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Comparing Positive to Negative Shapes in Direct Watercolor

May 22, 2018

Here are two ways a painter can see an object: A: as a positive shape, or B: a negative shape.

On the left, the silhouette of the horse. Simple eh? Easy :)

On the right, the silhouette reserved out of the background and then filled in with the ‘shadow mass’ of the horse.

I think you can see how the negative shape is more complex. You have a figure-ground relationship. The horse (the figure) interacts with the values in the background, and, there is the implication of falling light, created by the white left over in-between.

Why do we care?

When painting directly in watercolor, sometimes leaving white negative spaces, is a very effective way to build up a scene. Water shapes have to stop somewhere! You can’t have wet edges touching willy nilly – or the drawing will lose clarity. You can use a negative silhouette to draw a shape, leaving dry paper for later – or – to put other shapes on top.

Here’s how I drew the Positive Horse.

I start with a Dot Plot. <read more about that]. This is a way I can do some measuring, but avoid making a committted underdrawing. What I’m sighting in on here is the base of the horse’s neck (the shoulders) , the point of the jaw, and the tip of the rump. (Now that I say this, it’s pretty similar to the way I suggest drawing people in this free download. <pdf).

After the dots, I might draw some lines – which I convert into shapes as I go. <Remember the previous demo]

Most people (me included) find this positive method fairly straightforward. It’s easy to undersand, and then you just have to master the mechanics. Brush dexterity, and mixing viscosity.

Here’s how I drew the negative horse.

Start with a dot plot. And then just put a value into everything that *ISN’T* the horse.

I don’t know why this is harder to execute on – but it often is for me. It should be just like drawing a white horse. But somehow, it is harder to visualize.

Also – you have to work faster. (You can tell I’m rushing by the out of focus photos). Anway – if you want the background to completely knit around the figure – with no unwanted hard edges in the fused wash – you have to use a larger brush (for more water) and keep the tone shapes moving, wet edge to edge – so they melt into each other.

There ought to be a third example, which I neglected to make – which is, of course, combining the two approaches.

You could paint part of the subject in positive and the rest is negative. Say, you start the horse head in positive mode, then cut out the rest of the figure. In a way, I’ve done this here. The legs are little positive shapes (on top of that pale gold) holding up the body.

I will try to make an example of combined pos/neg approach (I would call counterchange). and stick it in here later.

Using this technique, you can build up a scene like a puzzle. Fitting silhouetted shapes together, positive next to negative until you have the composition.

Here’s a few older examples.

Can you see the Shape Puzzle underneath this sketch? How the houses are simple negatives cut out by the trees? (and then later filled in with some shadow – like the horse!).

I exaggerated the size of the trees, and simplified them into masses, so I could make a nice clear silhouette of this general store. Then I went back and put in the shadow shapes that make balconies and windows. But if you ignore that, it’s just a white horse cut out by backgroundound :)

Now you can really see the trick underneath rgiht? :) The metal roof of the barn is a huge negative shape, cut between the trees and the red wooden siding. Then we just add some shadows to the negative shape, and voila. You’re in Vermont.

Sometimes the trick is subtle. See the negative cutout of the farmhouse? (Which I filled in later with faded red). Now it’s obvious how I used the trees (re-composing, simplifying, silhouetting) in order to make the little house into a nice clean shape, which is the focus of all the compositional lines created by the other color blocks.

I kind of regret the smaller tree on the right. It looks like a bite taken out of the house. But oh well, we can’t fuss over plein air paintings.

Ok- that’s some food for thought for your #30x30DirectWatercolor2018!

We’re starting soon, a little over a week to go!





Converting Line to Shape in Direct Watercolor

May 20, 2018

What if I want to paint Direct Watercolor, but I still think in line?

That’s certainly my situation. I want to paint, but I think in line :) It’s such a habit from years of drawing.


I’m thinking about my upcoming demos in Chicago and Porto, and how we might break down Direct Watercolor into achievable exercises for people.

