Negative Painting of a Red-winged Blackbird Nest

Red-winged Blackbird Nest, Available Here

Have You Ever Seen or Made a Negative Painting? 3 Steps


Technique is a predominant subject for art bloggers. However, as an artist, I started writing about biographical accounts of my life, nature, Native heritage, and the art inspired by it. Yet, I have learned many watercolor tricks of the trade, and this will be my first “how to” blog centering around the creation of a specific work using a technique called negative painting.

Art Masking Fluid bottle
Negative Painting

-is to paint a darker background around the lighter objects by defining various objects from close to distant, gradually revealing their shapes and creating more depth and dimension with each layer of color. Negative painting is especially suited for watercolor because the layering of washes can create a beautiful transparent effect. 

Watercolorists often make negative painting using “Art Masking Fluid”. The fluid, after it is applied, dries on the watercolor paper and will “resist” any paint applied to it. 

After the paint is thoroughly dried, the mask is rubbed off, leaving the white of the paper. The edges of the paper and the pigment are very sharp so it works well for some subjects-say cattail reeds, but not subjects with soft edges, like clouds. The end result can give a painting a lot of apparent depth with a clean look. 

I’ve always used negative painting but never as a predominant way to build up a piece. I am sometimes wary of technique getting in the way of painting as it can become the priority over why I paint. My favorite way to paint is interacting with the subject directly, and trying to get everything done on the spot, while negative painting takes a lot of planning.  Yet technique is important because it is what we use to convey our thoughts and feelings.

I’ll demonstrate with my watercolor titled “Red-winged Blackbird Nest”-see the featured image at the beginning of this blog.


This past spring, I was walking around the Soaring Eagle Casino, when I noticed that their were a lot of Red-winged Blackbirds in the cattail reeds around the drainage pond in front of the casino and decided to investigate.

Some consider it unethical-and dangerous for the birds-to be photographing nests but this was a common species that has no problem nesting around people. I also knew how to look and soon spotted a nest I could get close to without getting wet and with little very little disturbance to the birds. I was thrilled with the discovery and with the way the photo turned out. The round smoothness of the eggs and circular pattern of the nest contrasted nicely with the shadowed and layered sharpness of the cattail reeds that the nest was made out of and in. 


Red-winged Blackbird Nest Photo
Photo of a Red-winged Blackbird nest in some cattail reeds
Soaring Eagle Casino and Cattails
Cattails with the Soaring Eagle Casino signs in the background

Although not shown, my first sketch of the photo was to get the movement and pattern down. Using charcoal and newsprint, I did a couple of big, gestural sketches emphasizing lines and shapes to get a feel of the composition and energy. This is primarily a warm up exercise. 

Step 1: Initial sketching and Applying the First Layer of Masking Fluid

Initial drawing for a painting
Step I: Initial Drawing and masking out areas.

Above is the initial drawing on watercolor paper with the first layer of  masking fluid applied in the brightest reeds. Of course you may want to simplify the patterns in the photo; it may not be necessary to get every shadow and reed in. I can’t stress the importance of good quality watercolor paper like Arches because reapplying and removing the mask gives the paper a pounding. After it is drawn in, planning the application of the mask begins

The lightest parts are what you want to mask first. The dark yucky yellow brown is the masking fluid after it dries. When the painting is done, those parts masked first will be the brightest value.   After the mask dries, apply the first wash of paint to get the next layer of values. I like to vary the wash’s density and texture for this painting. I’ve seen some beautiful paintings however with greatly controlled and even washes.  

Step 2: Applying More Washes and Masking Fluid

After the first wash layer is dry, apply another layer of mask on the parts you want to be the second brightest value. After that layer of mask dries put on another wash of color. Repeat this whole process as often as necessary-I did about 4 cycles of mask and wash in this painting. The final wash includes painting in the reeds that are deepest in the tangle and are the darkest from the layering of previous washes.

You also have to be aware of your schedule. The longer the mask stays on after it dries, the harder it is to get off. I started this painting in the morning and finished it that night. 

negative painting technique
Step 3 Final Washes and Masking

Step 3: Removing the Mask and Final Details

The above image has established most of my lights and darks, except for the eggs which were not masked. I painted around them because its easy to mess up the elliptical shape using mask. 

This step looks darker than the finished painting because all those layers of mask are not removed until the painting is complete. In some ways I like the textures the painted-over masking fluid makes better than the finished result! 

Masking Fluid Remover Tool
Tool to Remove Masking Fluid

After the masking fluid was rubbed off, I completed the eggs and touch up the darker reeds using negative painting without the masking fluid. 

I was going to take a photo of the painting when the mask was off and before it was finished but I got caught up in the process; taking off the mask has always been exciting for me as I anticipate what the brighter areas look like-its almost magical. However it is easy to “overmask” so I think less is more. 

I’ve read that it is better to practice this technique on scraps but that’s boring so I went for it and completed my first negative painting-see below. This painting is available at my online gallery.

Negative Painting of a Red-winged Blackbird Nest
Final Painting: Red-winged Blackbird Nest

Purchase this painting here


Floral subjects seem to lend itself well to negative painting. I have followed Bev Morgan for years and she is my favorite negative painter-certainly better than I. You can see her album “negative painting” on Flickr.

Eventually I want to try video instruction but in the meantime here is a good YouTube video about negative painting using masking fluid. 

Of course it isn’t necessary to use masking fluid; one can simply paint carefully around lighter shapes, gradually getting to the darker values.  Some subject matter is well suited for this but in very complicated hard edged subjects like cattail reeds masking fluid may work better. Much of transparent watercolor painting involves some negative painting because you generally can’t paint over light areas.

I think more direct, spontaneous painting is going to be my mainstay but it is always good to mix it up a bit and do something new. 

What did you think of my first “how to” post ? Let me know-I appreciate the feedback and none is considered negative-except the painting 🙂

Stay tuned for my next technical blogpost-” Dry on Wet”- see an example of dry on wet that’s for sale at my online gallery. 

2 Responses

  1. Lovely. And, your explanation of the process is as good as any art instructor I have had. You make a good teacher.

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