Posted in Art

Negative Space

The following thoughts are ramblings, straight out of my hat, and I’ve probably completely missed the point. Maybe someone out there has more experience with this topic and can offer a few helpful pointers?

I’ve been wrestling with the concept of Negative Space. I’m told that it’s taught at most basic art classes, and it humbles me to realize I was never at such classes (after leaving school). What I remember from school is very little; I don’t think they threw about such terms as ‘negative space’! They just said “please draw this old boot.”

There is doubtless very little ‘negative space’ in any of my fractal wallpapers. Someone (without seeing my work) mentioned ‘negative space’ the same evening I’d finished an abstract with ornate detail and vibrant colours in every pixel of it. The irony wasn’t lost on me. Perhaps I should have a sign above my desk saying, ‘Negative space? Not around here.’

Nevertheless, I’ve been on a mission to work out what it is and what relevance it has to my own work, so I’ve been Googling… and the more I read, the more confused I get. People post ‘examples’ of negative space, and I think to myself “but that doesn’t fit with the descriptions I’ve read.” Sometimes the negative space in such an example is so overwhelming, so in focus, so much part of the picture that it becomes the main subject. Meanwhile the main subject is insignificant and not that interesting, a bit like a fly on flat yellow paint. Is that an example of negative space?

(Brings to mind the lost swimmer in a storm-tossed sea at the end of The Perfect Storm. At first it focuses on the swimmer, then it draws back and back and back, so you see more and more of the sea, and slowly realize how huge and black that ‘space’ is… the swimmer is just a dot; in fact, not visible any more. Where do you cross the boundary between the sea being the ‘negative space’ and the sea being the main subject? Perhaps the sea never was negative space).

I’m told it’s all right (though not obligatory) for a negative space to become more interesting than the positive space… but there has to be a good balance. What comprises a ‘good’ balance is left up in the air; possibly it depends on good composition and whatever you’re trying to do; trying to focus on.

OK, so I read somewhere that negative space, more traditionally, is a ‘non-distracting background’ that enhances the subject, and isn’t merely non-distracting.

I like that, but then you read about studies of objects such as chairs, where you draw the spaces in and around the chair, but not the chair itself. That goes beyond ‘background’… that, to me, is something else.

‘Negative space’ must be in most (or all) pictures, but is not necessarily good, in that you might have a photo of a child with a cluttered background. The clutter in general is as much ‘positive space’ as the child is, along with anything else that distracts or holds the attention… but that doesn’t mean there’s no negative space; just, probably, that it’s not a good example of it. The differentiations, then, are only in degrees of how well the negative space works, and how uncluttered and ‘clean’ the positive space is.

Maybe one person has a view of what negative space is, and uses the term to describe this, whereas someone else has a different use for it. I wonder if negative space isn’t just what it is… the area surrounding an object… whereas the relevance it has to art tend to shift. Perhaps asking people to draw the area around an object has helped them draw better or pay more attention to background and composition, but I wonder if defining negative space by the specific value you attach to it doesn’t confuse, rather than clarify.

I wonder if there aren’t more down-to-earth ways of expressing what an artist or photographer should be looking for and trying to do?

Mum told me just now that she remembered something from her own art classes — what she said was written down so it’s not half-remembered:

“When I was taught Art at school we were told that there was no such thing as an outline. There was only contrast between background and foreground — light and dark that made objects appear to us as having outlines — a trick of the mind. So a child draws a house [draws basic house] but that’s not how it works really.”

That fits in well with the concept of the background throwing the main subject into sharp relief in some cases, or ‘accentuating’ it, but I’m not sure how it fits in with the drawing studies of what are essentially outlines… the shapes of the background being observed through and around a chair, for example. I read somewhere that children are viewed as having an instinctive grasp of negative space when they are young, but adults seem to have lost the knack. What Mum was taught about the wrongness of childish houses flies in the face of that (or does it?) Perhaps it’s part and parcel of the same perceptions… or has nothing to do with it at all.

Probably at Mum’s school they talked about contrast and balance rather than ‘negative space’.

I brought up the subject of people drawing the space around rather than the actual object, and Mum frowned and said “I’m getting an arty headache. Maybe you should sit and stare at something till the background takes it over.”

