An Introduction to Negative Watercolor Painting

Have you ever seen (or made!) a negative watercolor painting? The basic idea is to paint a darker background around the lighter objects. In other words, you define various objects from close to distant, gradually revealing their shapes and creating more depth and dimension with each layer of color.

Negative watercolor painting - step 5

This relatively easy yet striking approach is especially good for painting plants and flowers with their buds, leaves, branches and stems tangling around each other. Let’s try and create a simple watercolor painting of a dog rose using the negative technique.

Follow along these simple step-by-step instructions to create a beautiful painting using the negative watercolor technique!

What you’ll need:

A soft fine-tipped round watercolor paintbrush (size depends on the size of your painting).


I used Quinacridone Gold, Alizarin Crimson, Cobalt blue. Any other yellow, red and blue will work as long as they are not opaque paints.

Note: Watercolor paints fall into transparency categories of transparent, opaque, semi-transparent and semi-opaque. Transparent watercolors allow the light to come through and reflect from the white paper, which makes the colors glow. Opaque watercolors, on the other hand, block the light from shining through and look dull with numerous glazes, so it’s best to avoid them for negative painting. Semi-opaque and semi-transparent are in-between and generally safe for this technique.

To find out if your paints are transparent or opaque, you can do a simple test. Draw a bold line with a black permanent marker and then stroke the color over that line. Transparent colors will disappear on the line, while opaque ones will be visible.

Watercolor paints transparency test

As you can see from the picture, Cadmium Lemon (on the left) is opaque, and Quinacridone Gold (on the right) is transparent.

Negative watercolor painting tutorial

Step 1:

Negative watercolor painting - step 1

Make an outline drawing of leaves and flowers. You don’t have to draw every detail, as some of them can be developed later in a painting process.

Step 2:

Negative watercolor painting - step 2

Wet the paper with clear water and randomly drop in the colors and their various mixtures. Let them flow and mix on the paper — don’t overwork the surface with a brush. Ignore the pencil lines at this stage, but try to avoid the frontmost flowers. If the color leaks into the flowers, lift it off with a damp brush. Let the paper dry completely.

Tip: Use a blow dryer on low setting to speed up the process.

Step 3:

Negative watercolor painting - step 3

Now that your paper is dry, work around the flowers and some leaves and stems in the foreground, mixing your colors in different combinations for the variety.

Don’t go too dark yet. Paint hard edges against flowers and leaves, and then soften the color as you move away from them. Let this thoroughly dry.

Step 4:

Negative watercolor painting - step 4

Continue adding depth to your painting by applying new layers of paint. With each additional layer, avoid more leaves, flowers and stems, thus revealing more shapes on the background. Once again, dry thoroughly.

Step 5:

Negative watercolor painting - step 5

On the final stage, paint the darkest darks and work on the remaining details, such as flower petals and centers.

As you can see, the main subject of the painting has barely any color at all. It’s the dark background layers that create the shaping and depth in the artwork.

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2 Responses to “An Introduction to Negative Watercolor Painting”
  1. Sandra Rhyne
    Sandra Rhyne

    Hi Maria, I am really excited to create this beautiful painting. For Christmas, I got new paints. This will be a great way to use them but also work on negative technique. Very nice watercolor artwork!