This exercise highlights the difference between painting an object and painting the negative shapes that give it form.
As I did it, I also learned more about my materials. The greys I used were mixed from three colours, which was a useful exercise in its own right. I learned the extent to which acrylic paint dries significantly darker, and the need to mix enough paint beforehand to cover an area that needs to be consistent in tone. I learned that precise, painstaking painting isn’t so enjoyable or so effective as wading in broadly with big brushes and a palette knife.
This is what I did:-
Made two observational drawings in my 25×25 Seawhite sketchbook. The first a young oak (dark trunk and branches against the background); the second a poplar, Populus Alba (pale trunk and branches against a dark, wooded background). Both done in graphitint pencils and water brush. Impatiently, I didn’t finish toning in the negative spaces in the second; warning bells should have rung at his stage, but I left it there anyway.
For the oak tree I used some old Arches rough watercolour paper 180gsm, gessoed 34×55. I laid in a transparent background using S3 Process Magenta, Cyan and Yellow with water. In painting the tree with a concentrated mix of the same colours, my aim was to avoid detail and keep the brush marks free. I successfully modulated the tones of receding branches, and roughly scraped a stiff old toothbrush around to create an impression of masses of twigs. I broadly painted the background context of the tree, this time adding white to the dark mixture. The simple composition indicates a foreground, middle ground and distance, but I found the tones didn’t give the impression of aerial perspective and I had to try again. Aerial perspective is a bit of a bugbear for me, and I was also thrown by inexperience with using acrylic paint.
The final painting therefore has both transparent and opaque areas.
I found the ‘Negative painting’ method much harder. The instructions puzzled me, and I thought at first the idea was to end up with a light toned tree against a dark background. I checked a few student blogs and realised we were being asked to paint the negative spaces with a light tone over an initial dark layer, and the dark tree would emerge.
My first attempt (Canson cartridge, gessoed 50×70) was painstakingly done but I was mixing (opaque) paint on the go instead of mixing enough of one tone to cover an area; and I was underestimating how much darker the paint would dry. As a result, while I had sharp, detailed edges to trunk and branches, the tones of the negative spaces were all over the place, and the overall background was much too dark- the tree hardly stood out. On the other hand the effect was quite good, reminiscent of a patchwork quilt or stained glass window.
Next session, with my palette knife and almost white paint I thinly and roughly covered the background, which apart from being enjoyable to do, gave an impression of texture and leaves. This also dried too dark as it was quite thin paint. I persevered, obliterating, adjusting tones, redoing the dark branches and twigs where they’d been lost. This is the stage where I decided to stop – by no means a finished painting, but better than the first version.
Although more difficult to get the hang of, painting negative shapes seemed to give a more lively result. My feeling is it would be especially effective where light is shining through from the distance towards the viewer, as here in a rough ink sketch I made in Drawing 1. The light yellow negative shape seems to pop the trees to the foreground.
A limitation of painting the negative shapes, is that it is difficult to paint them consistently and accurately when the foreground object is highly complex, such as the delicate tracery of masses of branches and twigs, but approaches to solve this problem will come with experience.
Transparent paint might be used where delicate colour modulation is needed, with underneath layers modifying the layers above. Transparent layers could be added to opaque areas to modify and vary tone and colour. Opaque paint could be used for representing solid and plastic surfaces.