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How to Paint from Negative Space in Watercolor


Columbine, 4" x 6" watercolor on cold press watercolor paper by Robert A. Sloan. The finished painting for this step by step demonstration.

Columbine, 4" x 6" watercolor on cold press watercolor paper by Robert A. Sloan. The finished painting for this step by step demonstration.

Materials needed to paint "Columbine"

This step by step demonstration can be done using my colors and choice of flower, or you can use the watercolors you have and apply the method to any flower you like. Here's what I used -- not terribly expensive if you need to pick up the supplies from Dick Blick.

1. Canson Montval watercolor block, 4" x 6" (about $5 online at Blick).

2. Size 8 round watercolor brush, mine is a freebie from Daniel Smith that I got with a watercolor order, but you can get a good Princeton Golden Taklon one not too expensive at Blick. I prefer taklon to cheap sable, but if you have a good Kolinsky sable then that's a lifetime brush! Taklon wears out in 3 to 5 years of heavy use. Kolinsky Sable is forever if properly cared for. Golden Taklon will last longer if properly cared for.

3. Blick Artists' Watercolor -- a tremendous bargain, big 14ml tubes too. Alizarin Rose, Lemon Yellow, Ultramarine, Burnt Umber, Hookers Green Deep, Raw Sienna, English Red, Paynes Grey, Titanium White. If you want all the colors I have in this brand, also get Pthalo Blue and Pthalo Green. Until they run out of them, if you get $35 worth of this paint they will give a free Lama Li watercolor journal, 8 1/2" x 11" with rough paper. I got the journal and really like it, the paper has a gorgeous texture.

Optional: The Masters' Brush Cleaner and Conditioner for washing up your good size 8 brush afterward, this extends the life of the brush and keeps it soft and well shaped if you point it with your fingers. Never, ever point a watercolor brush by sucking on it after you graduate from using children's paints, it's a bad habit that can poison you on the grownup artists' paints and it's hard on the brushes too.

Optional: Artist's Photo Reference: Flowers by Gary Greene, published by North Light Books. This volume has hundreds of wonderful photo references that you can use for your art if you do not copy the photos exactly when creating your sketch. It also has lessons on taking reference photos by one of the best photographers I know of and five demonstrations on painting or drawing flowers in different mediums. I use it constantly, the whole series is great.

I used several Columbine references on page 44 and 45 to compose my painting. You can, if you like, print out my art and trace a line drawing of it to use as a sketch for your painting, however you must then credit me for the source image. I have altered my image substantially from Gary Greene's and will describe how in Stage One.

So if you don't have the book, just take some good photos of a flower in your garden that you like and use my basic palette or choose colors of your own that will mix well including at least one set of good mixing primaries (red, yellow, blue) and a darkener. Having both Warm and Cold primaries helps a lot -- lemon yellow and raw sienna are both yellows, English Red and Alizarin Rose are both reds, Ultramarine and Pthalo Blue are both blues, and Pthalo Green and Hookers Green Deep are warm and cold greens.

Optional: use India ink with a watercolor brush to paint the background a deep pure black. This can be very dramatic and is a cool variation, also the ink dries waterproof so it won't bleed into your flower painting at all. Tips are in the next section on Painting from Negative Space.

Stage One: Paint from the Negative Space

Stage One: Paint the Negative Space. Paint everything around the flower and not the flower itself or anything within its outer outlines. Don't bother about interior details.

Stage One: Paint the Negative Space. Paint everything around the flower and not the flower itself or anything within its outer outlines. Don't bother about interior details.

Paint from the Negative Space: Stage One

What do I mean by "Paint from the Negative Space"?

Paint the background first.

Unless you are very practiced at this, you'll want to sketch an outline of your subject. You can do this by tracing from a printout of your source image, by sketching and then tracing an outline of your sketch to transfer it to your watercolor paper or by drawing an outline sketch on your watercolor paper.

If you use a watercolor block, then a light box or sunny window won't work as a transfer method. However, you can put tracing paper over your sketch or photo reference, trace the outline carefully with a graphite pencil, then turn the tracing over and gently burnish the back of it with the belly of a spoon. Do not press hard or use a sharp instrument or you will groove the soft surface of the paper -- this is why rubbing back and forth over the tracing with a rounded spoon is better.

Reversing the image from your photo reference is one of the ways to alter it. Another is to rearrange the elements. Only choose one flower out of several, place it differently in the composition, enlarge or reduce it before tracing -- and if your composition really works, it'll work just as fine turned around backward by turning the tracing over. If you took the photo then you don't need to worry about it, but flowers look just as good facing one way as the other.

