daisy is an oval of lemon yellow. Add a cadmium yellow shadow to the center while it’s still wet for a soft, rounded look.

  1. Glaze the stem and leaves green.

After the flower center is dry, mix a yellow-green with water so it’s very transparent to paint over the stems and leaves.

If the background got on your stem, flower, or leaves, you can remove the paint with a stiff brush and clean water. Blot to lift off the paint with a tissue.

  1. Finish with the shadows.

Paint a blue transparent shadow under the yellow daisy center.

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