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Artist Community
Written by John Fisher
I've always found negative painting the most difficult technique to master and I never really have; it's always a struggle and much of the time I try to avoid it. At exhibitions I'm always drawn to beautiful watercolours with complex negative painting, and I'm in awe at the skill and deftness some artists display. Maybe it's a left brain/right brain male thing, but it seems to me female artists are always better at this than I am. Negative painting is hard to explain at the intellectual level as it involves painting around things to create levels and the illusion of  a three-dimentional creation. It's a smoke-and-mirrors illusion. Here is one simple system you might want to try out and adapt to your own style. If you need more research you should try Linda Kemp at, or if you're lucky enough to attend one of her seminars I urge you to go.
  Background wash
I'm using a simple display of leaves here; it doesn't matter what kind really. If this seems too complex try a series of circles as shown in the final panel in this series. My paper size was 10 1/2" X 7". I covered the paper with a wet-in wet wash of my basic green. Use whatever colour green you prefer, but remember you will be darkening its value as you establish the layers. See the panel where I show my scrap paper with the various tones of green.
  Leave your leaves
Now mix up your next tonal value and cover the whole sheet except the leaves you've drawn in.
  Another cluster
Having fun? Next draw in other clusters of leaves to appear behind the first bunch. This is your first new layer. Mix up the next tonal value and cover the whole sheet except for the leaves you drew in. Also leave in the first bunch of leaves.
  A lot of work!
Erase all the pencil lines and now draw in another layer of leaves and repeat the process. The more layers you use the more complex the painting becomes and you may not want to devote time and energy to exact details, and if you vary the types of leaves it can be quite tiresome. You see what I mean? You aren't painting the leaves, you are painting between the leaves to make them appear in layers. Much of the time such negative painting will be background detail or parts of the painting which are not in the centre of interest, but completing this experiment may help you to visualize how negative painting sometimes helps.
  Testing tones
Here is my scrap paper with the various tones I eventually used.
  Simple circles
If leaves are too complex for you, try using simple circles until you get the hang of it.