You start with a sheet of white paper.  How do you make it sing?Don’t start out painting your most important shapes. Bring the out with negative painting. Look at the areas next to the white or light shapes.  That is where the real work is.  Like backroom politicians, most of our hard work is not noticed,  while the white paper we started with and have barely touched gets all the attention.

Examples? Here is a part of my studio wall in the summer several years ago.

  • The final version of Tulips on Chillberg Road, on top,you can see in the home page slide show.  Madronna Cliff on the upper right is in Island Scenes on the Gallery page. Compare the paintings above to the final ones — and note all the negative painting, that focuses on the most important tulips and branch (with saved whites on each).
  • The lilies are the strongest painting on the wall. Why? They have strong negative darks.
  • The boy in the lower left is the start of Summer Promise and is an example of setting a shape against the white of the paper (the opposite of negative painting). This can be a good choice on occasion.
  • However, the upper left rooster is darker that the surrounds. The color looked great when it was going on but when it dried it was dull and heavy. The best thing about the painting was the light behind the rooster’s head. In the trash!

hammockwetlayerLet’s look at the painting in the lower right.  It is the start of The Hammock Beckons.  The first wash is already setting up the warm tones in the madrona trunks, and the lighter foliage on the left, carving them out, pushing them forward. The far right will be set back.

When you look at the final version, you can see the many different kinds of negative painting tht created the masses of foliage, the branches, the hammock, the water pulling away from the edge of the rocks, and the lost and found trunks in the distance.

thehammockbeckons(1)Some is easy to do — like filling in the holes in the hammock. But when you want the edge to disappear there is a trick with the amount of water on your brush that you need to master.

negptg1When you start negative painting, you are drawing with your brush on the outside of the shape as you see in the first example on the left.  It is VERY important to have enough water in your brush. In the image on the right, as I start to turn green paper into leaves, you can see how wet the stroke is.  You need this to have the color migrate away from the edge.

blueaddedtogreenOn the 2nd circle on the left you see an overlapping stroke that went in with LESS water that the first.  Since water wicks from a wetter area to one less wet, the color moves out gradually. Make sure you like the shape of this negative color.  You may want to adjust it a little, tinting some of the damp area.

neg 3On the third stroke (or it could be the 4th) you want to rinse your brush COMPLETELY, getting all the color out of it.  Blot the rinsed brush on tissue and overlap your last stroke pulling the water away, making certain no color follows.  If it does, like mowing grass, overlap the edge of the last stroke — clean water, blotted brush — and fade it out until there is no edge.

Here is the process again: the first stroke, loaded with water; the second stroke less wet and sucking the green away from the fruit; finally no outer edge.


It’s a slow process.  When you are negative painting, put your painting up frequently and look at it from a distance.

sofarI will finish with a few more examples: the seamlessness of three glazes (wet on wet) on the thistle painting and the difference between Ruby my Dear, at the end of the first day on location and when it was finished.

thistlesIn Ruby, notice how the deep color where the petal tucks into the flower moves  out to pure white paper, indicating bright sunlight. To achieve this, the technique is exactly the same as described with the apple leaves.

Start looking at paintings and asking yourself, how did the artist get me so see that shape? The answer is usually by what was done NEXT TO IT.








rubymydear5 It’s like learning to back a trailer.  You have to keep trying and “thinking negative” and it will come with a click of the brain, you’ll “get” it.


Remember to watch your outer edges. Be sure no color makes it to the edge or you will have a new negative shape.

Watch your ratios of water, always getting less.  And enjoy pushing your light shapes toward the viewer as you take care of the negatives.

Happy painting,


© 2011 Caroline Buchanan