TUTORIAL: Using Negative Shapes for Positive Fixes

Practice pages, damaged work, art fails – they happen. You hate to throw them away, ’cause waste, right? So, turn them into something else using negative shapes.

Negative painting simply means you paint around a shape or shapes rather than drawing a shape and painting inside it.

The Three Step Process

  • Decide on a shape(s) and the medium(s) for painting
  • Change the values and existing lines and shapes, if necessary
  • Paint around the negative shape(s)
    • Optional Adding detail to the shape(s)

Clear as mud?

I’ve done three examples to show you what I mean. There’s a video so you can see it happen as well a written version with a bit more explanation.

Practice Work – What to do with it?

You’ve been practicing or just doodling around and it’s not really something you want to keep.  But why not turn it into something you do instead of throwing it away?  For my example, I chose a sheet of watercolor paper I used for brush practice.  I intend to use the finished piece as background for a Zentangle-Inspired artwork.

Watercolor Painting Example by Sandra Strait

My Tools

Deciding on a shape(s) and the medium(s)

This example is easy to repurpose.  There is only one color and the white of the paper.  The shapes and values are distributed evenly across the page, though I do want to break up the words and lines. The color makes me think of an ocean.  I decide to paint a school of fish, so I’ll create several negative fish shapes.

If you don’t feel comfortable drawing your own shape(s), you can use a stencil, or trace around a cut-out shape.

Changing the values and existing shapes

I do want some of the original work to show through. That’s the whole point of this technique. You get cool, mysterious shapes that add all sorts of interest.  But I don’t want the shapes to be dominant or interfere with my new negative shape.

Painting oval shapes across the page helps break up the words and lines.  I don’t want it too dark so I make a watery mix of cobalt teal – a color chosen because it’s close to the color in the original but has a little contrast.

Watercolor Painting Example by Sandra Strait

I let this dry before continuing.

Painting around the shape(s)

I make up a creamy mix of Hello Cerulean, which is a Phthalo blue, and start painting around fish shapes.

I should have drawn this in pencil for you first, but I was in the zone and forgot. Drawing makes it easier to plan out your shapes, but I usually just start carving them out.  I paid attention to the existing shapes – using a circular spot as an eye and some of the swirl shapes for fins.

When I’m satisfied that I have enough fish, I let this layer of paint dry.

Watercolor Negative Painting Example by Sandra Strait

There is always the option to add some detail within the negative shapes.  I do another layer of cobalt teal – a creamy mix this time – and have some ripples go over the fish to enhance the feeling they are in the water.

And then – yup – I let it dry.

Watercolor Negative Painting Example by Sandra Strait

I go back to the Hello Cerulean for my last layer.  This time I darken areas around the fish, defining the shapes more sharply.

 

Watercolor Negative Painting Example by Sandra Strait

I intend to do tangle patterns on the fish at some point, but it could easily be left as it is.

You’d hardly recognize this as a practice sheet.  I’m kind of inspired now though – I want to do one of these with a more realistic fish – a project for the future!

Watercolor Negative Painting Example by Sandra Strait

Adapting a damaged painting

Damages happen sometimes.  When I went to remove masking fluid from a painting with an eraser made especially for that purpose, it scuffed up the paper, removed some paint and just generally ruined the painting.  I used the eraser across the whole page to even things out and set it aside, knowing I’d re-purpose it sooner or later.

Because of the damage, the main challenge here is deciding what medium to use.  Markers might be ruined by the roughness. Colored pencil wouldn’t cover it well.  Watercolor might turn dull. Fountain pen ink, however …

Adapting a Damaging Painting Watercolor by Sandra Strait - Doodlewash

My Tools

Deciding on a shape and the mediums

Cats have a strong, easily recognized silhouette so they’re good for this kind of technique.

I like using fountain pen ink for these paintings because the color is so intense and so transparent. I decided to use Jacques Herbin Cornaline d’Egypte, because it’s a lovely deep orange with a silvery sheen.  I knew that the silver would settle into those damaged areas and really add interest.

Changing the values and existing shapes

This is actually the easiest of the paintings I’m showing you today.  I’m happy with the values and the shapes so I don’t feel the need to change them before starting.  So, I jump right to …

Painting around the shape

Well, actually, I remembered to draw it for you first.

Watercolor Negative Painting Example by Sandra Strait - Doodlewash

Then I start painting around the shape with the ink.  I decided to use a brush because a fountain pen might catch on the rough paper and tear it.

Watercolor Negative Painting Example by Sandra Strait - Doodlewash

Really, this one was too easy.  The color was so intense that one layer of ink was enough.  See how the original shapes take on an almost negative photo effect? I love it and it’s the ink doing it, not me.  I’m almost tempted to damage more paintings just so I can do this more often.

Watercolor Negative Painting Example by Sandra Strait - Doodlewash

The sheen isn’t apparent in every light, so it’s like a nice surprise when you see it. In some areas it is just little sparkles here and there.

Watercolor Negative Painting Example by Sandra Strait - Doodlewash

In other places it’s a patch of shiny goodness.

Watercolor Negative Painting Example by Sandra Strait - Doodlewash

Adding detail to the negative shape is always an option, and I decided my cat needed some stripes.

Watercolor Negative Painting Example by Sandra Strait - Doodlewash

Adapting a Work You Dislike

Eh. I really wasn’t happy with this piece that I did on smooth hand-lettering paper and colored with highlighters (this technique works on all sorts of papers and mediums).

This one is a challenge to adapt, though.  Those trees are so much darker and the grape vines are even worse. It’s going to take some effort to even out the values.

