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Positive and Negative Paint Applications

Learn the difference between positive and negative paint-application techniques.

More in Painting

sponge wall to create pattern of swirls

Step 1: Determine Which Paint Application to Use

  • Positive paint application means using a tool to add paint to a surface (Image 1). Negative paint application means removing previously applied paint with a tool such as a rag or a brush (Image 2)

  • The four paint-application techniques described below were used on a surface previously painted with a satin-finish base coat. Satin-finish paint has a harder, shinier finish than flat paint, which allows the top coat of paint to be moved around a little more before it dries. Nancy used a light-blue paint for her base coat and a darker blue for the accent color.

Step 2: Apply a Positive Paint Application Using a Sponge

  • Apply a base coat of satin paint to a wall. Let dry.

  • Add the accent color with a rolled-up cellulose sponge. Lightly dampen the sponge, roll it into a swirl, and hold the swirl in place with a rubber band. A variety of tools can be used for paint applications, including sponges, rags and even a tennis shoe.

  • Dip the sponge in paint, then blot on a paper towel. Press the paint-loaded sponge to the wall to create a pattern of swirls. Reload the sponge as necessary.

    sponge wall to create pattern of swirls

    Courtesy of James Calloway

  • Step 3: Apply a Negative Paint Application Using a Sponge

  • Paint the surface with a base coat. Let dry.

  • Roll a lightly dampened sponge into a swirl, and hold the swirl in place with a rubber band. You may want to have several negative paint-application tools made up before beginning, because your sponge will become saturated with paint quickly. Having several sponges ready will allow you to complete a wall before the paint dries.

  • Apply a contrasting satin finish top coat of paint with a roller.

  • Dab the end of a sponge on the wet paint to remove swirls of paint. Clean the sponge regularly, or use a fresh sponge as each one becomes loaded with paint.

    sponge painting wall creates unique designs

    Courtesy of James Calloway

  • Step 4: Apply a Negative Paint Application Using Rag- Rolling

  • Apply a base coat of satin paint to a wall. Let dry.

  • Apply the contrasting top coat with a roller. Work a small area at a time, leaving a wet edge.

  • Roll a cotton rag or a piece of cheesecloth into a wad, and roll the cloth over the surface to remove some of the paint. Work the cloth around until you achieve the desired effect.

  • Negative rag-rolling gives a soft, diffused look and leaves more of the contrasting color in place.

    cotton rag or cheesecloth used to paint surface

    Courtesy of James Calloway

  • Step 5: Apply a Positive Paint Application Using Rag- Rolling

  • Positive rag-rolling creates a sharper image on the surface than negative rag-rolling. Our example shows rag-rolling using cloth rags, but balled-up plastic wrap or aluminum foil may also be used.

  • Apply a base coat of satin paint to a wall. Let dry.

  • Immerse the rag in paint and wring it out. Shape the rag into a roll.

  • Roll the rag on the surface, working from top to bottom.

  • For a more diffused look, thin the paint with water. If the look is still too strong, you can make the contrasting color recede by ragging over it with the base coat color after the second coat of paint has dried.

  • positive rag rolling creates sharper image on wall

    Courtesy of James Calloway

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