Monday, January 20, 2014

WATERCOLOR WORKSHOP: Negative Painting of Aspen Leaves

In this negative painting project, you'll be painting layers of transparent color to create depth and dimension.

You will be adding one layer of leaves and branches behind another layer.  Each layer of negative painting will take you further into the background, behind the first foreground leaves and branches.  

In negative painting, you do not paint the subject itself -- at least, not directly.  The positive shapes are drawn -- in stages.  You will paint the negative shapes, which are the shapes around, between, and behind the leaves, stems, and branches.


If you'd rather download a PDF of this Tutorial, for $6, click here.  


For this project, you'll need a piece of watercolor paper (about 7" x 9"), mounted on a board; a pencil for drawing; various sizes of round brushes (#2, #4, #6), and a flat brush for wetting your paper.  You'll start with a secondary triad of colors -- Sap Green, Quinacridone Gold, and Quinacridone Magenta.  And, you'll be adding some blue (French Ultramarine) later in the project.

1.  Begin your painting with a wet-in-wet underpainting.  Prep the 3 colors first on your palette -- bring each of the colors into the middle and add a little water to it.  Then, wet the entire paper with clear water.  Make sure that it is evenly wet.  Add the three colors to the paper, so that they mingle a little on the paper.  Add the magenta to the bottom left, the gold to the top and diagonally down the middle, and the green to the right side.  Let this settle for a few minutes, and then spatter those same three colors onto the underpainting.  Let this dry completely, while lying flat. . . 

2.  In pencil, draw a few skinny branches, with stems and heart-shaped aspen leaves attached.  This will be your foreground . . . 

3.  Paint the negative shapes with transparent color.  Use the same colors, but mix with a little more water, because you'll be painting the negative shapes, wet-on-dry.  And, use the underpainting color to guide you, as to what color to paint on top.  Paint a gold wash on top of the gold shapes . . . 

When you come to a shape that is two colors, like gold and green -- Start painting the gold, and then transition to the green. . . 

Then, finish painting the shape with the green wash. . . 

On some of the negative shapes, you'll start with the gold and then transition into the magenta wash . . . 

No need to go very dark with this layer -- it just needs to be a little darker value than the first layer.  And, stay transparent (by having enough water).  You want to alter the color below it, not totally cover it up.  This will be true for each subsequent layer.  Continue this way until all the negative shapes are painted with the appropriate washes of color . . . 

4.  Draw more skinny branches, stems, and leaves behind the 1st layer.  Start by drawing three meandering lines, to indicate branches.  Then add a few stems coming off the branches, and draw heart-shaped leaves at the end of the stems, underlapping the foreground shapes.

5.  Mix up two new colors, using the three colors that are in the middle of your palette now.  Mix the Sap Green + Quinacridone Gold, to get a warmer, darker green.  Mix the Quinacridone Magenta (or Permanent Magenta) + Quinacridone Gold to get an orange mixture.

6.  Paint the negative shapes with these two colors.  With the green wash, paint a transparent layer on the shapes that are already green, and on half the gold shapes. . . 

On those shapes that are part green and part magenta, start with one color and transition to the other.  . . 

Continue painting the negative shapes.  Paint the orange wash over the magenta shapes, as well as over the other half of the gold shapes.  

Continue in this way until all the negative shapes have been painted . . . 

7.  Draw some more branches, stems, and leaves.  Once again, I find it helpful to draw the skinny branches first, behind the existing ones.  Then, draw the stems in various places; and then, draw the leaves at the end of the stems.  Make sure to underlap these shapes, rather than try to squeeze the leaf shapes within the negative shapes.

8.  Mix two new "cooler" colors.  Clean off the middle of the palette.  Now mix two new colors, using the green and the magenta, but cooling them down a bit with a little blue.  Mix Sap Green + French Ultramarine, to get a cool green.  Mix Quinacridone Magenta + French Ultramarine, to get a red-violet.  

9.  Paint the negative shapes with these two colors.  Be sure to switch to a little brush, like a #2 round, to paint the smallest negative shapes.  You're not painting any detail at all, inside the leaves, but with each layer, the negative shapes will get smaller, so you need to adjust the size of the brush you use, accordingly.  

Use the red-violet mixture to paint half the negative shapes.  Paint the other half with the blue-green mixture.  Remember to paint only the NEGATIVE SHAPES around the leaves and branches, not the leaves themselves.  That's how you achieve the feeling of depth.

10.  Draw your last layer of branches, stems, and leaves.  If it's hard to see what you're drawing, you can use a colored pencil.

