Negative space is the part of a painting around and between objects and parts of an object. Thinking about negative space rather than the object itself requires a shift in mental gears, ignoring the “interesting thing” to focus on the “empty space”.
This painting project is about using negative space to create the outer edges of a subject. It’s about reversing your thinking and focus, finding the shape from the background not the subject. it’s a technique that works for all sorts of subjects, including figure painting and portraits, but for this project we’re going to use negative space to turn a chaos of brushmarks into a colourful vase of flowers.
You will need:
A sheet of watercolour or mixed media paper
Masking tape, to divide the sheet into two or four or six, depending on the size of your sheet of paper. (Doing multiple little paintings together removes some of the stress of getting it ‘right’ as it gives you several attempts.)
Your favourite colours. If you’re using watercolour, you’ll need some white gouache or acrylic to create an opaque colour. While I have done this with acrylic paint, the technique works with pastel too.
A mental image of a bunch of multi-coloured flowers in a ceramic vase with a strong single colour
What to do: This video explains it
What I enjoy about doing multiples on a sheet of paper at the same time is that every one is different. Here are the six little paintings in the video, and below this the six I did before recording the video.
Although in this video I’ve created the layers of random colour before painting the negative space, it’s also something you can do with a sheet of paper where you’ve brushed leftover paint from other paintings. Wipe off excess paint from your brush and over time the layers will build up until you’re in the mood for using it for a negative space painting or a warmup exercise. Here’s one I did in 2016:
REMEMBER: If you’d like personal help with creating your project painting and/or a critique on your finished painting, this is available to all my project subscribers via my Patreon site. Have fun, and do send me a photo of your painting for inclusion in the project gallery for us all to enjoy or share it in the Community Section of my Patreon site.
This art project challenges you to draw a scrumpled up bit of paper without doing an outline first. The project is less about the subject and more about the technique and skills development. Though you’ll hopefully be surprised how interesting a scrumpled up piece of paper can become, more importantly it’ll help with brushwork in your painting (with which direction to make brushstrokes).
First, let me explain what I mean by outlines and form lines.
Outlines are the lines we draw of the “outer edge” of an object as we see it. We draw them because it gives us the overall shape of something, where it starts and stops against the background or other objects.
Form lines depict the “inside” of a subject, the lines we draw to show what’s going on inside an outline. These give a drawing depth (3D) and convey other things such as a sense of texture and direction. Form lines are like the slimetrail a snail leaves as it moves across an object, going up and down as the surface it’s moving across changes direction (though for this exercise you don’t want line to be wandering around at random like a snail, it wants purpose and direction like a snail heading for a tasty hosta leaf).
If you find form lines hard to visualise, try taking a length of string and draping it across the surface, then drawing the line of the string. Or run the finger of your hand not holding the pen across the surface of the object, and noticing when the direction changes, when it’s moving up or down rather than smoothly across.
It may feel that if we first draw the outline, it’ll make getting ‘the rest’ easier. But does it? Starting at one spot and working all the way around the object back to this point involves continual decisions about where we’re placing the line in comparison to what’s already drawn. You’re looking from edge to edge, ignoring what’s happening inbetween, whereas this could be helping if you were drawing using mostly form lines.
You will need: a piece of drawing paper, a piece of paper to scrumple up, a pen and/or paint marker, and a pencil.
The first few times you do this, use pen not pencil so you can’t second-guess yourself and rub out parts to redraw, but have to keep going. Give yourself permission to not aim to create a perfect drawing, but to spend time trying and learning.
What to do: Scrumple up a bit of paper and put it where you can see it easily. Pick an area to start drawing from, it doesn’t matter whether it’s on the edge or the ‘inside’ of the sheet. You’re going to use hatched lines (short, parallel lines) to depict the that area, its direction and shape. (Don’t use cross-hatching, only lines in one direction.)
Decide what direction you’re going to hatch and work your way across that shape. Then pick an adjacent area and do the same thing but change the direction of your hatching so it gives a sense of direction change between this and the previous area. Expand out from your first area until the whole scrumpled paper is done. Then add the outline as needed.
