Project 2 – Exercise 4: Monochrome studies

This exercise is supposed to explore to elements:
– opaque and transparent
– positive and negative space painting

I am not so sure how to work around these elements, being positive that I’ll learn by doing and reflecting. I was happy that there was a winter birch around the house which a good view from my balcony.

To warm up and to explore a bit more negative space I did a few sketches. For the ones on the right side I applied an ink wash on the pages and after drying I drew with chalk the negative spaces around the main shapes of the tree.

Stefan513593 - Project 2 - Exercise 4 - sketchbook

Stefan513593 – Project 2 – Exercise 4 – sketchbook

Warmed up I started to prepare two commercially available boards with a light and dark grey color mix in diluted oil paint. I decided to mix them out of complimentary colors to obtain a more vibrating color mix instead of using our tube grey.

My prepared ground in oil (on 50x60cm board):

Stefan513593 - Project 2 - Exercise 4 - preparation

Stefan513593 – Project 2 – Exercise 4 – preparation


A) Monochrome painting on light ground / Positive Space:

I established first a rough charcoal outline sketch on the board and continued with my dark mix to mass in the main shapes of the tree (trunk, in branches). For the smaller twigs areas I decided to use another tool (comblike) with that I could modulate with dark paint into the surface to obtain a rather vibrating indication of those areas. With a palette knife I scrapped of some areas from the trunk to indicate the birch bark.

Overall I felt quite pleased with this rather mark making approach.

Stefan513593 - Project 2 - Exercise 4 - Positive space

Stefan513593 – Project 2 – Exercise 4 – Positive space


B) Monochrome painting on dark ground / Negative Space:

I continued with the dark ground and used the light grey mix from the previous ground. After making a rough outline sketch in chalk on the support, I started to block in roughly the main negative shapes around the tree in the lower half. Moving towards the outer areas and into the twig areas I added more turp and some ultramarine to the light grey mix. I tried to make those areas more receding – kind of atmospherical visual depth perception.

I made here a big challenge as it turned out the the mix was still quite opaque (with it white content). Never thought of that white can destroy so much a transparent effect of a color. Although I used the rather semi-transparent zinc white and not the opaque titan white.

For the bark I added some light grey on top of the uncovered dark background to indicate a more believable birch. Here I found that the mix had the right balance between opaqueness and transparency.


Stefan513593 - Project 2 - Exercise 4 - Negative space

Stefan513593 – Project 2 – Exercise 4 – Negative space

=> I was not so happy with the result. It looked rather like a dead tree. Not vivid enough.However I liked the atmospherical appeal especially in the more transparent areas.


The next day I decided to make another negative space painting. Considering time constraint I used now acrylic paint to prepare the ground. And I decided to work in gouache.
The main reasons for that:
– Acrylic ground: rapid drying, water resistant after drying
– Gouache: water soluble, rapid drying, can be used in quite diluted transparent but also in opaque layers.


Preparing new boards in acrylic paint:



Before staring with my painting on the board I did some a rough stud in gouache on black paper to understand my approach how to tackle my above mentioned issues for developing a more vivid image of a tree.


Stefan513593 - Project 2 - Exercise 4 - testing gouache

Stefan513593 – Project 2 – Exercise 4 – testing gouache


=> the light grey gouache on black paper shows nice transparent effect when diluted with water (see lower left area)

=> when outlines in more opaque paint the areas around the overall tree shape, the inner space appears more transparent (see lower right area)

=> I could scratch into the still wet paint to make markings indicated receding thinner twifs (see middle upper section)



With the settled I started my gouache painting on the two slightly different coloured grounds. Besides brushes I also used palette knife and a sponge to dap onto the wet paint to indicate a more vivid perception of the twig areas (see right painting). Perhaps I did too much of it as the tree started to look already like a spring tree.

Stefan513593 - Project 2 - Exercise 4 - Negative space / gouache on acrylic ground

Stefan513593 – Project 2 – Exercise 4 – Negative space / gouache on acrylic ground



  • Working in negative space is more successful when a transparent wash is applied in receding transition areas. By that it overcomes the challenge when working in positive space to work too much on details (what is quite impossible to do for all the little tin twigs anyhow).
  • To render main shapes is more effective when working in positive space. Although working in negative space allows for a different edge control and allows to modulate towards finer details.
  • Working only in positive space can be very trick when developing a rather atmospheric and receding perception of shapes.
  • Negative space painting allows easier to create a sense of atmosphere. Although it gets tricky when to render main shapes (less accuracy).
  • A combined approach would be beneficial when both aspects are part of the painting and the scene consists out of close and distant forms. It also would work well when managing transitions (atmospheric perspective).
  • The sequence could be done in both ways. Either to build positive shapes first and than to add atmosphere. I have the feeling that starting with negative space painting and atmospherical elements first could be more successful.

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