11.  Mix up a blue wash for the final layer.  Clean off the middle of your palette, and then mix up a wash of French Ultramarine.  

12.  Paint the negative shapes that you've just created, using this blue wash.  To finish this painting, this blue wash is painted over all the new negative shapes -- which darkens this last layer and creates even more depth in your painting.  Be sure to use a small round brush, that comes to a nice point, in order to better paint these little shapes.

If you'd rather print out this tutorial, you can download the pdf, for $6, by clicking here.  
That way, you will have one step and one image on each page, so it's easier to paint along with.


You can also get three tutorials, for $15, HERE.
The three Negative Painting Tutorials are:  1) Trees, 2) Aspen Leaves, & 3) Zinnia.


  1. That is beautiful! What a great technique and you teach it so well!

  2. I found you through Pinterest & was delighted to start reading your tutorials! I've been wanting to start watercolor & have already bought some supplies, but was just trying to decide which project to try first. Well, now I know it willl be one of yours, because they are so clearly explained & photographed, making me feel like I might actually be successful! Thank you for your expertise & time. It is greatly appreciated!

  3. I finished this painting a couple days ago and posted it on my Facebook page. I'm getting TONS of compliments on it! I also put it on (a puzzle making site) and gave credit to you for the lesson and linked it to your website here. Thanks for the inspiration! I wish I could be at your Painting Irises like Van Gogh seminar! Irises are my favorite!

  4. Great tuition , love the colours used in this great art piece .
    Will check out the rest of your blog for more fascinating tips and advice.
    Many thanks .

  5. Thanks, all for your nice comments -- I hope you have fun with this tutorial, as well as others on the blog. I appreciate your comments!

  6. I really loved this tutorial. As a beginner I have faced some difficulties but above tutorial helped me a lot to clear my ideas regarding water color and to upgrade my skills. Apart of this I have found some very useful video tutorial for Water Color at in the free art lessons area. I purchased the Turner Watercolors for a great price and really love them so far.

    Do you have any other suggestions for beginners like me?

    1. Hi, Stephan -- Thanks for your comment, and I'm so glad that this tutorial was helpful to you. I'm sure the video tutorials that you found at Jerrys Artarama will also helpful. The more you paint, the better you'll get. It seems like simple advice, but it's the truth. You might also try another negative painting tutorial on this blog, like "Negative Painting of Trees".

    2. Stephan, here's the link to that tutorial:

  7. Simply Amazing!!! Thanks a lot for sharing :)

  8. A fun challenge for an oil painter who keeps coming back to the mystery of watermedia! This piece is stunning. One looks as though there are light washes over the leaves, beginning with step 6, yet it seems only the negative/background spaces are supposed to be painted. Am I missing something? Are the subsequent washes intended to cover all areas, leaves included - as each layer is drawn? I have left my first drawing alone, but the other layers of leaves are tinted. Is this right or no?? I am teetering on the edge of adding the final step, #12. Heeeeelp! :)

    1. Hello, Magda -- No, you're not missing anything. And, you are correct, subsequent washes should only be painted on the new negative spaces. So, once a leaf becomes a positive shape, you don't apply anymore paint on it. In other words, after you draw a new layer of leaves and stems, you only paint the negative shapes that have been formed.

  9. Thanks a ton. It's a great tutorial love it. Love this technique I find watercolour painting very theurapteic & am always looking to learn this tutorial is immense help. Lots of love & prayers

  10. This is an epic tutorial! I wanted to thank you for sharing it =) I tried it out and realized it requires so much patience! Loved doing it =)

  11. So that's how it's done! Great tutorial and I will try it tomorrow. I can think of so many other themes for this same method.

  12. great tutorial - I'll give it a try. Thanks

  13. Loved this tutorial and excited to make it my next project! I just finished your tulip tutorial and did a rough draft first and then the final one on 9" x 11" Arches 300 lb after stretching it. Both came out excellent and the final is proudly hanging on my wall. I have a group of 6 pictures of various flowers and I giggle to myself each time I pass it...that my left hand and brain and eyes did them! You see, everyone in my family were excellent artists except me. My talent was drawing stick people. Somehow, at 69 yrs, it is a bit there thanks to tutorials like yours. "No greater occupation than to be a "teacher teaching future teachers" were my father's words to us five kids often. Thank you very much! Karla Antol - Carlsbad, CA

  14. This really looks amazing! Thank you for sharing!

  15. I have tried to do this but unsure if I should be letting it dry after each layer of painting into the spaces can someone advise me.

  16. Nice tutorial for learning negative paintings. Thanks for sharing.

  17. Thanks to share this post.water color paints is a very good product.