Want to figure out how to add depth and contrast to your paintings? I share examples from one of my favorite techniques with this watercolor negative painting tutorial!
One of My Favorites
Watercolor is one of my absolute favorite ways to create art. It is versatile, portable, ethereal, and vibrant. But when it comes to creating scenes with lots of depth and contrast, watercolor presents a unique challenge. I discovered the solution a few years ago and have been using it like crazy ever since — it’s called watercolor negative painting. This technique is simple enough in concept, but it requires something of a learning curve. In this tutorial, I’ll show you what you need to create depth with this watercolor technique, what steps you need to take, and some tips for stellar results.
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What is Watercolor Negative Painting?
With nearly every other kind of paint, you can add lighter colors on top of darker ones to create contrast and highlights. However, watercolor is different. Because the paint is transparent, you need to always move from the lightest color to the darkest. When you are trying to create a scene with a foreground and background in watercolors, you have to think ahead and plan so you can work from light to dark. That’s where watercolor negative painting comes in.
Essentially, negative painting is a technique where you outline a shape (like a tree, leaf, or mountain) and fade the paint around that shape, surrounding the shape with a darker color. It is called negative painting because you are working with negative space. When you do this with multiple layers, you make each subsequent layer darker, which adds depth to the painting. Negative painting ensures that the items closest to the viewer are lighter and the items furthest are dark and shadowy.
Where Can You Use Negative Painting?
You can use watercolor negative painting for any scene that requires depth. For example, I have used this technique when painting hills, waves, schools of fish, canyons, leaves, trees, stones, buildings — even people! The applications of negative painting are endless. If you can think it up, you can use watercolor negative painting to create a gorgeous and interesting piece of art.
Watercolor Negative Painting Materials
In order to successfully pull off watercolor negative painting, you need a few basic materials.
If you want to watch me paint Balancing Stone in video so you can see each step, make sure to watch The Future of This Channel | How Impostor Syndrome Has Held Me Back.
Quality Watercolor Paper
If there is one thing you truly need for a good watercolor negative painting, it is quality watercolor paper. This technique requires layer upon layer upon layer of paint, which means that cheap watercolor paper will buckle and ruin your hard work. While you don’t need the most expensive watercolor paper on the market, you do need a quality paper that is at least around 140lb (or 300gsm).
Below are a few options that I have used and can recommend.
While the paper itself needs to be high quality, you don’t need expensive watercolor paints for the negative painting technique. As long as you have plenty of room to mix colors, you can use some pretty cheap paint. Below I have listed some paints I suggest.
While you are welcome to use whatever shape paintbrush suits you, I always reach for round paintbrushes to create my negative watercolor paintings. I would recommend you have a few sizes to switch between while you create your painting. For this tutorial, I used a variety of round brushes: size 4 , size 6 , size 10, and size 14. You don’t need those exact sizes, but it is a good idea to have a small, medium, and large brush on hand. Brands don’t matter much for this tutorial, but just for transparency, I use Grumbacher paintbrushes.
You’ll want to secure your watercolor paper to a canvas or board of some kind before you start working. I use a large wooden palette, but an artist’s clipboard will also work. You don’t want the paper moving around while you work, and taping it down will help with some of the warping as more water gets added.
If you are using tube watercolors or liquid watercolors, you need a palette for your paint. You’ll need to mix paint for this tutorial, so make sure you have plenty of space for mixing.
If you plan on drawing on your paper before you begin, you’ll need a pencil. I used some Prismacolor colored pencils for this tutorial, but any pencil will do as long as you draw very lightly.
You want to tape your paper down on the board with masking tape. I use Duck Brand painter’s tape.
For this tutorial painting, I wanted to keep the subject safe from the many layers needed for negative painting. I accomplished this with masking fluid. You certainly don’t need masking fluid for this negative painting tutorial, but it is a handy tool to have in your kit for more complex paintings.
