Painting Backwards in Watercolor

If you’re after rich, dripping darks, pure color and brilliant lights, then you might consider trying this dark-to-light approach to watercolor. This system calls for painting the darkest darks first, sliding into the middle values, and saving the lights as stark white paper. 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

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.

My first painting without the proper tonal study. This is basically just an intuitive painting from my reference sketches. I was not completely satisfied with this initial result.

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.

My reference photo
First , I converted my photo to black and white to see my full range of tones.
Simple tonal reference photo of 2 tones, black and white. This tonal reference allows one to see the stark blacks and contrasting whites before painting.

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.

This was my second attempt at a more tonal approach to my reference photo.

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!


  1. Love this approach. Definitely contrary to traditional watercolor but very effective in certain applications and very freeing. Kind of takes the “Where do I begin “ concerns away. I hoping to explore this technique more in the future. Thanks for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I know, it’s a different way of painting , but very effective. I started doing a lot of ink sketches lately, which immediately places a lot of the darks. I make the mistake of not really doing the classic value study before many of my paintings and just dive in. I think it’s a mistake to think that you can work it out while trying to paint it. This has been the hardest thing for me to do actually. However, I think once you isolate the lights, darks and midtone values in your work and value sketch EVERYTHING before committing it to a painting, it will take the work to the next level.


  2. Color may be almost an afterthought with this technique, but it sure works beautifully in both images, and it’s especially interesting in the second one. That being said, I think I might prefer the first one for the mystery that I feel. It’s looser and more fluid, and leaves me wondering more about what the egrets are doing or where they’re going. But both are terrific, no question! The conversion to black and white to gets the values right is interesting too – once in a while I will desaturate a photo completely in Lightroom in order to see the values better, which can help me decide what direction to go with it.

    Liked by 1 person

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