If you are good at sketching from life or copying your own drawings manually, consider sketching the outlines lightly in a color that will match or go under your background colors. I would use a medium or dark green with the background mix I used to paint Columbine.

I had a very large quantity of dark blue-green-gray wash made up for another project that I didn't use all of it. I'd mixed it with Ultramarine, Burnt Umber and Payne's Grey for a thunderstorm sky project and then in following the demo, realized I was supposed to use Pthalo Blue with the Burnt Umber and Paynes Grey. Oops! So I didn't even use it.

I let it dry and saved it because it was still good artist grade watercolor and it came out as a good greenish-blue dark color. The background on my photo references in Gary Greene's book was entirely black -- a good idea if you're taking your own photo references is to set up the flowers in a vase under a very bright directional light and give them a black backdrop so they pop out bright and easy to see. Gary Greene did this with most of his flower photos.

So I knew the flower would look nice on a dark background and had that great color mixed. It became greenish because Burnt Umber is a yellowish brown although it's very dark. Mixing Pthalo Blue with Burnt Umber and Paynes Grey will also make a good dark blue-green-gray color, not too dissimilar but the proportions are different -- it takes a little less brown to match it with that combination.

I started my strokes close to the edges of the outline and painted wet on dry, pulling them out in slightly curved patterns that would show a little. This was a bit more interesting than trying for a smooth wash and it came out darker. My mixed color was almost as strong as tube paint.

If you would prefer a smoother wash without visible strokes, you can paint around the outlines carefully with clean water. Wait for that to dry till it's just damp and has a slight sheen but no shiny areas. Then start painting over that fast before it completely dries. Your color won't be as strong, it will fade till it's only more of a middle value, but it should come out smoother and any darker or lighter areas will look soft-edged and natural like out of focus greenery.

A good alternative background is to use Hookers Green Deep, some of the dark mixture and some Paynes Grey, as well as some swipes of Raw Sienna and Burnt Umber by themselves. Get the background wet smoothly but absolutely do not let the water go over the sketched outlines. Start "Charging" the colors into the damp paper by stroking very strong paint into it. You can use paint that's almost pure from the tube where you want deep darks, then let it get thinner and more watery to make light areas.

By doing loose color areas very fast in shades of blue, green, gray and brown together, it looks like there's other vegetation way out of focus. Use some Ultramarine or Pthalo Green but then go over it with Raw Sienna fast so that it mixes irregularly on the paper, that'll give interesting combinations. Experiment on wet paper to see what combinations and effects you like before doing the painting -- or try the painting more than once with different backgrounds.

If you have traced your sketch it's possible to do several versions of your flower painting and all of them may come out beautiful in different ways. Using just brilliant dark greens with a little raw sienna and a little blue or blue-gray into them can be one look, using light bright colors is another, you could even have some areas of English Red to hint at other flowers out of focus. But that's up to you. Play with it and design your background so that it's blurry, dark and indistinct. The darker it is, the more the flowers will pop out bright in the foreground.

If you paint wet over dry, your strokes will be very distinct and visible. This makes stroke direction important. That's why I started working outward from the flower and petal, going in slightly curved lines to spiral away from them. These strokes draw attention to the flower and aren't as distracting as side to side or up and down strokes would be. Random strokes in all directions can work if they're small.

The main point is -- paint the background first.

You can even paint the background entirely in black India ink for a pure black background that won't dissolve when you start painting over it with the watercolor. That would mean that you have to be careful to stay outside the outlines and may need two coats in some areas for complete coverage, but it can be a gorgeous pure black effect.

Be very careful to keep your brush wet at all times if painting with India ink. Wash it up immediately with The Masters Brush Cleaner and Conditioner to keep it from staining and never let it dry out. Also never put the brush hair end down in a jar or bowl or the hairs will bend permanently into an ugly, useless J shape that can't even be used for cleaning out your water jar afterward. Always lay brushes flat on their sides or set them in a brush rack with the hairs pointing up.

Try not to let the paint or ink get all the way up to the ferrule (the metal part that holds the hairs onto the handle) because then rinsing it out might dissolve some of the glue and it'll lose hairs. Instead, finish painting the background and then wash the brush immediately while you wait for the background to dry. If you work continuously and always overlap into a wet area, paint will go on smoothly and the brush won't dry out.

You will have a little of the dark mix left if you do it the way I did. Next step we'll thin out that greenish gray and use it for the Grisaille Layer.

I did not actually sketch the Columbine at all. It was an experiment for me to sketch with the paint, paint the outlines by looking at the reference sketching with the brush. If you try this, don't be surprised if it changes from the photo. But if you draw this way, don't be surprised if your outline drawing is more accurate than if you paid attention to drawing the flower!

