7 Simple Strategies for Creating Watercolor White Space

Have you ever seen a watercolor painting that looked a little dull or not quite right, but you couldn’t figure out what was missing? It may be that the painting lacked enough white space or negative space. White space in a watercolor painting lets the artwork breathe. White space gives it life.

One of the most important things to remember, and one of the hardest things to achieve in watercolor painting is that perfect balance of white space with color. That’s why I compiled a list of helpful tips on how to leave white space in watercolor painting!

In grade school we’re taught to color in the lines and cover our subjects completely. With watercolors, that rule does not apply! Imagine this watermelon slice without the little bits of white in the pink and green areas. It would look lifeless and boring.

The rest of my tips for leaving white space in watercolor painting are divided into two categories:

  • Preemptive: Things you can do before you put that brush to your paper.
  • Aftermath: Things you can do after you’ve applied paint.

Preemptive Painting Techniques

1. Plan Ahead

The key to leaving white space in watercolor painting is to plan ahead. You can’t just wing it here because the paint likes to fill in spaces quickly, especially if it’s really wet, and before you know it, you will have filled in all the white space.

Start by sketching in the spaces you want to leave white. Draw those spaces as shapes, not lines. Then, paint around the white shapes.  You can fill in sections with very light washes of color later if you find that the white is too overpowering.

2. Start With Less

Leave too little white space, and your painting looks dead, heavy and lifeless. Leave a too much white space and your painting lacks depth. But if you are going to err on one side, I’d say err on the side of leaving too much white space. You can always go back in and add more paint later.  It’s very difficult to take paint off once it is there.

Plan several areas of white space nicely placed throughout your composition to create balance, like in this desert mountain landscape.

3. Work From Light To Dark

Watercolor painting takes patience. Sometimes I’m tempted to rush ahead of myself and go for the darker areas before I should. This is one mistake that can ruin the white space. Work from light to dark in layers and you have a better chance of leaving behind sufficient white space.

Aftermath Painting Techniques

1. Masking Tape

Before you begin painting, tape off white areas with masking tape. It leaves a crisp and clean edge. This is perfect for creating borders, but you can also use it to mask off areas in the middle of your painting.

2. Masking Fluid

If you want to leave a more organically shaped white space, then apply some masking fluid before you start painting and let it dry. You can paint right over it and no paint will stick to the masked areas. After you peel it off, it leaves a hard, defined edge. This is a great technique for landscape paintings.

3. Blotting

If your paint is still wet and you are working on a heavy paper, you can blot some color right off with a cloth or paper towel. This creates soft edges for clouds or misty scenes.

4. White Gouache

After your watercolor paint is dry, paint some white gouache in areas that you would like to be white. This is your fail-safe method. Now, keep in mind that it doesn’t have quite the same airy effect that leaving bare white paper does, but this technique can help.