Painting Using Negative Shapes
News for November
Painting Using Negative ShapesBehind the Art
by Melissa Acker
More and more I have found myself painting by working with the negative shapes around the object, instead of painting the object itself directly. I've been so intrigued by the idea lately that I'm starting an entire series soon where I focus directly on that technique (doing a series of paintings focusing on a technique is a very effective way to work it into your arsenal, by the way).
First, what do I mean by negative shapes? Here's an example:
This is an apple (obviously). I painted it by laying down a layer of red, and, after it dried, painting in the negative shape around the apple with green, leaving the positive shape of the apple remaining. I painted the apple by painting the space around it. That is what negative space is and a very basic way you can use it.
Here are some of the ways I apply the technique in my paintings.
I am going to paint some grass first. I lay down a layer of yellowish-green paint at a fairly light value. Since I'm working in watercolor, it is much easier to go dark and much, much harder to lighten it up afterwards. Still, I don't tend to panic too much about preserving the white of my paper. By adjusting the values in a painting, you can trick a viewer into thinking even fairly dark washes are light-colored. Everything is relative.
I darken up the value of the wash and add a little more green to it, and draw in a shape that vaguely looks like long grass. I leave some of the background showing through in some places -- this will give us the illusion of depth later on. On the right side, some of the grass is bending in the opposite direction. This is also going to help us later.
I darken the wash up even more and make it mostly green. Remember the grass bending in the other direction? That's going to get pushed into the background. I fill in everything that is going to be 'background' grass with the dark paint, but while I'm doing it, I'm painting around the grass in the foreground. I'm painting the foreground grass by painting the area behind it. I'm painting the negative shape.
Going a step further, I also used some dark paint to paint in the breaks in the foreground grass, tricking the viewer into thinking they can see the background grass. This is a pretty quick and dirty example, but I think it pretty clearly demonstrates the technique. I use this technique with grass, fur, and sometimes leaves and foliage as well.
Up next: scales! I paint a lot of scales in my fantasy work, what with the dragons and all. I prefer the beady, lizard-like scales instead of the overlapping snake-like ones, but it's a matter of taste. They don't actually exist, after all.
Anyway. Once again, a light background wash.
Using another dark green wash, I start painting in the scales by painting the darker, shadowed areas around them. Just like the apple, I am painting the round shapes by filling in the space around them. Lots of variation in size will give us some visual interest and make it look more organic.
To finish up, I pick a light source and paint in the shadows. A slightly-darker slash on the far side of the biggest scales makes them appear rounded. I paint in the very darkest shadows with a smaller brush. If I felt it was necessary, I would add in small white highlights with gouache or acrylic on the scales.
This technique works well with scales, but it also works well with rocks.
One more demonstration. More than anything, I paint a lot of feathers. In my fantasy work I paint a lot of griffins and phoenix, and even my dragons end up with them sometimes. I use negative space when I paint feathers, but in a different way.
Using a fairly dark wash and a brush with a fine tip, I paint in the contours and some of the dark shadows of the feathers. But when I paint in the shadow at the base of one feather, I am negatively painting the edge of feather that overlaps it. It's a similar idea to the background grass we were doing earlier.
A little shadow work gives us a better idea what we are looking at. Feathers are one of those lovely textures that often find me wandering around my house grumbling to myself, but the end result is worth it.
Now let's look at some of my finished pieces to show you some more examples of how I have used this technique in the past.
I used negative painting all over this piece. Let me show you how.
I've pointed out two specific areas in the painting that I painted using negative space. There are at least a dozen other examples just in this detail that I can see. How many can you spot?
This piece is more than five years old. It is a digital painting done in two layers. The under layer was white, the upper layer that deep red color. The entire piece was done with the eraser tool. I had to use negative space quite a bit here. The mane and the back stripe are two obvious examples. Others include the grass behind the zebra and many of the stripes, most notably the rear legs and the face.
Well that's it for now folks! Pay active attention to the negative shapes in your paintings and find ways you can use them creatively, and your technique will grow much stronger. Good luck everyone!
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