Negative Painting by Linda Kemp

By Linda Kemp, SCA OSA CSPW

Q. What is negative painting?

A. Negative painting, is an intriguing, alternative approach in which the subject is established by painting around the object rather than by painting the object itself.

Most painters work in the positive, typically adding one shape on top of another. If, on the other hand, you carve out your shapes, you are taking a subtractive approach: constructing in the negative. So when images such as leaves, trees, flowers or rocks appear in negative paintings they have been created by painting the spaces around and between simple, distinctive shapes (symbols) that represent these things.

Look at it this way...

Q. Is negative painting hard to learn?

A. Negative painting is not only easy to learn it's fun too! You don't need to be an expert painter either. Negative Painting can be used with many mediums such as watercolour, acrylic and oil and adapts to a variety of personal styles from highly realistic to contemporary abstraction.

Here is a simple project that you can try. Click on the images below to obtain a larger view.


  • Paper: 5' x 7' good quality watercolour paper such as Arches 140 CP or Saunders Waterford 200 CP
  • Paint: Three tubes of Artist's quality watercolour - my choices for this exercises are Holbein Cobalt Blue, Burnt Sienna and Raw Sienna
  • Brushes: #8 or 10 round that comes to a good point and a 1' flat wash brush
  • Pencil

1. Apply base colour to your paper

Throughly wet the surface of your paper with a 1' flat brush and water. The paper should appear shiny.

Stroke diluted fresh colour by the brush load onto your paper. Add the colours separately allowing them to mix on the paper. Spatter, drip and pour! Lift and tilt the paper to encourage the pigments to flow and mingle. Leave as little or as much white as you wish.

Don't fuss over the wash for too long; this is just to get you started. When you are pleased with this first application of colour set the painting on a board to dry completely.

2. Draw leaf shapes and a stem

Loosely sketch leaves onto the dry paper with a pencil. Follow my example, or create your own personal symbol.

3. Paint around your shape

Load your round brush with well diluted Raw Sienna. Instead of filling in the shape with colour, paint around it! Begin at the edge of your leaves and pull the colour out towards the outside edge of your paper, diluting with water as you go. Continue to glaze all around the shape. This is the negative space! Don't fill the shape with colour. Dry your painting completely before you move on to the next step.

4. Add a second leaf under the first

Now here's the trick of building layers in the negative. A new set of leaves is added by tucking it under the first form. It will be partially hidden. Take care while adding the stem to ensure that it visually lines up when passing under the previous stem and out the other side.

5. Glaze around the shapes

Paint around your leaf shapes with diluted Raw and Burnt Sienna. As the layers build increase the value a step or two darker to bring the layers of leaves forward. Dry your painting completely.

6. Add a third set of leaves

Pencil in and glaze around a new layer of leaves with Burnt Sienna. Drop diluted Cobalt Blue into the wet paint for variety. Once again dry the painting.

7. Continue to build layers

A fourth layer is drawn under the previous leaves. Glaze around all of the leaves with a stronger concentration of Burnt Sienna and Cobalt Blue. Pull the colour away from the shapes and out to the edge of the paper. Be sure to fill in the captured negatives between the stems.

8. How many layers can you build?

I've established five layers, but you don't need to stop here! Notice that in this sample the layers build from light to dark and from front to back.

Tips for successful negative painting:

  • Dry between layers.
  • Remember that you are not painting leaves, you are painting the space around them.
  • Resist the temptation of going back into the forms to add details such as veins or to adjust the colour.
  • Create your own shapes to make personal symbols. Keep the shapes simple and flat for the best results.
  • You can learn more about negative painting with my new book, Watercolor - Painting Outside the Lines, pub. By North Light. For more information please visit my web site,
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