Adding by Subtracting: Learn the Negative Painting Technique

When painting in watercolor, it’s always important to be mindful of the “lights” of the paper. These areas are precious and perfect for depicting highlighted areas. There are many ways to preserve them, and one method is through negative painting.

Learn how to create a negative painting using watercolors!

negative painting detail

Negative painting is a technique that looks beautiful in watercolors.

What is negative painting?

Negative painting is a simple technique that involves applying pigment around an subject to give it definition. You’ll add paint to surround the person, place or object, making it stand out because it appears lighter than the background.

This technique works great for watercolor — because the medium is focused on building up color, you save the light areas of the page by not applying as much paint. We’ll infuse some realism into the painting, but since we’ll focus a lot on shapes, there will be some abstract elements to this tutorial, too.

Create your own negative painting


For this tutorial, you’ll only need your favorite watercolor supplies, including paints and paper.

Step 1:

Select your subject and create a contour line drawing.

contour line drawing for painting

When working on the negative painting technique, be mindful of the subject you choose. Since you’ll be mostly avoiding it, find something to draw that has a great variety of space and size. Don’t focus on fine details, but just block out the general shapes. Lightly sketch them on a piece of watercolor paper so that once you start applying the paint, your lines won’t show through.

Step 2:

Apply a wash over the entire paper.

Wash on line drawing

Once you have your drawing complete, pick a wash to apply over the entire sheet of paper. Ideally, it should be a hue (or hues) that corresponds well with your drawing. I’m painting a mixture of blues and greens since I’ve drawn a jade plant.

You can paint the wash however you like over the paper, but keep it light. I’m using a wet-on-wet technique so that my pigment looks like it’s “bursting” on different parts of the paper.

Note: If you want to retain some bright white highlights, make sure you completely avoid these areas when you apply your wash — just paint completely around them.

Step 3:

Begin the glazing process.

Wash over painting that paints in negative areas

Start by painting around the edges of the shapes you’ve drawn. For me, that’s the leaves. Focus on the negative space, adding pigment to the areas outside of your main subject. You’ll be able to see how it stands out from the background.

Step 4:

Finish the glazing process.

Another wash in a negative painting, brightening up background and foreground.

Continue to build up layers of paint in the negative space/background. Once you’ve applied many layers, add light pigment to your subject to give it the feeling of depth and realism.

Step 5:

Refine your painting.

Refined painting that includes a light wash over plant leaves

Once you’re almost done, step back and assess your painting: does the background need darkened? Do your colors pop? Thoughtfully add what you think might be missing, and you’re done!

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