Negative Space in a Painting

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What is Negative Space?

Negative space faces in a vase
Do you see a vase or two faces?. Image: ©2006 Marion Boddy-Evans. Licensed to About.com, Inc.

Negative space isn't the place your mind retreats to when a painting isn't going well. Negative space is the space between objects or parts of an object, or around it. Studying this can have a surprisingly positive effect on a painting.

In her book Drawing on the Right Hand Side of the Brain Betty Edwards uses a great Bugs Bunny analogy to explain the concept. Imagine Bugs Bunny speeding along and running through a door. What you'll see in the cartoon is a door with a bunny-shaped hole in it. What's left of the door is the negative space, that is the space around the object, in this case Bugs Bunny.

Is It a Vase or Two Faces?

The classic example is the brain-teaser where depending on how you look you see either a vase or two faces (as shown in the image above). It becomes very evident when the image is reversed.

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Why Bother With Negative Space?

Negative space in painting
Negative space is a useful technique for accurate observation. Image: ©2006 Marion Boddy-Evans. Licensed to About.com, Inc.

Too often when we paint something, we stop observing and start painting from memory. Instead of painting what is in front of us, we paint what we know and remember about the subject. So, for example, when painting a mug, we start thinking "I know what a mug looks like" and don't observe the precise angles of that particular mug. By changing your focus away from the mug and to the negative spaces – such as the space between the handle and the mug, and the space underneath the handle and the surface the mug is sitting on – you have to concentrate on what's in front of you and can't work on 'autopilot'.

Often by working from the negative spaces rather than focusing on the object, you end up with a much more accurate painting. If you look at the picture above, you immediately recognize that it's an angle-poise lamp, but notice that nothing of the lamp itself has been painted, only the shapes or negative space around it.

Use Negative Space to Turn the Familiar into Something New

Negative space is very useful when confronted with 'difficult' subjects, such as hands. Instead of thinking about fingers, nails, knuckles, start by looking at the shapes between the fingers. Then look at the shapes around the hand, for example the shape between the palm and the wrist. Laying these in will give you a good basic form on which to build.

What's the Difference Between Negative Space and a Silhouette?

Traditionally a silhouette would be cut out from a piece of black paper, what is left of the sheet of paper would be the negative space. However, when you're making a silhouette, you're concentrating on the shape of the face. Negative space requires you to concentrate on the space around the object rather than the object itself.

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Using Negative Space To Improve Composition

Sketchbook Pages: Negative Space in a Potplant
Sketchbook Pages: Negative Space in a Potplant. Marion Boddy-Evans

Your understanding of the negative spaces around the objects in a painting will give you a greater feel for its compositional balance. Take it a stage further and consider which regions will be of light, medium and dark tone and have a look to see if it's still balanced.

The identification of negative spaces will allow you to identify which edges of the object need to be hard edges and which could be soft edges i.e. you're identifying those which give you the essence of the image. For example, on the angle-poise lamp the edges of the arm could be soft, because you'd still get the relation between the base and lamp, and the feel for the total object.

Sketching Negative Space

The photo above is of a couple of pages from one of my sketchbooks. The right-hand side of this was also done in the doctor's waiting room (and 'colored in' on a later date). Its origins are in the negative space between the leaves of a huge peace lily. (The single leaf is there as a visual reminder of what kind of plant it was.)

The left-hand page is also a negative-space sketch, this time of the gaps between branches in an oak tree in the garden, done while I was enjoying sitting in the sun.

Using Negative Space for Abstractions

Negative space is also a great starting point for an abstraction, as it takes you a step away from 'reality'. (See How to Paint Abstracts from a Photo.)

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A Simple Exercise in Seeing Negative Space

Negative Space painting
A Simple Exercise in Seeing Negative Space. Image: ©2006 Marion Boddy-Evans. Licensed to About.com, Inc.

Focusing on negative space rather than the actual object or subject of a painting takes practice. You've got to train yourself to see around the object.

This Negative Space Art Worksheet provides an simple exercise to help you think negatively. Do it at least twice, once with the printed word visible, and once with it covered up. Do it without outlining the letters first; think shapes, not outlines.

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Open and Closed Negative Space

Open negative space and closed negative space
The negative space in this painting is closed, not open. Notice how it forms two strong shapes on the left and figure of the figure. The painting is "Schokko With Wide Brimmed Hat" by the German Expressionist painter Alexej von Jawlensky. Photo © Peter Macdiarmid / Getty Images

The difference between open negative space and closed negative space is very straightforward. Open negative is where you have negative space around four sides of a subject. No part of the subject touches the edge of the canvas or paper. There is "empty" space all around it.

Closed negative space is where the subject stretches across the composition to touch the edge. Part of the subject closes off a part of the negative space, turning it into a smaller shape. When planning a composition, the shapes and lines of closed negative spaces need to be taken into consideration, not only those in the subject itself.