Draw in the ridges and shadow edges if you find this helps keep track of where you are as you look back and forth between your drawing and the scrumpled paper, along with lines showing the edge of the sheet. Don’t stress if you get lost, simply pick a point and draw from there. Ultimately the drawing lives by itself, without anything for comparison, so it doesn’t matter.
For areas in shadow, hatch closer together, and for areas in light, make the lines further apart. When using pencil rather than pen, you can also darken the tone of the pencil line as you make it by pressing harder or softer. Stick with pen initially as it’s one less thing to think about as you can focus solely on the form lines.
In my first example I’ve used red acrylic marker pen, which gives a consistent mark in terms of tone. (Red simply because I have a number of these sample paint markers which only came in red.) In my second I’ve used a propelling pencil so I wouldn’t need to stop and sharpen it.
Suggestion: You might find it easier to use a piece of striped paper rather than plain. (For a printable stripey page as in the photo below, click here.)
The challenge of this project is to use gesso to create texture in a seascape, to add an extra layer of mark making to the painting. The texture is used to enhance the sense of movement in the sea, of waves rippling, breaking or crashing on the shore.
Using white gesso gives the potential of letting paint flow into the depths of the texture and leaving the ridges white like sea foam. Also to wipe the ridges clear of paint, or drybrush over just the tips of the texture.
Because gesso is hard to remove once it’s dry (short of taking sandpaper to it), this technique requires a bit of planning of your composition so you don’t end up with texture in an undesired spot, or texture that contradicts what the colour is doing (the subject). You can, of course, add more, but because white gesso is opaque* it will hide what you’ve already painted. (*Transparent gesso does exist.)
Reference Photos for this Painting Project: I’ve chosen three photos, and encourage you to create a composition that takes elements from all rather than work from one photo only. They’re photos I think have interesting wave patterns and shapes, strong lights and darks, with a sense of waves marching to shore but also a lot of interest in the shallow water. All three photos were taken on the coast nearest to me in Aberdeenshire, at Gardenstown and the rocky bay a bit further east.
ART SUPPLIES LIST: • Acrylic gesso or primer (i.e. water-based gesso not oil-based primer). Acrylic texture pastes will also work, but may not dry to a surface absorbent enough for watercolour to stick • A coarse-haired brush or similar to apply the gesso, something that will leave brushmarks in the gesso • A sheet of watercolour or acrylic painting paper • Watercolours and/or acrylic paint/ink • Water in a spray bottle to encourage paint to spread (optional) • Paper towel to wipe unwanted paint from the ridges of the texture
WHAT TO DO: Start by doing a loose sketch in pencil or pen of your composition, where the shore is, where the waves are. Think about the direction of movement of the water, and how you’ll convey this through marks in the gesso. Maybe sketch the directions in with a pencil before you apply the gesso so the decisions have been made before you start applying it. Gesso doesn’t dry instantly, so you’ve a little time to rework it, but don’t take too long. A coarse-haired brush works well, but don’t use a good one as gesso is hard on brushes. What kind of marks will you make on the shore, whether it’s sand or pebbles? Might you leave some of this area without gesso?
Leave the gesso to dry, because you don’t want to flatten any of the texture by painting over it before it’s dry. It can be hard to see what’s where when using white gesso on white paper, but if you hold it at an angle to the light you’ll see it better. A workaround is to first paint the paper a colour, leave this to dry and then apply the white gesso, which will then show clearly. (I prefer not to do this because the degree of uncertainty in not quite being able to make out where I applied the gesso adds a sense of discovery and energy as I respond to what’s revealed and where the paint goes.)
Start with fluid or watery paint, not thick, so it spreads out into the crevices and dips in the gesso texture. While this paint is still wet, flick in some darker and/or lighter colours; the splatter will spread slightly where it hits damp areas and remain as hard edges dots of paint on dry areas. Tilt the sheet of paper to encourage drips to run in various directions. Use paper towel to remove paint from the tops of texture ridges and soak up excessive puddles of paint.
