Negative and Positive Shapes in Watercolor
Hey everyone! I’m still living under a rock these days. A pile of rocks made of freelance illustration work that I’m gradually chipping away at. But I wanted to post something as I’m getting the itch for painting this spring in Portugal.
So, I went back into my files to bring you this demo about using negative shapes. I used this sketch as part of my online course Travel Sketching in Mixed Media. In the video I do a quick little reproduction of this painting for the cameras so you can see how I handle the paint. But I think you can see what’s important about the strategy from these phone shots snapped on location.
Whenever I’m looking at a scene I’m thinking about the silhouette shapes I see, and planning how the dark shapes will sit on top of the lighter ones below. My goal is to use the fewest shapes possible – to make the strongest composition. Too many shapes can get fiddly and confusing. I like to weld shapes – fuse some things together to make cleaner edges – as well as eliminate as many unnecessary objects as possible.
Also, I want to treat each shape as its own wet-on-dry passage. So there will be plenty of watercolor mixing and blooming inside the silhouette – but a nice sharp edge outside.
I like to say, “draw with the outside, paint with the inside”. If you get nice clear silhouette edges, the drawing falls into place. But inside those silhouettes is the texture and abstraction – and playfulness – that makes watercolor what it is.
Ok – so that’s the goal. Look at a scene, see the basic shapes, and plan what order they will go down.
So this is the first shape. A simple box that gradates from gold to green. This is the lightest local color that I will use to draw the wall behind AND the statue in front.
I make this wash in one continuous wet-on-dry shape, so that the greens will blossom upward. And I make sure to make an interesting hard edge where I’m fading out the sketch at the bottom. So it doesn’t end randomly or with uneven scratchy shapes.
I know I can let the green pigment float in a random way, because I plan to cover most of it up later. I’m already thinking a few moves ahead, to when I’ll make these blooms into small plants and shrubs.
At this point I let this first layer dry – so the next shapes can have crisp edges over top of those watery effects. On a warm enough day you don’t really have to wait long. Just until the paper flattens back and no longer feels cool to the touch.
This is the second pass complete. The most important thing I’ve done here is placed down the trees and shrubbery. You can see how each tree silhouette is grown out of wet paints – with plenty of color variation as I go. It may look like there is shading going on in the trees – but all the blending is done by the watercolor itself – not by manually smoothing with the brush. Simply place contrasting color and light and dark pigments next to each other, and allow them to blend naturally.
At the same time, I am allowing the background tone to show through in interesting ways. It’s important to leave small gaps and light flecks that show the first wash. It becomes instinctive – when to leave a little gap, and when to let it fill in.
And of course – there is the Negative Drawing of the statue. The outside silhouette of the statue is created by what is left out of the tree. Drawing the larger shape draws the smaller automatically.
I did use a little sketch, done with the point of the brush, so I could see where to cut out the silhouette – but really, I shouldn’t have bothered with that – eventually I’ll be confident enough to do without the guideline. I knew it would fuse with the dark green tree shape, so I risked it looking a bit labored.
Here are a few screenshots of cutting around the negative shape of the statue. These are extracted from the video demonstration.
From here on, all the big shapes are in place, so it is just a matter of putting on small shadows. The most important being the shadows on the statue. These little shapes make the form appear. If you have the outside shape visualized correctly, then the shadows will simply fall into place and the object will look three dimensional.
This area that will become the clay roof tiles is a good miniature example of this 1/2/3 process of stacking. Everything happening at a larger scale is visible in this small area.
So – there you have it. Something I am thinking about a lot these days – the order of the shapes I plan to stack and how I’ll let colors from below show through the marks made on top.