I am in the process of tackling a painting that requires me to paint ‘backwards’ in respect to a white ‘subject’. We are taught in watercolor to always start with the background first and paint light to dark.
However, in this instance, there is a benefit to painting the dark before the lights to contrast a subject. So, I found a really good and interesting article describing the subject of ‘painting backwards’ in watercolor by Ken Hosmer.
This article originally appeared in The Artist’s Magazine Special Issue, WATERCOLOR MAGIC, Summer 1994. I have the link to the article here. It’s an older article, but quite timeless.
In order to do this on my latest painting, I did a test painting outlining the light and a tonal sketch of sorts. I did a simple painting on quarter sheet before doing an actual value study, and was not completely satisfied with the results. Again, this is a perfect example of why one should do a tonal study before takling a painting. It’s much too difficult to try and ‘paint’ these tones on the fly without working it out before you put the brush to your paper.
So, I decided to give it another go and go through a thorough review of the tonal study by breaking my reference photo down to simple black and white tones. I have included the photo as reference and my tonal manipulation.
One thing I noticed immediately with this simple black and white tonal reference, is how the background grasses are white over black in the dark areas and black over white in the lighter areas. This makes for an interesting juxtaposition of dark and light in watercolor. Then , I began to realize , an ink and watercolor drawing may be better suited to draw in this type of background. I can then simply leave my birds ‘white’ until the very end of the painting and use my midtones to fill the remaining painting in.
In Hosmer’s article, he begins with a simple ‘marker sketch’ (water soluble) and directly provides a pattern to his darks. He looks and approaches his watercolor painting very much like Andy Evansen. “When I paint, I think in terms of only three basic values: light, mid-value and dark.” He interconnects the line drawing and then softens the dark values with water to reveal mid-tones and middle values. Once this ‘value sketch’ is revealed, he then transfers his vision to the painting.
This technique is also similar and reminiscent to the way Vladislav Yeliseyev will pencil a simple value sketch before committing his vision to watercolor paper. See his workshop information here.
I quickly realized that color is almost added as an ‘afterthought’ to this painting. In Hosmer’s article, he discusses how breaking the subject down to it’s most simple tones, he is free to ‘experiment’ with colors.
” By focusing on a simplified value system, I’m free to use color intuitively. If the value relationships are correct, almost any color will work. ” ~ Ken Hosmer
Sometimes, a simple exercise such as manipulating your reference material will guide the way to your painting approach. In this instance, I decided to attempt a pen and ink watercolor for this subject.
So, here is the final result after simplifying my approach and actually painting this work ‘backwards’ . Of course , this is a good exercise and the subject could be painted a variety of ways.
So, which one do you like, the first or second rendition? Feel free to share your thoughts or any advice on negative painting. Thanks and Happy painting!