Don’t Mean to Be Negative, But…

Abstract artist Linda Kemp is known for her nature-inspired “negative painting” techniques, in which she creates specific shapes, then paints around them (rather than within them) and repeats the process, building layers of design and color. To see exactly what I mean, watch a video clip of Linda demonstrating the style.

Personally, I’m fascinated with Linda’s paintings because they incorporate geometry and nature–two of my favorite things. And, practicing this style forces us to think in ways in which we normally don’t; a concept that continually pushes us as artists and human beings. Today, I’m excited to share my recent interview with her, including some of her newest watercolor and acrylic paintings.


Twist (watercolor, 7.5×7.5)

What compels you to use negative painting?
LK: Painting in the negative is great fun! This approach provides me with simple tactics for solving painting and design problems. My method of working provides clear-cut strategies for breaking down a subject and then piecing it back together.

Pin Oak First Frost, negative painting, Linda Kemp

Pin Oak First Frost (acrylic, 12×12)

CH: How does painting outside the lines as opposed to within them take a different thought process?
LK: Good paintings depend on solid design and color knowledge regardless of whether the artist chooses to work in the positive, the negative, or in combination. Contrary to what some might think, to work in the negative you don’t need to turn your brain inside-out–you just need to learn to view things a little differently! All it takes is a bit of practice.

The Colour of Light at This Very Moment, negative painting, Linda Kemp

The Colour of Light at This Very Moment (acrylic, 16×16)

CH: Why should artists experiment with negative painting?
LK: Working in the negative is all about shape-making! The process requires that the artist becomes aware of the picture space–how it’s divided and how those pieces link together. When artists are more mindful of shapes and space, their design skills will improve whether they work in the positive or the negative.

I’ve also been told by many students that learning to see in a different way has revived their enthusiasm for painting. If you suffer from artist’s block, a change in direction or medium may be all you need to put the fire back in your heart and brush!

Warm Light at the Top of the Hill (acrylic, 12x12)

Warm Light at the Top of the Hill (acrylic, 12×12)

CH: I see that you work with acrylic and watercolor; is there a specific medium, subject, or style that lends itself more to this technique?
LK: In my experience, the strategies for developing a painting with the negative approach can be applied with any medium, subject matter, or style. Some modifications are necessary to attain the best results, and some subjects naturally work better than others with this approach. Here are some examples:

Working with different media: Watercolors are best built from light to dark, from clean color to neutrals, or transparent to opaque. One should begin the work with whites or lights and progress down the value scale to rich dark layers.

On the other hand, acrylics and oils offer great versatility, as each can be layered progressively up or down the value scale. Pure color and highlights shimmer when you apply them in the final application over dark or neutral passages.

Subjects that work best: Objects with interesting and descriptive silhouettes, such as the profile of a face, provide better subject matter than those that are more symmetrical or which rely on interior details, such as a straight-on portrait. Of course, artists may include the interior details in their work, but it’s best to make the important/large shapes first.

Style: Because of the focus on shape-making, working in the negative is ideal for stylizing and abstractions! It’s possible to work in a highly realist style, too. I’m obsessed with negative painting, but artists can use just a little to enhance their work. Whatever works–a little or a lot–the choice is a personal one.~LK

Well said! I love the flexibility that negative painting has to offer. Learn these techniques straight from Linda in her newest video, Linda Kemp’s Negative Painting Techniques – Acrylic, from Then let me know how it goes–tweet us a picture of your work @artistsnetwork and use the hashtag #trysomethingnew. I can’t wait to see what you come up with.


Cherie Haas, online editor**Click here to subscribe to the Artists Network
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