Because the space around the flower is a random shape, I was able to follow it a lot more accurately than if I'd been looking at petals as petals, stems as stems and those little blobby bits as holes between stamens. The principle works in drawing just as well as it does in painting. If you're doing your sketch freehand, try drawing the outlines from the negative space before transferring them to the paper. You might surprise yourself with accurate proportions!

Especially if you turn the image upside down before drawing from it, that will really help. Upside down, then draw the space around the object instead of drawing the object. Your result is likely to be a much more accurate outline.

On to the Grisaille!

Stage Two: Grisaille Layer

A "Grisaille" is a detailed monochrome value painting. Everything gets painted in light or dark without regard to what color it is. In realism this establishes values and accurate details.

A "Grisaille" is a detailed monochrome value painting. Everything gets painted in light or dark without regard to what color it is. In realism this establishes values and accurate details.

Grisaille Layer

My deep dark green-black background was nearly gray, a greenish bluish gray. Thinned, I decided it would make a beautiful grisaille layer. The greenish tone would help the darker reds shimmer and look richer, while on the stems it would make them even brighter and greener.

Studying my photo reference close for structures and highlights, I began to paint each part of the flower carefully in monochrome. I mixed more water into my wash so that I had it quite thin and worked from the darkest areas first, one petal at a time. 

Painting wet on dry, I gained quite a lot of precision. So I avoided painting in anything next to an area that was wet. I did one petal and then moved across the flower to do another on the other side that wasn't touching it, then did the stem on the bud, and so on. If you omit the Grisaille Layer and begin painting directly in color, your colors will be brighter but you'll risk their becoming more garish and getting the values wrong.

This entire painting was done in glazing -- in Wet On Dry watercolor techniques. I didn't begin my Grisaille Layer until my background was completely bone-dry. I left it overnight because I live in a moist climate and wanted to be sure it was dry, being such a large area.

One way to tell if a painting is really bone dry or just touch-dry is that when it seems touch-dry, you can touch it with the back of your hand. If it feels at all cool to the touch, it's still drying and not ready to add more paint. When you put paint over a damp area, it will dissolve and blur out into it. When you paint wet over dry, if you're careful you don't have to move the under layers or mix them with the current layer.

I painted the columbine in a perfect grisaille and then let that dry for hours till I could touch it with the back of my hand and it didn't feel cool. Obviously if some paint comes off on your hand, it was still damp and you might as well fix it.

Notice that the paint dries lighter than it looked when it was wet. This is important to remember in order to get strong color in watercolors -- always mix your washes about one step darker than you want them to dry to, sometimes twice as dark. They may look darker in the palette because they're wet but that's also because the paint is a quarter inch deep, not a thin film over the paper that's going to soak in.

Do test swatches on a scrap of watercolor paper to see how light it becomes when it's dry and adjust your values for the grisaille stage accordingly. Use four or five different values between reserved white (no paint at all) and very dark like the background area. You can mix these in a palette in different small slants or cups so that it's easy to dip your brush into the light, medium light, medium, medium dark or dark slant for the specific area you're doing.

Always rinse your brush between levels of value, even though they are the same color. That way you won't accidentally put more color into a light area. Going from a light area to a dark one this isn't as important, but swish it a little to pick up enough color.

Stage Three: Lemon Yellow and Hookers Green Deep

After letting my Grisaille Painting dry completely, I added yellows and greens glazing them over the color already there.

After letting my Grisaille Painting dry completely, I added yellows and greens glazing them over the color already there.

Stage Three: First Color Glazes

The color that needed to remain purest is the Lemon Yellow over the stamens. That had to be bright and clean with no other colors added. So the first thing I did after the Grisaille Layer was bone dry was pick up a little Lemon Yellow direct from the palette, very strong so that it'd show on the scan, and paint in the tips of the stamens. The bases of them were slightly pinkish but also a little orangy, so I let some watery yellow drift down on that area.

I put a very thin lemon yellow wash on the white petals because they looked a little pinkish-orangy, more orangy than some areas in the reds. This glaze isn't visible in the scan but was very distinct in person, it did affect the color I used in the next stage and worked perfectly.

Then I put a glaze of Hookers Green Deep over both stems. I decided that was still too grayish and glazed Lemon Yellow over that when it dried. You could mix some Lemon Yellow into your Hookers Green Deep when you do it, since that would come out the same way and not take two separate layers.

If your stems aren't green enough and they look bluish, always try putting some yellow over them. That will brighten up any greens. It will also brighten reds and oranges without being that visible if they're strong. 