Consider the lights and darks in the sea, which bits of water are darker and which lighter (use the reference photos for this information). Watch out for every area being the same colour and/or tone.
When you get to a point you think you’re happy, or get frustrated, lie the sheet of paper flat and let the paint dry. This will encourage any still-wet paint to settle into the grooves. When it’s dry, take a look at the ridges of the texture and consider whether you want to try to remove any paint from these (a bit of aggressive rubbing with a damp piece of paper towel usually does the job for me, but be careful!) or use a dry brush to apply paint to the ridges only (that is a brush with only a little stiff paint on it, held quite horizontal to the surface and pulled across so it just touches or tickles the ridges).
REMEMBER: If you’d like personal help with creating your project painting and/or a critique on your finished painting, this is available to all my project subscribers via my Patreon site. Have fun, and remember to send me a photo of your painting for inclusion in the project gallery for us all to enjoy or share it in the Community Section of my Patreon site.
This painting project challenges you to paint portrait of a dog with expressive brushwork, against a background dominated by a single colour. To use visible, loose brushwork on the body, getting more detailed in the face.
This trio of photos are provided for inspiration, from a friend of mine on Skye. (Click on photo to get a larger version.) If you’ve your own favourite four-legged friend, you will likely find taking a reference photo is easier than painting from life unless they’re sleeping, or if you really like a challenge, first do a painting from memory, then compare the result to reality.
SIZE AND MEDIUM: The format (portrait or square or landscape) and medium are up to you. If you use pastels or coloured pencil rather than paint, think about the different sizes of mark you’ll make depending on how you hold it.
BACKGROUND: As it’s to be a portrait, keep the background simple. Use colour variation, but avoid having the background look flat and even, it wants some energy to it through some gentle colour variation. Use a colour that’ll enhance the colours of the fur and/or eyes. For example, a blue will make the golden oranges of eyes brighter, blue and orange being complementary colours. You can then use blues in the shadows and blacks, so the background connects with the subject.
Watch out for the background feeling like it’s painted around rather than going behind the head. With longhair dog this can be solved by painting fur so it goes over the background at the edges of the face and body
BRUSHWORK: For an expressive style, leave brush strokes visible and don’t blend them out. Use loose brushwork that suggests things and leaves our imagination to fill in the details, rather than telling us everything. Use ‘streaky’ brushmarks where the hairs of the brush are spread out giving a broken mark rather than a solid one. Use a big brush for the fur on the body, at least an inch — pick the one you think you want to use, then swap it for a bigger one. Use a brush half that size for the ears and sides of face, again keeping it loose. Then smaller mark making again for the face, but don’t paint every single detail; remember to leave some things suggested.
COLOURS: Add life and energy by using colour, going beyond what’s “real” for poetic effect.
Don’t use pure white except at the very last layer. Think of “almost white”, using warmer tints in the areas catching the light (yellow, orange, pink) and cooler in shadow (blue, green, purple) as well as areas the light doesn’t fall (such as below chin). Remember to think about two different aspects to the colour choices: tone and separating warm/cool. (I don’t do much with warm/cool in my own painting, but it’s an interesting way to approach colour. What’s warm and cool is relative, depending on context. So a yellow-green can be warm whereas a blue-green is probably cold.)
For black, either mix a strong dark so it’s not pure black and makes a more interesting grey when you mix in white, or use Perlyne black because with white it’s such a lovely earthy black with green tinge (perfect for a sheepdog). In terms of adding a dark blue (Prussian) or purple into areas so it’s not only black, I’d possibly start by painting the areas black, then overpainting with blue and purple that aren’t quite as dark.
COMPOSITION: think about how much space there is around the head and body, doesn’t want to feel squashed in. Also whether you place it centrally or to one side. Another option is to let the ears go off the top, though you loose the lovely sharp points.
FUR DIRECTION: look closely at the direction the fur grows, and have brushmarks follow this. It may be worth taking the time to draw a fur map so you know what direction to move your brush across each part of the body and face (see this article of mine from Painting.About.com days).
