Creativity Workshop: Positive Negative

In Leaves & Berries (above; watercolor on paper, 12×10) Brenda Swenson gradually chipped away at the lights of the paper to reveal her subject. In this way, the use of a negative painting technique brought about perfectly positive, nuanced results.

When working in watercolor, we face certain challenges that are unique to the medium, chief among them the need to save the lights of the paper. There are many techniques we can use to accomplish this feat—applying masking fluid or tape, for example—but I’ve found that I achieve the best results when I preserve the lights by painting around them. Fortunately, negative painting is one of the most exciting approaches to working with watercolor I know. I think of myself as a stone carver, chipping away until only the most precious lights remain. The technique of painting around an object in order to defi ne it in a composition is one that begins with a careful line drawing and ends with the application of the darkest darks.

To read the full text of this article, including Swenson’s step-by-step negative painting demo, pick up your copy of the October issue of Watercolor Artist magazine.


Using a simple subject matter, such as leaves or fruit, begin with a line drawing and then add an underpainting of three transparent colors. With each additional glaze, carve out another shape. Finish off with the suggestion of details, such as stems or berries. Send a JPEG (with a resolution of 72 dpi) of your painting to us at with “Creativity Workshop” in the subject line and tell us about your process. The “editor’s choice” will receive a six-month subscription to online video workshops, plus $50 worth of North Light fine art books. The deadline for entry is October 15, 2011.

BRENDA SWENSON ( is the author of Keeping a Watercolor Sketchbook (Walter Foster, 2005) and Steps to Success in Watercolor (Walter Foster, 2007). Her work has been featured in Splash 11 (North Light Books, 2010), Artistic Touch 4 (Creative Art Press, 2010) and numerous other publications. An active participant in the arts community, she has served on the board of directors for the National Watercolor Society and Watercolor West. She demonstrates and teaches her painting and sketching techniques to groups nationwide and abroad.



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