This is one of my favorite exercises in the autumn because it combines the colorful leaves with the concept of negative painting. We easily understand positive shapes because we can name them. They are things like leaves, chairs, circles, cups, cows, etc. Negative shapes are the shapes between positive shapes, like the hole between your arm and your body when you place your hand on your hip, the emptiness of a doorway, the spaces between the branches of a tree.

This exercise involves several layers of watercolor and works better when transparent pigments are used. We talk about all watercolors being transparent, but some of them are less transparent than others. In order to determine transparency, draw a thick black line on a scrap of watercolor paper. Then, using a juicy but fairly concentrated mixture of a color, paint a line across the black line. If there are particles in the pigment, they will show up on the black line. Transparent pigments will appear clear. Several layers of opaque layers will look muddy as the particles scatter the light.

Step one – Gather four or five leaves with interesting shapes. Maple, oak and sweet gum are good candidates. Choose leaves that are different sizes and have a variety of shapes.

Wet the entire piece of paper. Randomly drop in light values of several colors. I like to use a yellow, a red, and a blue. You may leave some areas without color, but we want all the edges to be soft which is why we wet the paper first (see example 1). Let this layer dry completely.

Example 1

Place your leaves on interesting sections of this painting with the stems going off the edges (see Example 2). Having the stems go off the edges breaks up the space and makes it easier to paint around the leaf shapes. Trace around the leaves and stems. (See example 3)

Wet the spaces that are not leaves and, using a darker version of the same paints and clear water, paint in only the areas that are not leaves. You can add a little blue or red to the yellow to make it darker. Let dry completely. (See example 4)

See how the leaves seem to stand out from the background? Now lay the leaves on the painting again, this time overlapping one or more of the previous leaves. This layer is going to be behind the first layer, so don’t trace where the first leaves are, just trace the shapes between the first leaves. Ignore the stems. (See example 5.)

Example 6. I’m going to use some of the leaves again to fill in near the bottom of the picture.

We’re going to do one more layer. There are so many leaves on the paper now that this layer gets tricky, so take it slowly. Place the leaves in the spaces overlapping the previous two layers and trace only the shapes where they fall on the background. We’re going to paint this layer very dark, so only use yellow to change red to orange and blue to green, or to make brown. Hopefully by now you are only painting isolated shapes to make the three layers of leaves stand out.

Where the Leaves Are Not, watercolor, 8” x 10”