The first thing should probably be – how a beginner might approach brush drawing.

I’m thinking of calling this Converted Line. But it might also be called Absorbing your Lines.

If we begin by drawing with the brush – well, it’s harder than drawing with a pencil.

There’s no erasing, and, of course, the brush tip is harder to draw with.

BUT – the advantage is – we get a WET line, which we can simply ABSORB into shapes made with the side of the brush.

In this way, the drawing progresses from LINE to SHAPE >>>> at the same time <<<<.

(Don’t wait so long that your line is bone-dry, or it won’t melt into the shapes as nicely).

I think this is more organic than a drawing in pencil and filling with color later.

But also, this helps us see how little drawing we actually need to see a shape. (With practice).

Sometimes it’s too organic! You *will* sacrifice accuracy. That is absolutely true.

But what you get in return is a kind of internal blending of color, that you cannot achieve any other way.

l still try to proceed [Larger > to > Smaller] and [Lighter > to > Darker]. Just as if I was tinting in the Tea, Milk and Honey method.

And I still have to wait for the shapes to dry before I put in some small touches with more brush-line.

It might seem a fruitless exercise when seen in isolation like this.

Why do I want to make this clumsy drawing? When I can make a better (more accurate) drawing with a pencil?

Because the goal – eventually – is to use less and less and less guiding line, and be able to think in wet shapes.

Shapes fuse together in more solid, structural ways. And – eventually – can give you a feeling of minimalism, in which less is more.

And of course, shapes can be knit into the background, to make a fully integrated water painting, which begins to consider the figure-ground relationship – and later on, the use of depth in the background, as well as any number of things that can be your next level of practice, after you are comfortable with brush drawing, and painting directly!

The Direct Watercolor Palette : From

May 15, 2018

I’m pleased to show you a little side project that’s evolved out of #30x30DirectWatercolor2018!

One of our 30×030 guest-artists, Maria Coryell-Martin is the designer behind, a project where she’s creating the ultimate compact watercolor palette. Her system is a unique product based on her experience as a travel sketcher in the most extreme locations around the globe.

At the same time, it’s super-cute and fun for people who are just scooting around town making sketches in their daily lives.

I’ve talked before about the kits Maria has sent me to play with. This year, in preparation for the 30×30 event we decided to go one further!

The Direct Watercolor Palette is a 12 color selection, chosen by me to be my absolute minimum landscape and urban sketching palette. These colors are based on the larger 21 color palette I’ve fine-tuned while working on my book Direct Watercolor.

These are my desert island choices. When I want the smallest possible portable kit, this is what I’d bring.

Maria has created a special limited edition of her Art-Toolkit, set up in my ideal layout, with two big mixing areas, and 12 mini-pans pre-filled with Daniel Smith watercolors in my color choices.

Supplies of this kit are limited! If you’re in the market for a compact kit – maybe to help you with your daily paintings in #30x30DirectWatercolor2018 – order your limited edition Direct Watercolor Palette today!


BONUS TIP! Maria is also running a giveaway for the Direct Watercolor Palette on Instagram. Visit @ArtToolkit [] to enter!

30×30 Artist : Maria Coryell-Martin

May 15, 2018

30×30 with Maria Coryell-Martin

Now, I don’t precisely *know* Maria. We haven’t met in person, only online.

These days, don’t we all have people we’ve found on the internet? People who we don’t really know, but we love what they’re doing, and we’d kind of like to have their lives, if only for a few days.

Maria is a traveling artist on an entirely different level from my own experience. She’s on a kind of artistic adventure that brings to mind scientific illustrators from the turn of the century. She’s traveled with research expeditions to the Arctic, and, as the winner of the Thomas J. Watson Fellowship, circumnavigated the globe making art in remote regions.

Find out more about Maria’s and her work at, or follow her on instagram @ExpeditionaryArt. She’s also on the Facebook <here).