An example of negative space I’ve seen mentioned on several sites is of Bugs Bunny running through a closed door, leaving only a Bugs Bunny shaped hole. Apparently the bunny-shaped space is the main subject, and the door is the negative space. (Though in other places I’ve seen photos of objects with designs cut in them, and the hole was described as being the negative space whereas the object with the hole in it was the positive space). A lot of people seem to find the Bugs Bunny example illuminating, but it just fogs me up even more. To me the door is the main subject… or rather, the door with a bunny-shaped hole in it is the main subject. Bugs Bunny has left the building, and isn’t the subject any more. The negative space, if any, would be anything else that was in the picture… carpet, wallpaper, lamps, table, anything you probably weren’t really looking at, but which sets the tone. Perhaps I haven’t ‘got’ it yet; perhaps my attention is on the wrong things, or I’ve conjured up the wrong picture in my imagination.

There are light moments in everything, however, and I smiled when I came across something by a blogger who said he tended to post about things he only had a certain amount of interest in, but stores away items of even greater interest because they needed to be explored in greater detail. And so they never get written up, or are eventually dealt with only sketchily. (Don’t I know the feeling?) He finished by claiming that readers should read the white space on his blog rather than the words themselves, as the real value lies in what isn’t there.

See A weblog in negative space…

This morning when I woke up, the song in my head was ‘The Space Between’ by Roxy Music. It’s still there.



I live in the UK with two cats -- Samson and Delilah.

10 thoughts on “Negative Space

  1. I am with you every step of the way on this one. Have never gotten a clear understanding of what is meant by “negative space.” Came back today to see if anyone had commented, or left perhaps some enlightenment on the matter. I think we are not the only two people in the world who don’t quite ‘get it’, lol.


  2. Thanks. ๐Ÿ™‚
    I have been looking at a site where some people say they’ve read a lot about it and still don’t get it. But they’re not talking about it very loudly… they probably have a worried feeling that the problem is with them, like being the only kids not knowing how to do the sums. Hmm…

  3. My drawing skills are extremely basic, but the way it was explained to me, negative space isn’t something you incorporate into your image, so much as a way of thinking about your subject.

    We go through life ‘seeing’ so many things without really looking at them. By thinking about the space around an object rather than the space it occupies – although these are fundamentally the same thing – I think the idea is to try and trick the eye into seeing things as they really are.

  4. Ah. ๐Ÿ™‚ I found myself thinking that when I was looking at articles by working artists… they didn’t see ‘negative space’ as a finished piece, as a rule, it was just a tool.

  5. I really think the best way to think about negative space is just to look at or think about the object you’re designing or creating or drawing or illustrating and then rather than simply focusing on the object itself, think about the space that surrounds it, and how that looks / feels / can be framed / balanced.

    To make it easier to visualise, maybe you take a picture of something against a while background. The object is the big deal. Now in Photoshop or whatever, do ‘Inverse’ and now the background is black and the object is all bright. Your eye is drawn more to the background and the shape of it than the ‘foreground’.

    Once you’ve simply become aware of the way that space frames an object you can decide to do lots of things with it. You can decide to balance it more effectively, or make it the subject and the object incidental, or you can elaborate upon it, or put things into it.

    For me, what you *do* with this space is up for grabs. But being *aware* of it is really important, because the shapes it creates has an impact on what you’re finally creating.

    When I’m designing layouts for example. I look at the whitespace, which essentially in print is often the negative space surrounding the text. I’ll put my eyes out of focus and stare at the page. Does it seem balanced? Does it support the text – are the gaps between the lines of text strong enough. If they’re too weak, the eye skips between lines when you’re trying to read – so it’s almost as if the text is sitting on top of white shelves and your job is to make sure they’re large enough to support the words.

    I’ll give you another example – the Fedex logo. If you look at the Fedex logo for a little while you’ll suddenly notice that the e and x form an arrow in the space around them. It’s not something that most people pick up on a conscious level when looking at the logo, but it adds a bit of energy to it.

    Being aware of that space around things makes this kind of thing possible. I think that’s all anyone is talking about…

  6. Hey there, thanks for the comment! I have just beetled off to look at the FedEx logo and I do see the arrow… clever!

    I had read that negative space is used in layouts, as you say here. Up till now I’ve looked to see if the text is well spaced out and not too crowded, and if any images fit in and don’t look out of place, or hog too much space of their own, but I never really thought of it in that context.

    Now, wherever I look these days, I’m looking for the ‘space’… but I’m not good at seeing it yet. ๐Ÿ™‚

  7. Any art class I’ve taken they talked about contrast and balance and not negative space, but I can see how the ideas overlap.
    I’ve always liked abstract art and fractals, so it’s harde rto think of negative space with those…I just look at it as whetehr or not ther is “too much going on here?”.

  8. Fractals and ‘space’ don’t seem to go together, do they? As they branch off in all directions and curl tighter and tighter… I suppose they don’t have to be mutually exclusive.

    I’ve had a few ideas, but fractals aren’t coming into it much!

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