I love the work of Eudes Correia. Check him out if you don’t know about him. The way he manages to capture expression and sincerity in his subjects is just mesmerizing. His portraits are punchy and full of gesture, but even with all the busy colors and expressive brush work, he never seems to take over. The painting is always about the subject, even though it’s literally dripping with his signature style.

I have been looking through some of good work lately, and I realized that one of the reasons his work is so interesting is because he is such a master of painting negative space. That got me thinking about my own paintings, and I realized that’s an enormous weakness of mine, so I decided to explore it a bit.

I think the reason I have trouble with negative space is that my eye is so trained on seeing the positive space. I get confused when I’m painting negative space, and my lines inevitably wander from outlining the negative shape to suddenly outlining the positive shape. I wanted to find a way to improve on this, so I decided to try a little exercise.

First, I took a photo of myself. Ok – I took a bunch of photos of myself. I won’t dwell on how uncomfortable I felt taking a bunch of selfies, just know that I hate them, but I had to.

Anyway, this is the picture I settled on trying to paint.

Notice the lack of duck lips.

Please don’t read too much into my expression. I’m admittedly embarrassed by this photo because I look like I’m pretending to be really sensitive and overly concerned about the welfare of some orphaned Korean dog just off camera. Honestly, I was just trying to take a picture of myself without looking right into the screen.

Because I wanted to focus on negative shapes, I played with the contrast and highlights in order to simplify the image into a few values, so it would be easier for me to see the main shapes.

  • Exposure: 100%
  • Brilliance: 25%
  • Highlights: 100%
  • Shadows: 0%
  • Contrast: 100%
  • Brightness: 25%
  • Black point: 100%
  • Saturation: 0%
That doesn’t feel as obnoxious as the other one.

Now, if I were to try to paint this, I would probably focus on the skin tones, and eyes, and – well, all the positive shapes. Because I’m interested in learning about the impact of the negative shapes, I decided to trace the image.

Positive shapes: what I would normally focus on in my painting.

First, I traced the shapes that I instinctually gravitate to when I’m painting. This particular part is not supposed to be a drawing exercise, which is why I traced. I’m not trying to see how well I can reproduce that photo, and I didn’t want to worry about whether or not my accuracy was impacting the results of this experiment. I just wanted to compare what I normally do, to what I normally can’t see. So, I traced the positive shapes.

I saw right away how this is an inversion off the value structure. By focusing on painting the positive shapes, I’m actually making the lightest parts of the painting darker. But I think I should know better, I think I should know to get the values right. Get the drawing right, get the values right. So, why do I instinctually focus on the positive shapes? Why do I start painting by putting pigment on the parts of the painting that should be the lightest? I’m sure there is some evolutionary reason for it – we see positive shapes more easily because that helps us spot predators – something like that. But it’s funny that I find myself doing this pretty much every time I paint. As much as I think I’m reducing my image to simple shapes, and painting those shapes, that’s not what happens. It’s like my brain says, “This a painting of me, so put the paint on the me.” But I really should do the exact opposite. I should instead be thinking, “This is a painting of me, so put the paint on the background. After all, when we paint with watercolor, we are painted the shadows, right? It’s not like oil where you can add light – with watercolor, every time your brush touches the paper you’ve added value.

Ok, so I should focus on the negative shapes, right. But it can be tough to “see” those. So, still trying to find the difference, I traced the negative shape

Then, I would trace around the corner negative shapes. The difference was dramatic.

Negative shapes. Holy —- what a difference!

Seeing what a difference it makes to focus on the negative shapes, I decided to transfer the tracing to my watercolor paper.

I used one piece of tape to place the tracing paper on top of the watercolor paper. Then I tried sketching the image to scale, and lowered the tracing paper to check my drawing. I repeated this until I was satisfied. At that point, I was ready to paint.

I started by painting all of the negative shapes, leaving the positive shapes totally white. While I like the way this looks, it doesn’t actually bear much of a likeness to me. The background painted above my head looks like hair – and I don’t have any.

I would like to try this again, but I want to go a touch more quickly so that the wash can be done all in one go. When I painted this, I didn’t really think about that. I started at the top, and painted down the left-side, switching to Yellow at my forehead. I changed to a warm color here to suggest the light directionality. by the time I began painting the eyes, the right side had dried at the top. I wasn’t able to paint wet in wet without crisp lines, so I simply rewet the areas that were dry, and began working down the page yet again. This worked ok, but next time I want to be more careful and ensure a bead of water is riding the bottom of the shape so that if I leave it to paint the other side I can come back to it.

Because it doesn’t bear much of a likeness to me, I’m going to try painting the positive shapes a bit to see if that helps.

First, I went in and added some color to the background, hoping it would make it look less like an afro. This helped a bit, but I still felt a need to work on the positive shapes a bit.

Uh… it died.

After bowling around with the background and shadows, adding some pigment to suggest a flesh tone, screwing around with the eyes, etc… I ended here. This is not a good representation of me at all. BUT… I think I learned a lot from this exercise. I’m going to spend some time drawing that photo, hoping to get a better likeness in pencil. Once I feel I have that down, I’ll go back to painting, and try for number 2.