What Is Negative Painting With Watercolor? Simple Tips For Everyone

Negative watercolor paintings of flowers

A negative painting is a technique where you paint the background around a positive image first. As a result, the background has darker colors, thus increasing the depth of the image. 

It is considered a negative painting as you work with negative space. This article will discuss what negative watercolor paintings are and some of our favorite tips for making them look amazing.

Using a mop brush, apply a light wash to the watercolor paper until you get the desired color and wetness. 

Outline the shapes using a darker color, then darken the background colors to highlight the positive image. Let dry, then glaze the background. Finally, add details to the foreground image. 

What You'll Need

Step-by-Step Instructions

1. Add the light wash background

Use a #10 round brush or a bigger mop brush to wet the paper to make it shiny, then remove the excess water along the edges with a paper towel.

Dilute your watercolor in more water and apply it to the watercolor paper for a soft wash. You may use a random design or a graded design. Let dry before moving to the next step.

2. Outline shapes with a brush

Using a pencil, add a light sketch of the foreground image. Outline the image with a darker shade of paint to highlight the foreground image.

Add darker values by applying a second layer of watercolor paint. Let it completely dry and repeat this step if necessary. 

3. Add background layers

Continue working on the background layers. Create depth to the painting by adding the darkest darks to the dried layers. 

To do this, add the darkest gray and black to your paint, gradually increasing it as you add more layers to emphasize the dark background and set a good contrast to the lighter images on the foreground.

An important reminder: paint runs on wet paper. Always allow the layers to dry completely before adding more color to avoid the muddied effect that will muffle your painting effect.

4. Glaze the background

The final stage for the background is glazing. While its primary purpose is to deepen the contrast between the lighter image on the front, it is also a way to fix mistakes (paint runs, inconsistent coloring, etc.).

This technique requires numerous glazes, primarily covering up, but you usually get the desired result after the third layer.

5. Add the details to the foreground images

The lighter foreground image is the most important element and your focal area, and thus it needs more detailing, even on the smallest shapes. The secret here is to let the general shapes wash into the background by highlighting the features of the foreground shapes.

Tips for Successful Negative Watercolor Painting

Improve your composition to improve your negative painting technique. Check these simple composition hacks to work effectively with your negative space.

Strike a balance between the positive and negative spaces

A negative painting of a leaf in balanced proportion between the positive and negative spaces

A negative painting of a leaf in balanced proportion between the positive and negative spaces - Image by Susan Chiang

Painting is all about balancing the positive and negative to get that perfect balance. You can do this by using a relatively classic organizational technique in which the negative and positive spaces are balanced.

To do this, position the main image at the center or slightly off-center of the page. The negative spaces will frame the main image and should highlight it, not hinder it. You may add new negative shapes in the background, but make sure they don't smother the main image.

Limit the negative space

Negative watercolor painting of leaves showing a small negative space

Negative watercolor painting of leaves showing a small negative space - Image by The Mind of Watercolor

This technique is best to make the main image stand out even more in the negative watercolor painting. The artist zooms in the main image to shrink the negative space behind it to draw more attention to the positive image. This technique is best for flower or fruit studies.

Exaggerate the negative spaces

A negative watercolor painting showing exaggerated negative spaces

A negative watercolor painting showing exaggerated negative spaces - Image by Little Coffee Fox

This technique is the opposite of the method above, as the negative space occupies the bulk of the painting. It is best to use masking fluid at the very beginning for this technique to protect the small positive image.

Emphasize contrasts

A negative painting showing a deep contrast between the positive and negativ

A negative painting showing a deep contrast between the positive and negative images - Image by PearFleur

Contrast and value create depth to your negative watercolor painting. You must understand that to create a higher visual impact on your artwork. Thus, white against black or vice versa makes the best impact because of the contrast between the two.

Darker values enhance the composition in negative paintings that you can't achieve if the positive image and the negative image are of almost the same values.

Negative Watercolor Painting Techniques 

Using Salt Wash

Negative watercolor painting with salt and saran wrap

Negative watercolor painting with salt and saran wrap - Image by The Homegrown Artist

What You'll Need


  1. Mount the watercolor paper (at least 300gsm) on the easel or any flat surface using painter's tape.
  2. Outline the image you want to paint using a fine-point pencil.
  3. Using a spray bottle, moisten the entire paper, then apply a watercolor wash all over the paper to give it a variegated wash.
  4. Tear off some saran wrap and put it over the wet surface, then sprinkle salt on the areas not covered with the saran wrap.
  5. Remove the saran wrap and let the watercolor dry on the paper.
  6. Outline the leaves using a shade darker than the color you used to wash the background.
  7. Add more layers until the foreground becomes more prominent.