Yellow is an excellent undercolor for everything but blue and purple. It vanishes under reds and is a component of greens and oranges.

Stage Four: Finish with Reds!

The final stage! Glaze a variety of mixed reds over the grisaille in different concentrations to get the color perfect.

The final stage! Glaze a variety of mixed reds over the grisaille in different concentrations to get the color perfect.

Stage Four: Finish with Reds!

In the final stage, I let the Lemon Yellow and Green stage dry bone dry again. I mixed several different reds in my palette to prepare them in different concentrations.

One is just Alizarin Rose by itself, a purplish bright cool red that looks like Hot Pink or a deep magenta when it's full concentration. I had that in about middle concentration, strong but not straight from the tube.

Another red I mixed even proportions of Alizarin Rose and English Red. English Red is a red ochre, it's almost more of a reddish brown. It's an orangy earth red, light red ochre if you're using a different brand and check the pigment. I chose it as the equivalent of Winsor & Newton's Light Red, but it's a little lighter and more orangy than the W&N color. You can also use W&N Permanent Rose for the Alizarin Rose, a closer color match.

Last, I added some Raw Sienna to the orangy mix to make it a definite orange-red warmer than the medium red, and then pushed that mix even brighter with a touch of Lemon Yellow. I had a range of four reds leaning toward orange at one end and toward bright hot magenta at the other. All were about the same concentration since I could do them thinner just by adding water or using a soppy wet brush.

I glazed over the bud first with the orange color, then detailed with the medium-red and darker orangy red. That combination worked well. I let a little of it flow very thin over the tips and the sepals to mute them to less greenish than the stem, and went over the spurs because they are definitely not green whatever they look like at the Lemon and Green Stage. They're red, same as they are on the mature flower.

On the white petals I thinned out Alizarin Rose till it was very light, so light it would scan and that's about it (scanners will eliminate one full value level on any watercolor painting and since I like showing my art online, I try not to use colors so light they scan as white). I went into the shadows on the white petals with that pink and went over most of the previous light lemon yellow wash. It glazed over perfectly and didn't stay super-pink, it leaned toward coral the way I wanted it to.

Working a little darker with the medium red, I used the tip of the brush to get in some detail on the cluster of stamens and under the petal at the center. 

Then I used the orangy red again at the brightest areas of the red petals, going over it while it was slightly damp with successively pinker reds to deepen it. Working one petal at a time, I was able to cover it well.

I let the whole thing dry again and deepened some of the darker reds with another coat of the reds, adjusting to make some areas more orangy and others more reddish. So this last stage was really two last stages.

Don't be surprised if your first try comes out dark and grayish. You can lift color with a wet brush blotting it with a soft cloth or facial tissue, just paint clear water over the area to be lightened once it's dry and then press the cloth to pick it up. Let that dry completely before trying again.

If it's not dark enough and not colorful enough, just go over it again in the darker areas. Sometimes the grisaille may make it too grayish, other times it might not, be aware the deepest darks will be a more muted mixed color. This is why to leave some areas that will be red clean and white or at least very pale so that they get more of a concentration of color.

All in all, the experiment was a success! Columbine came out great. I gave it to my friend and student Twila who fell in love with it, hoping she'll try the technique on a flower painting.

General Tips:

Do a flower you're familiar with and have drawn or painted accurately several times before. This helps a lot. This is about my seventh or eighth columbine rendering. I might not have done as well if I were doing something else like a carnation.

Use two water containers, not just one. The one you rinse your brush out in first is the Dirty Cup, use that for washing color out of your brush. When you need to add water to dilute paint or wash over an area of the paper, or even just to go into another color, go from the Dirty Cup to wiping it dry and then wet it in the Clean Cup. The Clean Cup usually stays that way through the whole painting. If it doesn't, add another cup and keep using them in succession (long paintings may take this).

If you don't want a nasty cleanup with staining colors, flush the toilet while pouring out dirty wash water. It's less likely to stain the bowl and annoy the person who cleans your bathroom, which might be you anyway. This tip comes from my son in law Karl, who cleaned out my bathroom once after I had used a very staining red children's paint with my granddaughter -- not the least toxic but it did look like something fluorescent died in that john.

Don't flush toxic pigments like Cadmiums or Cobalt colors -- anything with the CL california label on it in Blick's listings. Let those dry and remove them with paper towels or rags, then treat them as toxic waste in terms of recycling. If it's watercolor you can always pour it off into some small container like a pill bottle and use it again as a neutral color, whatever color it happens to be. Recycling it yourself is thrifty, just like I reused that leftover wash to do this painting with in the first place.

