When I was a teen in the 1970’s, I had a reel-to-reel tape recorder, a wonderful experimental toy in the pre-digital era. One time I wrote a “message from the aliens”, analyzing the words into phonemes and then trying to speak the whole thing into the recorder in reverse order, to be played backwards by reversing the tape. The result was barely intelligible – it sounded like someone with a heavy Scandinavian accent trying to speak on the inbreaths. If I had this tape at hand I would post a sound clip, but I don’t, so you’ll have to imagine it. At the time, there was a lot of talk in the media about “backward masking“, supposedly concealed or subliminal messages on commercial music recordings. That was probably my inspiration for that little experiment. In this post I’m sharing a similar experiment I’ve done recently with painting.
As you know, if you follow this blog, for many years I have used artists’ crayons on black or gray paper in my regular practice of life drawing. A few months ago, I decided to switch to watercolor painting in order to bring new challenges to the routine. The most difficult thing for me to get used to with the new medium is working with white paper. Using crayons and dark paper, I was able to begin by building up the highlights, more natural to my way of seeing than starting with the darks. In the watercolor technique I’m developing, I occasionally use white gouache (opaque water-based paint) in combination with the transparent watercolors, but the painting technique mainly starts with a white ground and works subtractively.
My approach to drawing has always been influenced by my study of photography. Film records only light. It does not see darkness, except as the absence of light. Most traditional analog photography works through a negative process. Where light strikes the film, the developed film is darkened, creating a negative, an image in which light is dark and dark is light. In a color negative, hues are represented by their complementary hues – red becomes turquoise, yellow becomes blue violet, green becomes magenta or purple, blue becomes orange. A print is made by exposing light-sensitive paper through the original negative. A double negative becomes a positive, so the lights, darks, and colors of the original scene are reversed, restored to the original, in the print.
Today I decided to try an experiment of painting in negative. I would take a photograph such as the fire shot above, and digitally “invert” the colors and values, creating a negative image, as below.
I printed the negative image and made a painting based on the inverted image. The painting below uses three watercolor pigments: phthalocyanine (a greenish blue, complementary to red), ultramarine (a deep violet blue, complementary to yellow), and cerulean (a light sky blue, complementary to orange). I’m using the paint to selectively subtract from a white ground, but if I make a negative from my painted negative, I’ll be painting light on a dark ground!
Now, how will it look when I digitally invert this painting, converting dark to light, and colors to their complementary hues? Not bad! The result is a pretty good painterly representation of fire. In watercolor painting, the darker the color, the more saturated it can be. In the inverted form, the brightest colors are the most saturated. Would I have been able to capture the look of fire so well by painting with positive colors on a white ground?
Fire is a luminous phenomenon, and clearly lends itself to such a technique. What will happen with a figurative subject? For a model, I chose a photograph of Kayoko Nakajima, the dancer who organized the dancing/drawing performance featured in last week’s post. Here, Kayoko poses standing in the water of a lake in Harriman Park, in the Catskills region of New York.
In the negative, Kayoko’s skin takes on a blue hue, while the greenish reflections on the surface of the water have a purplish tone.
I made a very rough watercolor painting based on the negative version of the photo.
And here it is, digitally inverted to negative values. There’s not enough brightness variation between the lower area and the upper area of the water in the picture, but the skin colors are more accurate than I would have predicted.
For this post, it would probably have worked better to have the images side-by-side, so you wouldn’t have to scroll up and down to compare paintings with photographs, negatives with positives. You’ll have to bear with the limitations of the format to make the comparisions. I really like the effects I can get in negative painting. Now I’m thinking about trying this technique directly from life. That will entail looking at light and seeing dark, looking at red and seeing blue-green. Will it work as well without using photographs as a transitional medium? Unlikely! But perhaps a worthy experiment.
The original watercolor paintings in this post are 11″ x 14″.