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Negative painting

Paul Riley begins a three-part watercolour course with a look at some of the ways to achieve negative shapes, and their importance

The reason negative painting is peculiar to watercolour painting is that traditionally white paint isn’t used for white or light objects. That method is reserved for opaque media such as oils, acrylics and pastels. The whole point of watercolour painting is its transparency and translucency – watercolour paint works by allowing light to pass through the particles of pigment, the colour reflecting from the white of the paper – thus any opacity will affect that quality and make the painting appear dull.

In other words, the paper is in fact your white paint. To make a lighter colour, you dilute the paint with water, which is why the water needs to be clean. If you want a completely white object you leave the white paper unpainted; the surrounding colour tone reveals the white object – you paint the negative shape, hence the term negative painting. Simple, but how do you know what shape it is if it is white on a white surface? You need to indicate it, and this can be achieved in various ways.


Controversially I do not advocate the use of a pencil on watercolour paper, especially if painting flowers or from life. Graphite is a messy blackish substance that gets everywhere and is the quickest way to achieve a grubby image. It’s far better to use a fine sable, for example a No. 2 round with a very pale version of the colour of the object. The brush has a very fine tip and is finer by far than the sharpened point of a pencil.

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About The Artist

Watercolourists will love award-winning featured artist Janet Kenyon's city scenes and learning more about her approach and working methods, whilst practical watercolour articles include Paul Riley's focus on the importance of the negative shapes within your paintings and Paul Talbot-Greaves' inspirational demonstration showing how to place the warm and cool colours for best effect in your landscape compositions. Paul also sets you this month's painting challenge. More watercolour articles by Judi Whitton show you new ways to capture the effect of summer foliage, while Barry Herniman reveals the contents of his plein air sketching kit and demonstrates a bright summer scene featuring woods and water. Jo Quigley shows how a systematic approach can help to achieve a realistic seascape in acrylics, Haidee-Jo Summers explains how to exploit shape and suggestion in your oil paintings to maintain a painterly style, Martin Kinnear demystifies perspective, and we welcome back Aine Divine who provides an infectious account of how to complete a mixed media flower painting that you'll definitely want to try for yourself! Ian Cryer suggests that a break with old habits can open the way to refresh your painting style, Phil Tyler encourages you to explore the art of the self-portrait, Liz Seward shares her love of working with watercolour pencils, and David Questa shares his love of busy urban scenes that will see you reaching for your drawing materials. All this and more to keep you inspired and full of new drawing and painting ideas over the summer months!