Art Glossary: Negative Space

Painting by Cezanne, Tall Trees at the Jas de Bouffan, 1883
Negative shapes balance the positive ones and provide light through the trees in this painting by Cezanne. Print Collector/Hulton Fine Art/Getty Images

Definition

Negative space is the space within, between, and around objects. For example, negative space is the area between a cup and its handle; and it is the space between the petals of a flower. It is also the space between an object and the edges of the canvas, i.e. the space around an object. The opposite of negative space is positive space.

In drawing and painting, negative spaces are actual shapes that share edges with the positive shape - the object or objects you are drawing or painting - thereby creating the outline of your subject.

Every positive shape is surrounded by negative space. It is important when composing your drawing or painting to look at both the positive and the negative shapes and then to look back and forth between them to accurately assess proportions and relationships.

Learning to draw negative shapes demands a whole new way of seeing. Regardless of what you are drawing or painting, the positive and negative shapes within the composition can be regarded as abstract shapes. You need to forget the "name" of objects, and what you think you "know" about them, and simply see them as shapes among a group of interlocking abstract shapes, like a jigsaw puzzle. Some of those shapes are defined by the edge of the paper or canvas.

Why Negative Space is Important 

  • Learning to see negative spaces is very important for drawing proportions and relationships accurately.
  • Negative spaces are very important for creating compositions that are balanced and unified.  
  • Negative space in a composition can help identify the focal point. Negative space is most often neutral or contrasting, focusing our attention on the main subject, the positive shape, and providing a place for the viewer's eye to rest. Without enough negative space a composition can look busy, with too many distracting elements.
  • Positive and negative space together create a figure/ground relationship, one of the six principles of Gestalt theory in design, in which the positive shape is the figure, and the negative shape is the ground. This is how we perceive an object as distinct from its background. 
  • We are accustomed to seeing the positive shape as dark and the negative shape as light because the sky is lighter than the ground and objects appear dark against the sky. However that is not always the case. Sometimes the positive and negative shapes can switch roles. When this is done deliberately so that a shape could be seen as either figure or ground it is called a figure/ground reversal. The face/vase diagram illustrates this concept. In this diagram you can see either two faces staring at each other, or a vase in the middle. The work of  M.C. Escher often plays with the illusion of figure/ground reversal.
  • Other Gestalt principles are Good Continuation and Closure, suggesting that our eyes like to close shapes. These perceptual principles are often used intentionally in logo design, imbedding a meaningful part of the logo within the negative space of the design, which our eye makes sense of by reading the negative space as a closed shape. The NBC Peacock is an example of negative space used this way.  (1)
  • The visual balance of positive and negative space is considered an element of good design, similar to the Japanese concept of Notan, the balance of light and dark. In both concepts, one element of the duality cannot exist without the other, and both are necessary. 
  • Painting negative spaces can help you create the effect of light shining through trees by painting "sky holes" - dabs of sky color amidst the foliage - and can help you paint thin lines by painting the negative shapes between them instead of the lines themselves.
  • Seeing negative space involves learning to see in a new, abstract way, and can help you create a more abstract composition.

Further Reading and Viewing

Updated by Lisa Marder 9/28/16

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REFERENCE

1. George, James,  A Solid Understanding of Negative Space, Nov. 20, 2012,  https://www.sitepoint.com/a-solid-understanding-of-negative-space/, accessed 9/28/2016.