If you don't like the mixed color as it is, add some other colors till it turns into something interesting and dark, whichever way it's leaning and then reuse it.



Stephanie Henkel from USA on November 13, 2015:

I really enjoyed your tutorial! I love to paint with watercolors and found your technique so interesting. I've never done the Grisaille technique before, but can see that using it might solve some problems I've had with garish colors. Thanks so much for the tips. Can't wait to try it!

Kristen Howe from Northeast Ohio on November 13, 2015:

Your easy-to-do instructions made that painting so beautiful and lovely to create. Thanks for sharing this great hub, which was awarded HOTD! Congrats!

RTalloni on November 13, 2015:

Congrats on your Hub of the Day award for this tutorial. Thanks for sharing your method/tips.

whonunuwho from United States on November 13, 2015:

Thank you for the nice illustrations and tips my friend. Well done. whonu

Yasmin Crawford-Hunt from Shenyang, China on September 14, 2013:

I love painting but I've never been any good with watercolours, this hub is really informative and the painting looks great! Thanks for sharing.

WillSteinmetz on August 31, 2011:

Wow! I love the drama of the paintings.Great hub!

artjjj on December 05, 2010:

Paint Watercolor pls http://www.yahqq.com/

Life Unplugged on June 20, 2010:

Amazing step by step explanation & wonderful illustrations along with it !Thanks for sharing

Shinon on April 08, 2010:

thanks for this great exercise/explination; just came home from watercolor class with 'HOW DO I NEGATIVE PAINT."

Strawberryfix on March 03, 2010:

This was very informitive and has made me eager to give this a go, I like water colour and pastles so i will defently have a go.

robertsloan2 (author) from San Francisco, CA on November 13, 2009:

Thanks! I have a lot of mediums I'm interested in. I like oils too, but the setup and cleanup take quite a bit more work than other mediums and it also takes good ventilation. So I'm not likely to write much on oils till next summer when I can bring the set outdoors and paint in the yard.

Priscilla Chan from Normal, Illinois on November 11, 2009:

Of course you do water color! Silly me:) You are so talented!

robertsloan2 (author) from San Francisco, CA on October 28, 2009:

Hi Nikki -- thanks for mentioning Redbubble. I am already a Redbubble member, username robertsloan2 like anywhere else. Some of my paintings are available as prints and cards, more often as cards because they tend to run small.

nikki1 on October 27, 2009:

Love your artwork. Its beautiful.

www.redbubble.com sell your merchandise..

robertsloan2 (author) from San Francisco, CA on September 24, 2009:

Glad I got you interested in watercolors again! I found out years after I'd gotten to where I could tolerate mine that there is a lot you can do to change things once it's down. Lifting doesn't get all the way back to white but it can be very useful for repainting areas or putting light details where you want them. Acrylics don't reactivate, so watercolors are a bit more workable for changes after it gets going. Also, sketching first really helps when it comes to working around white or knowing where to put the masking fluid.

chapelhillfiddler on September 22, 2009:

I gave up on watercolors because the you-only-get-one-chance aspect intimidated me, but this approach looks really promising. I paint in acrylics and often paint the background first because I love negative space! Thanks for this lovely page.

robertsloan2 (author) from San Francisco, CA on September 13, 2009:

Yay, rebekah! I'm so glad! That's why I write these art articles, it's to inspire people who already enjoy painting to get back to it and see what they've learned. Every time I went for a while without doing art, I found I was better at it after a hiatus -- I'd still been thinking about it and things that were tough before became understandable.

rebekahELLE from Tampa Bay on September 13, 2009:

thanks for a step by step, a wonderful, informative article~

makes me want to get the paints out!

robertsloan2 (author) from San Francisco, CA on August 26, 2009:

It's the best recycling there is -- it goes into another painting at a place where you need a neutral wash. Glad that intrigued you! The problem with children's watercolor is lightfastness. Good adult student watercolor that's pigment based is usually lightfast and at that point the difference is pigment density, you can use it to produce a masterpiece and it's not going to suffer from lack of quality materials. But the artist grade ones still include the toxic minerals of ages past because the substitutes still do not match color, opacity, the working qualities of these traditional pigments.

I have to admit I'm a little less likely to use those colors than the others because I'd rather worry less about it -- but in artist grade you can also get the hues in stronger concentration too.

Suiiki from City of the Newly Wed and Nearly Dead on August 26, 2009:

Interesting tip at the end, re-using paint out of the dirty water. I never thought of that. I mostly work in acrylic and children's water colour, but I'm almost confident enough to start using "Real" paints, and toxic waste recycling is rather expensive here. I'll have to remember that one.