Watercolor Painting Example by Sandra Strait - Doodlewash

My Tools

Deciding on a shape(s) and the medium(s)

Besides cats, I’m also fond of using the profile of a woman in a hat.  It’s another shape that creates a strong, easily recognized silhouette.  Because of the problem with uneven values, I’m going to use more than one medium.  I’ll use two fountain pen inks with a strong contrast to each other, and pens with both black and white ink.

My plan is to alternate light and dark throughout the page so those trees and vines won’t dominate. It will take a little work.

Painting around the shape

I forgot to draw first. *hangs head*.  Sorry, I just usually skip that step and I probably shouldn’t.

Note how those trees and black vines just poke you right in the eye.  They’ve got to be dealt with!

Watercolor Negative Shapes Painting Example by Sandra Strait - Doodlewash

A streak of orange inside the silhouette subdues the bottom trees and gives my lady a jacket. Then I draw black swirls with a pen. My plan is to establish black and white swirls all over the page to even out the values.

Watercolor Negative Painting Example by Sandra Strait - Doodlewash

I draw the white swirls close to the black ones to create a slightly 3D look that will help give them some dominance.

Watercolor Negative Shapes Painting Example by Sandra Strait - Doodlewash

The black and white stomps the upper trees a bit, but still doesn’t take out those vines. Purple ink it is then!  I add a strong area of darker contrast with Amethyste de l’Oural fountain pen ink (another silver sheened ink). Then I add some more white swirls.

Watercolor Negative Shapes Painting Example by Sandra Strait - Doodlewash

That’s much better! I decide to punch up the contrast by using the white gel pen on the face and hands and add some stars to the jacket.

Watercolor Negative Shapes Painting Example by Sandra Strait - Doodlewash

At the last minute I decide to add a flower so the lady, who is obviously gardening on a windy day, has something to garden with.

Watercolor Negative Shapes Painting Example by Sandra Strait - Doodlewash

This is an easy technique and a fun way to save those drawings and paintings that you’d throw away otherwise. The possibilities are endless!

Recommended5 recommendationsPublished in Tutorials

I’m a self-taught artist who dances about with all sorts of artistic mediums. My main loves are Watercolor, Zentangle and Ballpoint pen. The subjects of my work are many and varied and change at whim. I’m a little bit crazy, but doesn’t that come with being an artist? At my Life Imitates Doodles Blog, I post a list of resource links for Tangles, Tutorials and Giveaways three times a week. I also write reviews, hold giveaways and share my art work.

31 Comments
  1. LoriCtoo 4 weeks ago

    What a wonderful idea. So pretty.

  2. Mary Roff 4 weeks ago

    Thanks for sharing, Sandra! Some interesting techniques to try!

  3. Julia Proulx 4 weeks ago

    Oh this is too cool! I am often afraid to experiment and ruin good paper. Now I have some ideas to save it. Thanks Sandra!

    • Author
      Sandra Strait 4 weeks ago

      Thank you, Julia! It does take some of the pressure off!

  4. Laura (PA Pict) 4 weeks ago

    Great suggestions for using up that reject pile. I normally just gesso over the paper and use it for mixed media pieces but I like the idea of trying some more creative solutions.

    • Author
      Sandra Strait 4 weeks ago

      Thank you, Laura! I like the shapes you get lurking in the background with this technique. I’ve been known to go the gesso route sometimes too though!

  5. June Hadaway 4 weeks ago

    This is very nice. Looks like a collage.

    • Author
      Sandra Strait 4 weeks ago

      Thank you, June! You could definitely turn it into a collage.

      • June Hadaway 4 weeks ago

        I like it a lot. I finally finished the DYT. Do you put anything over the painted tin cover?

        • Author
          Sandra Strait 4 weeks ago

          After a week or so, I spray it with an archival varnish. I’ve used both the Golden and Krylon sprays.

          • June Hadaway 4 weeks ago

            Ok thank you. I was thinking on the lines of a Krylon spray but wanted to ask you first. You are so helpful Sandra. Thank you for sharing your tips.

  6. Paintprojectblog 4 weeks ago

    This is awesome! Thanks for the tip! (I’ve wasted A LOT of paint and paper over the years, so this should help a lot ☺☺)👏👏

    • Author
      Sandra Strait 4 weeks ago

      Thank you! I almost look forward to fails, because the re-purposing is so much fun.

  7. June Hadaway 4 weeks ago

    Interesting. Some great tips. Thank you Sandra.

  8. Sharon Nolfi 4 weeks ago

    A great demo of some very useful techniques! Thanks so much for sharing this.

  9. ANITA SINHA 4 weeks ago

    Wow..Awesome techniques..Thanks Sandra for such a nice tutorial…It is very helpful…!

  10. Jean Chaney 4 weeks ago

    This is a wonderful technique, Sandra. I’m so glad that you shared it.

  11. soappen 4 weeks ago

    So creative! And, opens my eyes to new possibilities. Thank you!

  12. jansiking 4 weeks ago

    Excellent post!!! Thanks so much for sharing more of your terrific ideas!!!!

    • Author
      Sandra Strait 4 weeks ago

      Thank you! I’m so pleased to be able to share my ideas here.

  13. Patsy Burroughs 4 weeks ago

    Sandra, all I can say is WOW. I have watched you do this before, and I am still amazed at your creativity. Especially the last one! Thanks for sharing.

    • Author
      Sandra Strait 4 weeks ago

      Thank you, Patsy! This is the first time I’ve been able to do this on video, so I felt it was worth writing another tutorial on the subject.

  14. Shubha 3 weeks ago

    Great idea.Very useful.Would like to try it.

    • Author
      Sandra Strait 3 weeks ago

      Thank you! I hope you do – it’s a fun way to ‘save’ something you’d throw away otherwise.

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