Two Jars of Water
You might be tempted to only use one jar of water while you work, but trust me when I say you need two jars. One jar is your cleaning jar, where you rinse the paint off your brush. The other jar is your clean water jar, where you load your paintbrush before using it on the palette or the paper. Two jars is essential for negative painting because you need to create lots of layers with varying degrees of transparency. One jar that you use for cleaning and wetting your paint will quickly give you muddy colors and ruin the effect you are trying to achieve.
As you work, you’ll need to wipe your paintbrush on a rag or paper towel. I use old shirt scraps so I can reuse them again and again.
A Heat Tool
Because this technique requires many layers of watercolor and I am impatient, I use the heat tool from my embossing kit to speed the process along. A hairdryer would also work if you want to speed the painting along — just be careful of pushing the watercolor around the page or overheating the paper!
Watercolor Negative Painting Tutorial
Now that you know what materials you need, let’s jump into this tutorial! I’ll be showing you the process behind Balancing Stone and walking you through the steps I took to complete the painting.
The first thing I do before any painting is make sure all my materials are ready to go. I taped the paper to my board, made sure my palette was full of paint, activated my watercolors with water, gathered my brushes, and arranged my workspace until I was comfortable. I drew out some of the composition ahead of time, including the girl and the stones in her hand, a few of the closest trees, and the shape of the pond. Then I applied masking fluid to the girl and her flowing hair and allowed it to dry completely.
#2 Lay Down the First Wash
Once the masking fluid was totally dry, I laid out a base wash with a larger mop brush. First I wet the paper with clean water. Then I added watercolor to the wet paper and let it spread and bleed until the entire paper was covered.
Without this initial wash, the objects in the first layer would be stark white. I used a wet on wet wash, but you can use a flat wash, gradient wash, or variegated wash. Allow this layer to dry completely.
#3 Create the Closest Shapes
In Balancing Stone, I actually have two different areas where I employ negative painting: the trees and the stones on the shore. Throughout this tutorial, I will bounce back and forth between these two negative areas as I continue adding new layers. However, the technique is exactly the same for both areas of the painting.
For the forest, I wanted two trees to be in the first layer, making them appear closest to the viewer. I loaded up my size 6 round brush with strong paint and outlined one side of the tree. Before the paint started to dry, I loaded my size 14 round brush with clean water and faded the pigment away from the tree. The goal here is to create a dark to light transition of color away from the edge of the tree. The color should fade to totally transparent until it is just clean water. Once one side of the tree was done, I did the same on the other side of the trunk. Then I did this same process for the other tree, completing this layer.
For the stones on the shore, I painted small circles, ovals, and smooth rock shapes with a no 4 brush. Then I used clean water with a larger brush to fade the color out until it was transparent. Since these were smaller than the trees, I outlined several small stones at a time before hitting it with the larger brush to fade it out. I worked across the shore until I had a layer of light stones. These will sit on the topmost layer of stones when the painting is complete.
#4 Add Another Layer
Once I was done with the first layer of stones, the watercolor on the first layer of trees was totally dry. In order for this technique to work, there cannot be any dampness at all in the paper. It must be bone dry.
I went back to the trees and decided on a few more trees that I wanted to sit just behind the first two. I outlined each one carefully, making sure to include any branches as I painted. Then, just as before, I used a larger clean brush to fade out the color until it became totally transparent.
When I was done with the trees, I turned my focus back to the stones. I used my smaller brush to outline more pebbles and rocks in batches of three or four before using my clean brush to transition them to clear water.
A tip for adding new layers
With each layer, you want to be careful to not paint over previous layers. You have to carefully go around them when shading around new shapes to make sure they stay light and prominent. If you paint over a previous layer, you will destroy the effect you are trying to create. Just imagine that a layer is locked when you finish painting it. You are now only painting behind that shape (until you get the detail stage, anyway).
#5 Repeat Again and Again
Continue adding new shapes, filling in space around your existing layers. With your shading on each layer, new layers will naturally become darker, making it look like they are further away from the viewer. You can always help this along by mixing a darker color slowly into your painting. For the stones, I gradually moved from a bluish-green color to a darker blue with dashes of Payne’s Gray.
