Watercolour Painting Demonstration: Negative Painting Sweet Potato vine

I recently did a painting demonstration at my local Art Gallery in Mount Ommaney (Brisbane QLD Australia for those of you who have no idea where that is:) And I thought Id share  a bit of it here as people seemed quite fascinated with how I actually did the painting. 

I love negative painting with watercolours, because it allows you to create depth and glow easily, and you get to build up the layers of colour as you go.Its a very different technique to normal watercolour as you cover just about the whole sheet with each layer..and it can be a bit confusing till you get your head around it.

The painting Ive done is inspired by the real plant thatI have growing in my garden, but it's not an exact copy of the colours or shapes. My aim is more to show the movement and energy of
the plant, not to create a perfect realistic copy the way traditional botanical art does. 

Layer One

You start off by covering the paper with water, so that you avoid any hard lines and the colours can move and blend and then dabble blotches of random colours all over it. In this case I chose mainly oranges and pinky reds, so as to give some contrast to the overall green I was going to use in the painting. You have to be careful to keep each layer fairly light, as you will be adding up to 7 layers on top, so start lightly. you can always darken or intensify everything as you go. I also dabbed a bit of blue in the bottom of the picture as I intended to create a grading of light to dark from top to bottom of the painting.

Tracing the outline shapes

The next step is to trace the shape of the leaves. I literally used the leaves Id cut from a sweet potato vine in my garden that I'd brought with me and traced around them with pencil. I traced the central vine and a few leaves, and then detached and traced some larger leaves so I could place them in a more visually pleasing manner. The placement of the leaves is really important. A "good" or visually pleasing picture always has a focal point. You need to choose one or two leaves that will be the main focal point of the painting and place them so that they are central but slightly off centre.This creates movement in the painting. 

the focal leaves you have chosen will be the first layer of the painting. And in this case I've placed them where Ive got nice bright splotches of orange and pink, to help them stand out from the other leaves. (It will make sense later, I promise :)

So this is the finished first layer with the outlines of the leaves and vine traced lightly with pencil. (I learnt the hard way to make it light! Otherwise you dig a dark groove in the paper that no amount of rubber-ing will get rid of)

Layer Two

After drying the painting thoroughly with a blow dryer, (I use a cheap hair dryer, and its really important to dry each layer really thoroughly before you start the next, otherwise you just end up with a muddy mess.)

I then painted the next layer in a bright leaf green. Its important to keep this layer fairly light too...You paint carefully around the first focal leaf and then cover the rest of the paper. the difficulty lies in making sure you work fast and keep the paper moist so you don't end up with any hard edges (except around the focal leaf) as they would show through the next layers. you can't just spray the whole page because you'd then lose the crisp edges around the first focal leaf.... So I work quickly do one brushstroke of paint and then a brushstroke of clear water next to it keeping it all moving... it can be a bit fiddly...

Layer Three

The next layer (again after thorough drying with the trusty hair dryer) is another of the same green with a touch of a bluer green, this time painting around both the first focus leaf and the next layer down. 

Layer Four

The next layer I went back to a brownie green, this time outlining two leaves on the next layer as well as the first and second leaves. So we now have three layers of leaves.

Looks pretty messy at this stage huh?!

But you're beginning to get a sense of depth. 

Layer Five

This is the final depth layer. And this time I'm working with one of my favourite dusky dark blues. It has a tendency to create weird patches and varigations as it dries, which suits me perfectly here as it creates even more sense of movement.

Ive graduated the colour from just a touch at the top, mainly around the leaves themselves, intensifying the colour down towards the bottom 

This is the finished layer for the backgrounds.

You can now see the different layers clearly, and the depth and movement the layers of contrasting and accenting colours have created.I think its quite pretty like this, but its still pretty rough. 

Layer Six

Next comes adding details to each leaf and the stem. This is more like traditional watercolour painting though again, your adding a layer of colour to each leaf. First I traced the veins of each leaf in with pencil again, and then started to create a bit of shape on each leaf.
I do this by painting graded colour washes in sections, doing one side of the leaf at a time, first covering the whole area I want to shade in water (being careful not to make it too damp) and then carefully adding colour along the edges I want to shade so it spreads and creates a shadow...

Drying each segment carefully before I do the next one so I get nice lines along the middle of each leaf. 

Layer Seven

I then painted the stem with two different browns. first a light ochre, then a darker brown on one side of the stem to create a sense of shape and light direction. 

And this is where it ended up after 2.5 hours at the gallery.

You can see clearly where its all going from here. The depth and the layers are clear, the colours bright, you have a sense of movement and light...

Im afraid I got caught up in the painting and forgot to take photos of the final steps of the painting when I got him. but it was basically another 3 hours of patient careful shading of each leaf, underpainting and then painting in the veins, and then using a pen to draw in the outlines

It's definitely not perfect. 

But I'm quite happy with its perfect imperfection:) 

As I kept saying in the class, the beauty of watercolour is its impossibility to control completely. If you stop fighting it and learn to play with the colours and how it flows with different amounts of water, you can create real Magic, that in some ways makes a botanical painting look more..natural than a picture perfect image. 



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