What Is the Definition of Space in Art?

Space Is a Powerful Element in All Artistic Mediums

An element of art, space refers to distances or areas around, between or within components of a piece. Space can be positive or negative, open or closed, shallow or deep, and two-dimensional or three-dimensional. Sometimes space isn't actually within a piece, but the illusion of it is.

Using Space in Art

Frank Lloyd Wright said that "Space is the breath of art." This is a very true statement because, unlike many of the other elements of art, space is found in nearly every piece of art created.

Painters imply space, photographers capture space, sculptors rely on space and form, and architects build space. It is a fundamental element in each of the visual arts.

Space gives the viewer a reference for interpreting an artwork. For instance, you may draw one object larger than another to imply that it is closer to the viewer. Likewise, a piece of environmental art may be installed in a way that leads the viewer through the space.

Negative and Positive Space

You will often hear people talk about the negative and positive space in art. Positive space refers to the subject itself, the flower vase in a painting or the structure of a sculpture. Negative space is what is left around, between, and within the subjects.

Quite often, we think of positive as being light and negative as being dark. This does not necessarily apply to every piece of art. For example, you might paint a black cup on a white canvas.

We wouldn't necessarily call the cup negative because it is the subject: the value is negative, the space is positive.

In three-dimensional art, the negative spaces are typically the open parts of the piece. For example, a metal sculpture may have a hole in the middle, which we would call the negative space.

In two-dimensional art, negative space can have a great impact. Think of the Chinese style of landscape paintings, which are often simple compositions in black ink that leave vast areas of white. This negative space implies a continuation of the scene and adds a certain serenity to the scene.

Negative space is also a key element in many abstract paintings. Many times you will notice the composition is offset to one side or the top or bottom. This can be used to direct your eye, emphasize an element within the work, or imply movement, even if the shapes have no particular meaning.

Space and Perspective

Creating perspective in art relies on the judicious use of space. In a linear perspective drawing, for instance, artists create the illusion of space to imply that the scene is three-dimensional. They do this by ensuring that some lines stretch to the vanishing point.

In a landscape, a tree may be large because it is in the foreground while the mountains in the distance are quite small. Though we know in reality that the tree cannot be larger than the mountain, this use of size gives the scene perspective and develops the impression of space. 

Likewise, an artist may choose to move the horizon line lower in the picture.

The negative space created by the increased sky can add to the perspective and allow the viewer to feel as if they can walk right into the scene.

The Physical Space of an Installation

No matter the artistic medium, artists often consider the space that their work will be displayed in.

An artist working in flat mediums can presume that their paintings or prints will be hung on the wall. They may not have control over nearby objects, but they may visualize how it will look in the average home or office. They may also design a series that are meant to be displayed together in a particular order.

Sculptors, particularly those working on a large scale, will almost always take the installation space into consideration while they work. Is there a tree nearby? Where will the sun be at a particular time of day?

How large is the room? Depending on the location, an artist can use the environment to guide their process.

Look for Space

Now that you understand the importance of space in art, look at how it is used by various artists. It can distort reality as we see in the work of M.C. Escher and Salvador Dali. It may also convey emotion, movement, or any other concept the artist wishes to portray. 

Space is powerful and it is everywhere. It is also quite fascinating to study, so as you view each new piece of art, think about what the artist was trying to say with their use of space.