It’s a great honor to have her joining us for 30×30. She’ll bring a unique viewpoint to the group. I’m very excited to see what she comes up with over a month of new work.

Five Questions for Maria about #30x30DirectWatercolor2018:

When you think about 30 days of daily practice – do you have a theme or a goal that might guide your work the month?

Maria : I moved to my home in Port Townsend, a small seaport town in western Washington, just two years ago. I plan to use the 30×30 project as an opportunity to sketch and learn about the town’s cultural heritage, maritime industries, and connection to the water.

[Ushuaia, on the southern tip of Argentina]

Are there any specific materials or techniques you plan to investigate? Will you use your reliable tools, or use this time to experiment with a new thing?

Maria : Ink and watercolor is my sketching comfort zone. For this project, I’m excited to leave behind my pens, using watercolor only (with some pencil sketches), with the Direct Watercolor Palette. <read more about this here).

I plan on using my favorite toned paper, with some additional white gouache for brights. The mood and techniques reference the natural history tradition which is an inspiration for my expeditionary art. I’ll be using primarily Arches Cover tan paper which has a beautiful soft feel, and perhaps some Canson Mi-Tientes (sand color) which is heavy enough for light watercolor wash, but dries very quickly. I buy both in large sheets that I cut down to size. I have prepared sheets in a couple of formats (5″ x 7″ and 6.5″ x 15″ panorama), so I have some choice for composition. I reserve the right to experiment with other colors or formats, no rules are written in stone.

[Here’s Maria writing about making this View of Niaqornat]

Do you think 30×30 will be a challenge? Or is one painting a day easy for you?

Maria : Painting daily (or doing anything daily for that matter!) is a challenge for me right now as I balance my life with a toddler and working at home. For the 30×30, I give myself permission to play, experiment, and embrace, “practice not perfection!”

Let’s have a small tip! Give us a strategy people might use to reach the goal of 30×30?

Maria : I recommend preparing your materials for the month all in advance, so they are ready to go. Choose your sketchbook or paper, prep your watercolor palette, and keep a small bag packed up so when you want to paint, you are prepared.

What do you hope have gained at the end of the 30-day marathon?

Maria : I hope this marathon pushes my understanding of my tools and techniques, and builds a daily sketching habit that I can sustain beyond the month. I’m also sure I’ll encounter some surprises along the way.

There’s a quote I love by David Boyle from his book, Art and Fear:

Vision is always ahead of execution, knowledge of materials is our contact with reality, and uncertainty is a virtue.

Thank you, Marc, for organizing this wonderful project!

Looking for the FAQ/Announcement < click here!

30×30 Artist : Liz Steel

May 15, 2018

30×30 with Liz Steel

Liz Steel needs no introduction to readers of this blog!

Liz is the co-creator of #OneWeek100People2018, our week-long drawing-sprint that was the model for this bigger and better 30×30 marathon.

She’s the force of nature behind the worldwide artists’ community SketchingNow, and of course her immensely popular blog Both of which are packed with practical advice on location drawing, sketchbook journaling, and – increasingly – painting in watercolor. She can also be found on Instagram at @lizsteelart.

Liz is the sketcher who showed me the value of speed. (So important to a reportage artist!). When we first met, I thought I was pretty fast. Yet – she was doing three for every one of my pages, showing me what a real travel-journal could be like.

In a way, it was her, and other journal-keepers like her in the online community, that put me on my 10-year path towards Direct Watercolor.

Five Questions for Liz about #30x30DirectWatercolor2018:

When you think about 30 days of daily practice – do you have a theme or a goal that might guide your work the month?

Liz : As I’ll be traveling for the entire month of June, I won’t have any themes – except that I’ll be sketching different subject matter every day. I’ll be in Italy, Scotland, and Poland during June. < Ha! What an incredible way to do a 30×30! ~m)

Are there any specific materials or techniques you plan to investigate? Will you use your reliable tools, or use this time to experiment with a new thing?