FOR INSPIRATION: It’s a subject contemporary artist Sally Muir paintings beautifully and tenderly. Sally has two books of her paintings: “Old Dogs” and “A Dog a Day“, and posts photos of her social media.
Painting a dog’s portrait not a modern idea. This painting is attributed to 19th century English artist Joséphine Bowes (1825–1874), in the Bowes Museum in England.
This painting project is about using strong shapes and varied mark-making to build up an abstract inspired by nature. Specifically the shapes of a plant called Eryngium ‘Neptune’s Gold’, which is a type of sea holly with blue flowers, blue stems, and spikey golden-yellow leaves. The thistle-like flowers are clusters of tiny flowers packed together, surrounded by a wide ruffle, a bit like those a head in one of those huge lace collars in a Rembrandt portrait.
YOU WILL NEED:
A large sheet of watercolour paper (I suggest A3 in size)
A second piece of paper (or use the ‘wrong side’ of an old painting) for collage
Any fast-drying paint (acrylics, ink, watercolours, gouache)
A light-coloured opaque paint or ink or gel pen
A graphite pencil or coloured pencils
A rigger brush or round brush with a good point
Scissors and glue for collage
WHAT TO DO:
Doing some colour mixing to work out a ‘recipe’ for the blues and yellows as in Neptune’s Gold (more photos below) could be time well spent. Make a note of what you’ve used and colour swatches so you’ll be able to replicate it.
STEP 1: This project is going to be worked from dark to light rather than trying to add a background colour to complex shapes at a later stage. Cover the whole sheet of watercolour paper with a darkish colour. Don’t stress about getting a flat uniform colour; variation which will ultimately suggest things. As there’s yellow and blue in the flower, I’d mix a purple (yellow being the complementary colour to purple, and blue being analogous (sitting next to it on the colour wheel). Go fairly dark with the purple, maybe adding a second layer.
STEP 2: Take a closer look at the shapes at the top of this plants. Count how many leaves extend out in the ‘collar’ and how many pointy bits there are on each. On the sheet of paper to be used for collage, draw this shape with graphite or a coloured pencil (suggest yellow or a light blue). Trust yourself and do it freehand rather than tracing the photo; there’s variation in nature after all!
STEP 3: Brush some clean water onto the shape of the flower to dampen the area. I like using a flat brush for doing this because you can get the shape wet quickly. Add a little yellow onto the tips of each leaf (not too much, you don’t want it to spread all the way to the centre). Load up a brush with blue and touch this into the centre of each shape, letting it spread out along the leaves. Again, not too much as you don’t want it to mix with the yellow to make green. (Alternatively, let the yellow dry, then gently brush some clean water over the shape again, and then drop in the blue.) Work quickly and decisively.
STEP 4: Cut out the flower shapes with scissors along the lines you drew in step three. I suggest at least five. Place them on the sheet with the dark colour background and decide on a composition. Don’t glue them on just yet.
STEP 5: Using opaque colour, draw or brush similar shapes to form a layer of marks and colour that will be visible beneath the collage elements. (The ‘lower’ leaves and flowers in the plant.) I think it could be fun to use gold and/or silver for this.
STEP 6: Stick down the flower shapes from step 2. (If you’re using watercolour and a PVA white glue, be careful not to get glue on the front of the shapes as watercolour doesn’t like sticking on top of glue. Acrylics will do so happily.)
STEP 7: Add a whole lot of dots to the centre of each for the flowers. I would do this with a rigger brush or sharp-pointed brush, or splattering a bit of paint.
STEP 8: Consider whether you need to enhance the connection of the collage elements to the background, for instance by using some opaque paint on these that goes over the edges a little.
The patterns of the ploughed fields that are the inspiration for this month’s painting project (details here) have continued to capture my attention even as in real life they’ve become a different pattern with the greens of crops growing and present all sorts of other possible paintings. I’ve had a few attempts, feel that I’m getting closer each time to a result that pleases me as a whole not only in parts, but aren’t there yet.