As you work, there will be less and less space to fill between old layers. For example, there were significantly fewer layers of trees than stones because the shapes filled up the area faster. If I painted my trees smaller, like thin saplings, I would have needed to paint many more layers for the trees.
By comparison, I had to paint dozens and dozens of layers of stones. They were so small and I had so much space on the paper to fill with stones. In the end, I was mostly using dark paint with a very small brush and I no longer needed to fade out the color. Instead, I was just painting small dark spaces between stones to indicate a deep stack of stones.
Once you are out of space and you cannot create any darker layers, you are done with the watercolor negative space painting portion of your art. Congratulations!
#6 Add Details
After my forest had dried and my stacks of stones had wrapped up, I was able to finish out the painting. I added details to the trees and created some bushes and groundcover in the background. Then I rubbed off the masking fluid on the girl and filled her in with shadows, color, and details like her eyelashes and lips. At this point, I pulled out my gold watercolor palette and added golden accents to the stones she is balancing. After that, I filled in her long flowing hair with gold as well.
Once the girl was painted, I added a few more details around the painting, such as lines on the rocks at the bottom of the pond and a waterline on the shore. Finally, I used Bleedproof White and my finest detail brush to add white highlights on the ripples of the water near the shore to show the edge of the water more clearly. Then I was finished with Balancing Stone!
Watercolor Negative Painting Tips
After trying watercolor negative painting many times over the last few years with mixed results, there are a few tips I’ve picked up along the way.
Always Use Two Jars of Water
Don’t skip this step! Just grab another cup from your kitchen — it’s that easy. And be sure to replace your water in both jars when it starts getting too dirty. Don’t be afraid to do this multiple times during the painting process.
Let it Dry Between Each Layer
If you try negative painting on even slightly wet paper, your pigment will bleed and you won’t get those crisp, hard lines. It helps if you have two areas to bounce between in your painting as I did for the trees and the stones. That way, by the time you’re done with one area, the other will be ready. If you’re impatient, pick up a heat tool to move things along.
Have One Clean Brush and One Dirty Brush
Since you need to work quickly to make sure your outlines don’t dry, I find it extremely helpful to keep one brush around just for fading out the color. If you just use one brush, you’ll constantly be racing to clean it off and load it with clean water for each outline. It’s easier to have one brush that I use for applying pigment and another just for adding water.
Work Quickly in Small Batches
If you have something larger to outline, like the trees in Balancing Stone, don’t try to outline it all at once before fading out the pigment. Instead, work quickly in small batches. Only add paint when you know you can work with it immediately. Otherwise, the paint will dry in certain areas, leaving you with a comically bold outline around your object. For smaller objects, like the stones, I was able to outline multiple stones in one batch because I knew I could get to them all quickly. It takes some practice to figure out what pace and batch size works best for you.
Go Deep Into Your Art
While watercolor negative painting might be a time-consuming process, it is worth every moment of effort. You can’t beat the depth, contrast, and stunning colors of this technique. The main things you need to pull off negative painting are brush control, speed, and patience. For your first attempt at negative space painting, try keeping it simple and seeing how it goes. Once you get the hang of this technique, you can begin creating more complex pieces with multiple elements. I hope you give this incredible watercolor technique a try and see how it can totally transform your art!
Explore More Art Tutorials
If you enjoyed this layer-based watercolor technique, then you’d definitely love my course Watercolor Layering: 5 Tips for Creating Depth, Intensity, and Color on Foxsy!
Watercolor Layering is a fantastic introductory watercolor class to help you understand the skill and power of layering with watercolor. You’ll see what makes layering with watercolors so vital, several tips and techniques to make the process easier and more effective, along with two super easy layering projects to help you cement in your new layering prowess.
And with a Foxsy membership, you also gain access to the growing creative course library! Foxsy is packed with art classes to help you grow your watercolor, lettering, drawing, and creative journaling skills — and more classes are added every month.
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