Liz : I’ll use my normal materials – my standard watercolor palette and my 1/2 inch dagger brush (by Rosemary & Co) and I don’t expect to do any experimentation in regard to different materials/tools. This is because I’m traveling and limited to my most essential stuff.

Do you think 30×30 will be a challenge? Or is one painting a day easy for you?

Liz : Once again, because I’m traveling (and not teaching this trip!) this should be very doable. I normally sketch six days a week, doing a number of drawings a day. (Sunday is my rest day). What’s fun about this challenge is, it’ll force me to do at least one paint-only sketch per day. I normally start with ‘direct watercolor’ but add lines halfway through the sketch – so it’s only occasionally that I create paint-only sketches. I’ll have to be intentional to meet this challenge!

Let’s have a small tip! Give us a strategy people might use to reach the goal of 30×30?

Liz : Keep it simple! A 30 day challenge is a big commitment, so try to stick to simple subjects to paint – even if you want to sketch out on location for most of the month, make sure you have some ideas for everyday still life composition at home.

What do you hope have gained at the end of the 30-day marathon?

Liz : I want to develop some clear strategies for working with paint only. At the moment it’s a little random. I don’t know when starting my sketch whether I’ll just use paint, or add some ink lines at some point. Without any ink I’ll have to be more intentional with my washes – especially as my practice is to sketch very quickly.

Looking for the FAQ/Announcement < click here!



30×30 Artist : Uma Kelkar

May 15, 2018

30×30 with Uma Kelkar

I first met Uma at the USK symposium in Chicago last year. We’re both about to return (in just a couple weeks!) to teach at the 2018 USK Chicago Sketch Seminar. We’re actually going to be there for the first few days of #30×30, making things extra complicated. (Or, even more fun – we’ll see).

You can find out more about Uma at her website:, or follow her on instagram @umapaints. She also has an artist’s page on facebook.

I’m going to admit – It’s a little intimidating to be teaching next to her.

I’ve been following her work closely, and she’s tapped into a kind of wild spontaneity, that I’m only getting close to touching. I talk all the time about the fundamental need to work without fear of failure. A direct watercolorist has to be completely free to make marks by instinct. Uma has this mind-set on speed dial.

Five Questions for Uma about #30x30DirectWatercolor2018:

When you think about 30 days of daily practice – do you have a theme or a goal that might guide your work the month?

Uma: Yes, of course, I have a goal for the 30-day marathon. And that is to have a sustained habit not just for myself but also for the family around me so that they too help to make time for my painting. The goal, in addition, is to get looser but also to develop the thinking that goes on before the brush hits the paper.

Are there any specific materials or techniques you plan to investigate? Will you use your reliable tools, or use this time to experiment with a new thing?

Uma: I will use the 30 days to hone my skills, so it will be attempting to reach another painting level in the 30 days with tools I am used to.

Do you think 30×30 will be a challenge? Or is one painting a day easy for you?

Uma: Painting once a day, if I had the time, is not a problem at all – it is the making of time for painting that is the issue and which I need to solve quite urgently for my own sanity. I am hoping this 30×30 marathon more than nudges me into fixing my desire to paint every day into an unshakeable habit.

Let’s have a small tip! Give us a strategy people might use to reach the goal of 30×30?

Uma: I think since I want to improve my painting skills, I am going to come up with 4 topics – one for each week and repeatedly paint the same subject one week at a stretch until some of the decisions in painting that topic becomes muscle memory. This I think will free me to think more deeply on brush strokes and value composition.

What do you hope have gained at the end of the 30-day marathon?

Uma: Eyesight! I expect to have gotten a new eyesight, to pick out the important things in a particular genre of paintings, after 30 days of study with mini emphasis on a weekly topic.

Looking for the FAQ/Announcement < click here!

30×30 Artist : Anne-Laure Jacquart

May 15, 2018

30×30 with Anne-Laure Jacquart

I first painted with Anne-Laure in at a 14-day workshop in Portugal, and immediately felt she was onto something with her calligraphic brush-work.