For my first attempt, I absolutely had to use black lava paste to convey the sculptural and textural sense, but neglected the perspective in my, urm, let’s call it enthusiasm. After applying the texture paste, and without waiting for it to dry, I dropped acrylic ink onto the surface and sprayed this with water to get it to spread, then left it overnight to dry.
This is what the painting looked like when I conceded defeat, and lectured myself about why a bit of planning and thumbnailing can go a long way. I won’t repeat what the in-house art critic nor the peanut gallery had to say.
I like the effect the black lava paste gives, but need to have the patience to scratch in the perspective lines more carefully. Once it’s dry it’s not an easy thing to change. To help myself with this, I created a photo collage with various other reference photos, ready for the day I slow down with my sketchbook and make a considered study of the shapes, angles, and perspective. At the moment I’m procrastinating by calling it a project for winter.
My second attempt was mixed media on paper, trying to get a sense of the broken-up section adjacent to the furrows. The weather in my painting turned rather stormy, perhaps a reflection of my mood as things didn’t come quite come together for me.
My third attempt was also mixed media on watercolour paper, but I started by applying some gesso to paper to help create texture. This is a technique I tend to forget about, maybe because my bottle of gesso isn’t next to my paint tubes, but can be very effective. I decided to make more of the hedgerow on the left so the composition had more colour in the lower area.
Much of it was worked wet into wet, spraying acrylic ink to encourage it to spread, but also trying not to obscure all of the already dried Payne’s grey ink lines of where the hedge separates the two fields. I was pleased with where I got to with this painting, and stopped to let it dry overnight with the thought of adding a small farmhouse in the distance the next day. That hasn’t happened yet; I’m procrastinating by telling myself I need to practice some farmhouses first to ensure I don’t ruin this painting. Or maybe I’ll decide it doesn’t need it.
It’s time for a new painting project and this month it’s a subject that’s got strong pattern plus the added challenge of making a colour not known for its vibrancy into something visually intriguing. That is, to mix “interesting browns”.
Here’s the reference photo that is the starting point (click on photo to enlarge). I took it on one of the numerous small roads between Cuminestown and Gardenstown in Aberdeenshire. The dominant element is the stripes of the ploughed field. But there’s also the splash of green fields, the yellow of gorse bushes along the edge, dots of sheep, and part of a farmhouse towards the right. Plus the march of fence posts, electricity poles, and in the distance a wind turbine.
COLOUR: How to make a large area of one colour, albeit varying tones, visually interesting? You might do it with variations of brown, all those earth colours, plus strong dark such as a sepia. You might exaggerate colour, using purple or deep reds for the darker tones. Vary the mark making as well as colours, to suggest texture. Maybe use some texture paste?
PERSPECTIVE: There’s the challenge of getting the perspective on the furrows working, with them narrowing into the distance and changing direction with the curves of the hillside. The pattern of light and dark on the furrows, as well as one of texture with them being smooth on the top and rough in the bottom.
Maybe crop the photo top and bottom, eliminating some of the sky and foreground. Consider a square format as well as a vertical.
Might you leave out the poles and/or the wind turbine as these might distract the eye too much from the pattern of the furrows?
Give the green field on the left more space in the overall composition, letting it be a larger element to increase its colour dominance to balance out the browns
If you’d like your painting to be included in the project photo gallery, email me a photo with a few sentences about your painting or share it via social media by the end of the month.
Another thing I’ve added to my list for this month’s painting project is to have a go at painting from dark to light, rather than from light to dark as I usually do. It necessitates knowing which of your colours are opaque so they’ll show up on top of a dark colour, and presents the challenge of leaving bits of the shadow areas unpainted so the dark base layer shows through.
I was reminded of it when I noticed that “other than white” versions of the non-absorbent primer by Michael Harding are now available at Jackson’s (affiliate link). MH is a UK brand renowned for its quality of his oils paints and range of colours. Lots of traditional pigments in the range, some with prices in the “ouch” category.
