Negative Painting with Brenda Swenson

A couple of weeks ago, I spent 4 days at a wonderful workshop: Negative Painting with Brenda Swenson. Workshops are a time commitment and that means having to choose well. You have to feel ready for a workshop: I’ve taken workshops very early in my days of working in watercolors that I got almost nothing from because I just wasn’t ready for what the instructor had to offer. But it’s a balancing act: I seek out workshops that will stretch what I do, put me out of my comfort zone, make me learn and do things I can’t simply learn by working on my own.

Did I think this workshop would do that? I went in having a few ideas of what I wanted to learn from Brenda, whose work I have followed for years (thinking in negative shapes, bold compositions and glazing are a few things from my ‘want to learn’ list prior to the workshop)

Did I learn about those? Yes, and a whole lot more. About pigments, about seeing, about painting bravely, about luminosity, about teaching , about building a personal practice, about keeping learning at the core of what you do, all the time… And that’s just the start of a list of a wealth of information I will think about, process and, hopefully, learn from.

Below are some pieces we painted over 4 days.

leaf1The workshop was so well structured. Each day built on the previous day’s teaching, with Day 1 being a relatively simple introduction to the idea of seeing and thinking in negative shapes. These leaves in yellow and grey were our first introduction to composing with negative shapes. Brenda is a really generous teacher, and you can find video demos of almost all of these pieces if you follow her youtube channel or her blog.



These white flowers are from Day 2, where we added a little more complexity to what we learnt on Day 1. Sculpting these whites out of a moody green-grey background made me excited at the idea of painting the Missions around San Jose using what I learnt here…I’m going to go try that the first day I find to get out and paint.



These oranges are from Day 3. Taking it a step further today by combining negative and positive painting. More complexity and more challenges. More things to think about and more decisions to make. Through it all,  I’m always amazed at the beauty of what watercolor will do if you let it do it’s thing. This class convinced me I just have to go back and learn more about my pigments if I want to understand better what they’re doing when they come together.


And here is Day 4. On our last day, we worked from a photo reference of our choice and worked on bringing all we had learnt together in a piece. I decided to work from a photograph of a balloon seller I’d taken in San Miguel Allende, Mexico. Working from photos is hard for me: I struggle to keep a painting looking alive. It helped that I had taken the photograph myself and even sketched this guy on location. The photo and sketch below are an interesting comparison to the painting above.

This workshop was such an interesting experience for me, and I got so much from it, but I have a hard time putting it all in words. Hopefully I will practice what I learnt and will see these new insights make their way into my work.

Brenda has a few more workshops lined up this year.  If you can’t make it to a workshop, then there’s always her super-informative blog, her youtube channel and  instagram that you can follow and learn from. But if you get a chance to take an in-person workshop, don’t miss the opportunity!


About Suhita Shirodkar

obsessive-sketcher. graphic designer.
This entry was posted in california, Paintings, watercolor, Workshop and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to Negative Painting with Brenda Swenson

  1. Suhita, Thank you for so many kind words! The difference between a good workshop and a great workshop is the people! You helped make it great by bringing your skill, wisdom, excitement for watercolor…and so much more!


  2. Sean Kupisz says:

    Suhita, you are a ROCKSTAR! Fantastic. Very exciting and inspiring. Thank you for being so generous!


  3. Diane Winters says:

    These are absolutely gorgeous, Suhita. Surprising to consider this was out of your comfort zone, as they are so accomplished. I’ll be interested to see how some of the things you learned find their way into your daily/weekly sketching.


    • Thanks Diane. I think that’s what happens when you get a really good teacher: they break down the process to where you can understand it even when you come from a very different place. And, I also come to workshops being really prepared to learn form the teacher and use their process. The hard part though , comes now as I try to figure how to get the results I’m looking for with no hand-holding from the instructor: so, so hard!!!!


  4. Lisa Blaylock says:

    It was great taking this workshop together. You articulated my feelings exactly. I definitely felt Brenda increased my knowledge of watercolors so much so I just finished cataloging my paints and getting to know their formula.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Amy Maley says:

    Love these…will days 1,2 and 3 find their way into your store as prints?? Would make a lovely grouping.


  6. Lovely work. I enjoyed your discussion on the various processes you explored.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. woperella says:

    Lovely just what I wanted to see today.

    Liked by 1 person

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