At the time, I was not 100% ready to be doing direct watercolor. I was gradually moving towards these new goals – but she pushed me to do it right now! Just make the change! She proved to me, once and for all, that anything that could be pencil-drawn and tinted, could be drawn directly with the brush using positive and negative shapes – and be stronger for it.

Anne-Laure is a vlogger on youtube at Following the White Rabbit, where she’ll be posting video-journals and possibly painting-demos during #30×30. You can also follow her on Instagram at @annelaurewatercolor.

Five Questions for Anne-Laure about #30x30DirectWatercolor2018:

When you think about 30 days of daily practice – do you have a theme or a goal that might guide your work the month?

Anne-Laure: I don’t have any theme or subject in mind, I like to paint every subject possible and variety will be nice for the marathon!

I have a few things in my mind at the moments, though… To keep working on the balance between looseness and refinement in my style, to pay always more and more attention to value and maybe less and less to local color. To record my day to day life always more spontaneously with striking quick studies… I hope to live for a month a brush in the hand!!! (What an ambitious goal!! I also need to be at the computer to work on the videos ;) )

Are there any specific materials or techniques you plan to investigate? Will you use your reliable tools, or use this time to experiment with a new thing?

Anne-Laure: I think I will rely on my usual tools for the challenge. I am happy and at ease with my squirrel and sable brushes, my Fabriano cold press paper and my favorites colors (even if I try or try again a new one from time to time). I already have quite a spontaneous experimental style so I hope that the experiment will be more with the techniques than with the tools.

Hopefully, I will keep investigating on traditional techniques like the amount of water and pigment, the color combinations, the rendering of values, and on some more loose approaches like working wet-in-wet in some areas, using granulation, backruns, and splatters. There also are some techniques I want to try to use more in my watercolors like card scraping, sprayer bottle use. Oh, and flat brush painting as well. Hey, this is a tool to investigate with! ;)

Do you think 30×30 will be a challenge? Or is one painting a day easy for you?

Anne-Laure: I would like to keep it daily and this is going to be a challenge for me. I am a bit like – when I start painting, you can’t stop me anymore! I will often do 5 sketches in the day. But there is always this sort of weird resistance that makes it difficult to start. I might investigate on this resistance. I just can’t understand why it’s always so difficult to do something we love. Probably something related to fears and laziness (?!) but let’s investigate!

Even if I don’t manage to paint every day, I have a good hope to manage to make my 30 paintings or sketches. But let’s not count the chickens before they are hatched! :)

Let’s have a small tip! Give us a strategy people might use to reach the goal of 30×30?

Anne-Laure: I start with a list of ideas to maintain the interest and inspiration. So that I have a variety of options available. Working on cars, vegetables, street scenes, object still lives, botanical of plants. NB: I will probably be more specific than that.

Plus, why not a list of techniques or ideas associated to a subject?!… Something like “Trees and scraping”, “Backruns clouds”, “Light and shadows flat brush urban scene” “Negative painting trunks” etc. <great idea! ~m)

What do you hope have gained at the end of the 30-day marathon?

Anne-Laure: I hope to make gains in spontaneity and inspiration. Having, in a more straightforward way, an idea what I could do with a subject. Like – seeing potential subjects everywhere ;) and starting painting the next minute without overthinking it. Not accepting excuses like no time, not sure about it, no energy.

Related to that, I think about trying to be more and more confident with my watercolors. My confidence always goes up and down so if I can make it going up and having a nice high plateau, it would be quite nice!!

I want to feel at ease, to be loose without ending up with a mess, knowing when to stop without overworking it. (Haha, so many challenges! ;) Technically, I think I sometimes paint my mid values too dark, so I hope to find a good balance and intensity in my values.

But, let’s don’t have too many expectations! I’m looking forward to knowing how it turns out at the end. I hope I will have something to tell you about my progress!! ;)

Looking for the FAQ/Announcement < click here!