Dark to Light

When a negative watercolor painting, reverse the process by filling the negative spaces first using dark colors before working on the positive spaces with lighter colors. 

It is also essential to keep the background and the foreground colors complimentary so they don't clash.

Though this technique is a bit daunting, it is more forgiving. You can always use the glazing technique to cover up any issue you might find in the painting.


Masking is a great way to give your painting texture, dimension, and depth. It can also help you avoid mistakes by protecting certain canvas parts before painting over them with another color or brushstroke. Aside from the masking fluids, you can also use a liquid pump marker.

What You'll Need:


  1. Lay your paper flat on the table or easel and secure it with masking tape. Taping the paper down prevents it from curling and damage when the watercolor dries.
  2. Outline the image you want to mask before anything else.
  3. Apply an even coat inside each shape that needs protection. Let it dry well before you start painting.
  4. Paint around the mask until you're satisfied with the background image you want.
  5. Use a soft pencil eraser to remove the mask and carefully push the gummy fluid off the paper to avoid damaging the paper.
  6. Once done, continue painting on the masked image to get the result you want. In this example, the artist used gold watercolor paint to add shimmer to the maiden's hair.

Wet on Wet

Wet on wet is the most common watercolor negative painting technique. It's handy for blending a dark negative space with a smooth colored wash for the background, particularly if you want a smooth gradient.

Moisten the paper with clear water to allow the colored pigment to flow more freely across the damp surface. It will control the movement of the water inside the wet surfaces only.


Compared with wet on wet, glazing covers much of the first layer so you can cover the mistakes you made in the underlying paint. Glazing also leaves the colors distinct instead of muddy, as observed in the wet-on-wet technique.

Dos and Don'ts in Negative Watercolor Paintings

  • Do identify the mother colors.

The first thing you should know is how to identify the mother colors for your painting. The mother color is the primary color you use throughout the work. It is one of the many techniques you need to master before entering a negative watercolor painting.

  • Do test your paints for underpainting.

Before you start painting, try making numerous color swatches to see how each one works when placed side by side. To achieve the same consistency, we encourage good mixing before using the paint. A good under-paint should not run or bleed to keep the colors distinct.

Aim to achieve hard edges to make the paint distinct from each other, but enough to blend slightly to make the painting more cohesive.

  • Do practice your techniques.

Art is not something you perfect overnight. It takes years to perfect a medium and a considerable time to master a technique. The Watercolor for the Absolute Beginner by Matthew Palmer is the perfect book to help beginners in watercolor art practice their skills and technique.

  • Don't use opaque paints.

Opaque paints like cadmium red light are not the best choice for negative paintings, especially glazing. You may use these paints, but only for adding accents and details.

Using a permanent marker, draw a bold line to test for transparent paints and opaque paints. This simple test will show you that the paint is opaque if it obscures the line, however faint it might be.

  • Don't forget clean water.

Water is essential for watercolor painting, but any artist should know that the water in the cleaning dish becomes too muddy to be good for mixing with your watercolor medium after a while. 

For the negative watercolor technique, the need for clean water is twice as important. Be sure to have two jars of water, one to wash your paintbrush and the other to mix with your watercolor.

Negative Painting FAQ

1. What is positive and negative painting?

Positive space refers to the subject or areas of interest in an artwork, such as a person's face or figure in a portrait. Negative spaces can be anything from backgrounds for paintings, like trees blowing gently across someone's shoulder.

In contrast, they sit by their window just thinking about how lucky we all have been so far compared with others who don't even get enough food every day, let alone shelter and warmth.

2. What does painting in the negative mean?

Usually, when we paint, we give the best details to the positive shapes, focusing on the focal image. In negative painting, the artist creates depth and values. The positive shapes are much lighter than the negative spaces, creating a deep contrast that further focuses on the images.

3. What is the negative shape in the painting?

Negative spaces are a fundamental part of any drawing or painting. They are shapes that border the positive shape you're trying to draw, thereby creating an outline for your subject matter. Every object has its own set negative space around it, so every piece is unique in itself!


Negative watercolor paintings are a beautiful way to add depth and interest to your work. They’re not difficult, but they do require some thought for the result to look amazing. 

If you want more tips on making this type of painting stunning, read our blog post about negative watercolors. We hope that these suggestions help you create an outstanding piece!

1 comment

  • Great advice thank you !

    Lyn Deane

Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published