Tips and Methods from Linda Kemp
Linda Kemp uses negative painting techniques in her nature-inspired artworks and now she is teaching us all her secrets for effective design using these methods.
To many fans and students, Linda’s paintings represent something bigger. They show a piece of a puzzle in a unique way that still captures the feel of the moment. Let Linda guide you through the negative painting techniques she is known for, which are also taught in her book, Simplifying Design and Color for Artists: Positive Results Using Negative Painting Techniques.
You probably have a favorite color, but do you have a favorite shape? Most people are immediately attracted to color and don’t realize how effectively shape and line impact the visual experience.
A shape is an enclosed space having both height and width, the boundaries of which are defined by line. The delineating line can be real or implied by a change in color, value or texture.
As artists concerned with design we learn to see that natural and man-made objects can be broken down into three basic forms: the sphere, the cube and the cone.
Simplify these three-dimensional forms further by flattening and you have the three primary shapes: circle, square and triangle. By combining and modifying these three basic shapes we are able to make all other shapes, both geometric and organic.
Thinking in Terms of Positive and Negative
A figure, bouquet of flowers or other objects in your painting are positive shapes. Often overlooked but of equal importance for the support of the design is the area that surrounds the objects, known as the negative space.
Positive shapes and negative space share edges and link together to create the complete design. In two-dimensional work, the negative space is contained between the solid positive shapes and the edge of the paper or canvas as well as in the smaller spaces between objects.
I call the trapped shapes ‘captured negatives.’ The trick is to see the negative spaces as shapes, not just as insignificant, empty holes. In painting and drawing, you can communicate a subject by painting the subject itself (positive painting) or by painting the space around it (negative painting).
Strong paintings can be made by working in the positive or negative or by combining both approaches. Whichever you choose, you can depict any object or subject matter. The approaches work equally well whether you work in a highly realistic, loose, stylized or abstract style in oil, pastel, acrylic or watercolor. It is a matter of recognizing that there is more than one option for tackling painting problems. When you know the options, you can make informed decisions.
The image below shows an example of positive and negative painting — what a difference!
Painting the positive shapes
The most common approach to drawing and painting focuses on working in the positive. A shape is made to represent a particular object and then filled in with color. The artist concentrates on the area inside of the shape while adding texture and details. Shading can also be added within the shape to suggest volume.
Painting the space around
Working in the negative is an alternative approach to drawing and painting. For this method the same object can be created, but instead of filling it in with color, texture or shading, these elements are applied around the shape. The focus is now on the area outside of the shape, rather than on the inside.
Building with positive shapes
Building in the positive is an additive process, as new shapes and details are added on top of the existing forms. As the layering proceeds, the shapes that are made first are pushed back and the layering typically builds from back to front.
Building with negative shapes
Building in the negative is referred to as a subtractive approach. New shapes are positioned behind and under the previous forms. When developed in this manner, the first shapes created remain on top, closest to the viewer, as the layers are built from front to back. In my work the objects that are closest are made first.
Designing with Positive and Negative Shapes
In most paintings, solid positive forms establish the subject, which is surrounded by airy, open negative areas. Often paintings begin by defining the positive subject. The negative space is a minor consideration. As the work progresses, the “background” may remain empty until near completion. Eventually it may be filled with diluted color, nondescript shapes, the suggestion of something. It may be left untouched so as not to distract from the subject.
Whether the space around the subject is washed with delicate color, solid darks, decorative patterns or a vague distant view from a window, the negative space is unfortunately often dealt with only as an afterthought and not an influential element that can enhance the subject. Before beginning a painting, consider the importance of the negative areas of your painting and how they can be used to strengthen your subject and the composition.
Shift the Balance of Power
Change the balance of the proportions of positive and negative areas to make your design visually active. This is easily achieved by increasing the size of positive elements or reducing the negative. Blocking out or reducing some of the negative space changes the balance to clearly place the emphasis on the positive subject. Divide your negative space in different sizes. Don’t keep an equidistant negative border around your subject. Use negative shapes with your positive ones.
To build your design and make the negative spaces more engaging, subdivide
them further and interlock negative shapes with other negative shapes. Once all the parts interlock in an arrangement that you feel good about, the fun begins. Fill them with texture, pattern, graded value or color.
Next in Negative Painting?
Be sure to get your hands on Simplifying Design and Color for Artists, so you can discover the tips and advice as well as the art projects that Kemp shares. You’ll see how there is always a “negative” way to look at a composition. But that point of view will definitely lead you in a positive direction. Enjoy!