I’ve been watching out for MH coloured primers because the range includes a clear primer, which will be less less grabby/rough than the one I have been using (Holbein, medium grain) on wood panel to let the grain of the wood be part of the painting.
I then saw the black and headed into “ooohhh” territory. The other colours don’t tempt me as they’re not colours on my palette and risk ending up with a ground that doesn’t fit well with the painting, and the neutral grey isn’t exciting. Some of the oil paintings I’ve done that I was happiest with I started with a Payne’s grey acrylic ink drawing. So a black gesso would do similar, albeit without gaps. I look forward to finding out.
One thing I do wish though is that the containers the Michael Harding ground comes in were narrower. The lid on the white one I’ve got is too big for me to get a grip across it to unscrew it easily. I wish it came with a narrower lid that had a flip/twist to squeeze some out nozzle and could be screwed off to access with a brush.
This project is about using different drawing and painting materials to depict a relatively straightforward subject in order to remind ourselves of materials we’ve forgotten, neglected, not yet tried, been too intimidated to attempt, and love the most. To do a series of drawings/paintings either as individual pieces or together on a large piece of paper.
My suggested subject is a piece of fruit, something that will last for a while. Work from observation not memory because looking at it closely, and repeatedly, will reveal how much we don’t typically notice. Position it the right way up, upside down, on its side, cut in half or peeled, with a bite taken out, as just a core or pip or peel.
Do at least seven drawings/paintings, as large or small as you wish, with or without backgrounds. Dig out all your different materials and give each a go. For instance:
pencil (line only, tone only, line and tone)
pen (permanent and water-soluble)
black only (ink or charcoal)
black+ (black dominates but using other colours, as in traditional Chinese ink paintings)
loose wet into wet with line added afterwards to suggest detail
At the end of the month, email me a photo of your results for inclusion in the photo gallery. If you’re unsure of how to use any material you’ve got, feel free to email me and ask. For feedback on your results, sign up to be a project subscriber on Patreon, where there’s also an option for me helping you one-to-one with any aspect of your art. Happy painting!
MY PROJECT PAINTING: I’ve chosen a green apple because none of the red ones had a stem, the green gets yellower as the apple ages, the shadow areas invite the use of reds and purples (as complementary to green/yellow) and it takes me away from orange/blue that have become such fundamental colours.
I’m doing it in a concertina sketchbook, with each on a new spread (pair of pages) so that the result will be a book you can flip through seeing them sequentially or open out to see them as a row. Painting over the fold of the paper isn’t ideal as the paint tends to gather there and get the paper too wet and it tears, but a single page felt too squashed.
This month the challenge is to go through your paintings from the past year (or longer) and sort them into three categories: to keep, to continue, and to destroy. The aim is to remind yourself of what you’ve painted and to give yourself a direction to head in January.
1 Go through the “to keep” pile and make a list (mental or physical) of what you enjoy about these paintings and what you’d like to do more of next year. It could be the medium, size, subject, mark making, colours, style, a lesson learnt or medium tried. Treat yourself by framing up one and hanging it on the wall.
A “to keep” painting doesn’t necessarily mean it’s something someone else would think was your best; why it’s a keeper can be very personal.
2 Gently look through the second pile of paintings-in-progress, abandoned, neglected and unfinished pieces. Write down your thoughts on where you might go with each, what you still want to do or change. If they’re done on paper, write a note on the back, like the next steps in a recipe, so that when you come back to it at a later date you’ve got a plan.
3 On to the pile of duds and frustrations. If they’re on paper, it can be very cathartic to rip these up and throw them in recycling. But first check there isn’t a section that deserves to be in one of the other piles if you cropped it a bit. Or that would make a card, or gift tags, or bits for a future piece with collage. If they’re on canvas, consider overpainting with a transparent dark purple to give a starting point for a painting done from dark to light (rather than overpainting wth white or gesso).
If in doubt, put it in the “to continue” pile. Rather wait and live with a piece for a while longer. And by a while I mean like six months.
Don’t beat yourself up for what you didn’t do, didn’t achieve, didn’t finish. Celebrate what you did, and where you might head next year.