Go Negative

Negative drawing is the process of duplicating an image by reversing the tonal values. The lighter a value is in your original, the darker it will be in your negative drawing, and vice versa, resulting in an image that looks very much like a photographic negative.

Why try it? Three reasons: First, negative drawing helps you focus your attention on the relative contrasts of light and dark rather than on the identity of the object you?re drawing. Thus, it?s easier to see the surface details purely as a configuration of tonal shapes.

Second, negative drawing helps you develop your innate judgment of value contrast. In this sense, it?s analogous to an athlete practicing running in the sand—if you train yourself to run in the sand, then running on a hard surface becomes much easier. Likewise, once you teach yourself to draw negative images, you?ll find you can shade positive images with much greater ease.

The third reason for negative drawing is that it?s good training for the right side of the brain. The left side doesn?t like negative images, thus ensuring that they?ll be processed on the right, and this helps you to perceive value relationships in the way you need to in order to become the best artist you can be. If your value judgment can stand a little improvement (and whose couldn?t?), then this is the exercise for you.

Negative Shading in Four Easy Steps
1 Begin by laying grid lines over a completed drawing or a photograph. In this case, my drawing is in black and white charcoal pencil on a relatively light gray board.

2 Square by square, copy the image using reverse values—ark where you see light and light where you see dark. Here I chose a dark gray board and white grid lines to contrast with the original, and I started with the outline of the torso and the dark areas of the original in white charcoal pencil.

3 Complete the transfer with all the darks and lights in place. In this stage, I built up the light areas of the original with black pencil, continually looking back and forth between the two to keep the range consistent.

4 With a laser copier at a photocopy shop, make a negative image of the second drawing, which will convert your negative drawing back into a positive image, as I?ve done here. If you?ve done well, the result will look much like the original drawing.

How to Make the Most of It

  • The imagery for this exercise should be relatively simple. If your drawing or photograph is too detailed, or has a busy and cluttered background, your task will be much more difficult.
  • For accuracy, use the grid system to copy the image. (Divide the picture into small sections and transfer their contents one at a time.) This makes correct placement and proportions much easier.
  • Remember that a photocopier can?t discern contrast as accurately as the eye can, and take this into account when working with photocopies—especially when comparing them to your originals to check your work (see step 4).

    Daniel K. Tennant, of Bainbridge, New York, studied painting and art education at Syracuse University, and his work has won a long list of awards and honors. His paintings and techniques have been featured in many books and magazines, and he’s the author of Realistic Painting (Walter Foster Publishing, 1996). He’s represented by Bernarducci-Meisel Gallery in New York City, where he’ll have a one-man show of his work April 3-26, 2003.

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