It’s All About Layers

It’s All About Layers

When asked “what do you do?” I will say I am an artist. (Note that I answer “who I am” versus “what I do.” Art is who I am and art what I make). The first question is followed by “what kind of art?” To which I typically answer with a medium. “Watercolors” I’ll respond. “Oh! they’ll say, Watercolor is so hard. You have to work so quickly. I could never do watercolors!” I smile. Everything takes practice and lots of it and I will encourage them to try.

I practice a lot at my art and I am never too old, too experienced, or too perfect to seek out instructions or new techniques. A few weeks ago, I stumbled upon YouTube videos on negative painting. Instead of painting inside the subject, you paint around it. I’ll show you the process so it makes sense.

watercolor-grass-pattern-step-one
NEGATIVE PAINTING STEP ONE: Start by getting your paper wet. Then add a wash of colors that you like. Some people carefully select their color palette beforehand but I just picked colors that play nice together. At first it doesn’t look like much. Let each layer (Step) dry before proceeding.

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NEGATIVE PAINTING STEP TWO: Next I draw in a loose grass pattern. i then paint around them in a color slightly darker than the previous colors in Step One.

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NEGATIVE PAINTING STEP THREE: I continue to add more grass shapes as well as circles. I am such a circle girl. Then I paint around all the blades of grass and circles with a slightly darker shade of green. With each layer of paint, you gain more depth.

watercolor-grass-pattern-step-four
NEGATIVE PAINTING STEP FOUR: I continue the process by adding more blades of grass, overlapping them in each step, and then paint around each blade with an even darker shade of green.

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NEGATIVE PAINTING STEP FIVE: You get the idea. Continuing the process, the watercolor is coming together. This is really meditative.

watercolor-grass-pattern-step-six
NEGATIVE PAINTING STEP SIX: I almost stopped at Step Five but felt it needed one more layer of paint to make it complete. By this time, I was using a deep blue-green color I think I’ll title this one “Wondering Where The Lions Are.”

There you have it! Super effective once you get the hang of it. I did not get too fussy about pencil lines but you might want to erase yours with a kneaded eraser (no eraser shavings) so your lines are much lighter. It was pure play and I can see incorporating this method of negative painting with layers in my work. I am a little bit on the fence though with these studies. They were such a joy to make yet at the same time they feel a little like a Hallmark formula. That could be because I started super simple and trying this out for the first time.

Project Notes: I used 300lb Fabriano Bright White hot press watercolor paper. The thickness of the paper held up to all the paint layers really well and did not buckle from the water. Watercolors are Winsor Newton and some inexpensive cake watercolors – any brand of watercolors will do! It is important to mix colors and not just use colors straight out of the tube ~ you get a much richer effect that way. There were really small paintings, too, about 5 x 7 inches.

watercolor-layered-forest-foliage-pattern-one
This is the first negative watercolor painting I did. It is so pretty but it has that Hallmark card gleam to it. So I call this one either “Dentist Office Reception Area” or Holiday Inn Lobby, Ames Iowa.” It just looks like something that would be hanging in one of these locations.

Watercolor vs. Gouache

Watercolor vs. Gouache

I have worked with watercolors for decades. It’s my first love next to drawing. Gouache, which is more or less a cousin to watercolors, never piqued my interest until I saw what other artists were doing with it.

2021 is my transitional year. Since I made the bold move to end my tenure as a full-time graphic designer working on projects for clients, I knew I wanted to devote a portion of my studio practice to pure experimentation.

Instead of buying up an expensive gouache set, I settled with an assortment of Artist’s Loft tubes. The first rounds of experimentation left me deflated. Then I started poking around YouTube for a bit of instruction.

Then I started to breathe. I remember the quote from Ira Glass from “This American Life,” who said something to the effect that you are not satisfied with your efforts at first it’s because you have taste. Your taste drives you to keep practicing, and through practice, you will reach the level of your taste.

“Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.” — Ira Glass

I settled on my experiment. Since I knew watercolor and what it would do when paint hit paper, I would create a comparison painting with gouache. I chose a simple subject, our Christmas Cactus optimistically sprouting pink buds. I would paint the cactus first in watercolor and then in gouache.

At first, I thought I would be bored painting the same subject twice. (I never do that!). It turned out to be a good exercise. For one, I had been doing large-scale detailed drawings for some time and had such a limited color palette it was liberating to get back to a lot of colors.

After those earlier terrible first stabs using gouache, guess what? I like the gouache version of the Christmas Cactus best, enough to use it in a thank you card.

A couple of practical notes: It’s a good idea to paint a swatch set of your colors – no matter what medium you use. You’ll have a visual reference of what a color looks like on paper, which can look different than what the color looks like in the tube. Make a note of whether the paint color is transparent, semi-transparent, or opaque is helpful, too.

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My Watercolor Swatches with notes.
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My Gouache Swatches with Notes.

Your results are so much better if you don’t use color straight out of the tube when painting with gouache. Mix your colors and establish a color palette for your painting before you put brush to paper. You’ll be so happy you did.

What to do with the results? Make a greeting card, of course! Hope you enjoy it. What mediums are you experimenting with these days? Jot your questions or comments below. I’d love to hear what you are working on.

See what a lovely card it made!

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