Beginner Art · Composition · Drawing

What is Negative and Positive Space?

You might have heard the terms negative and positive space in art books or in art classes but what does it mean?  This is a key topic when you are learning to draw and paint and it is important to understand more about negative and positive space.  Having a working understanding of what negative and positive space is and how to use it to your advantage will make drawing easier and enhance your work.

When we draw or paint we tend to concentrate so hard on the subject that we ignore the space around the subject.  This space is know as negative space, while the solid object or subject is known as positive space. Learning to see and consider this negative space helps us ‘see’ things better and it can improve our compositions.  Read my post What is Composition? for more information on what composition is.  When we are drawing and painting it is just as important to recognise and observe negative space as it is to see the positive space.


negative space
The hand itself is positive space, while the space around the hand is negative space, including the gaps around the fingers

Why is Negative Space Important and How Can It Help Me? 

When drawing difficult subjects observing the negative space and concentrating on the shapes around the subject can be easier than trying very hard to get the subject itself correct.

Drawing the negative space is often easier than drawing the actual subject (the scissors).

For example above we see a negative space drawing of some scissors, the learner here was asked to only block in the shapes around the scissors (the negative space).  Therefore the eye was not on trying to capture the scissors but rather trying to capture the various abstract shapes that are created around the scissors.  Looking and concentrating on these abstract shapes formed around the scissors (negative space) takes our minds off trying to get the scissors ‘right’ and how we think scissors should look.  This often has the result of more accurate drawings, the challenge is keeping our eyes on the negative space as if you do this exercise you will see how programmed we are to look at the positive space.  Looking at the negative space can help us to see the positive space, it is another ‘tool’ for the artist to help with accurate drawing.

Negative Space is Used Everywhere 

Negative Space is used in photography and design and there are examples everywhere we can see in everyday life.  Negative space is used a great deal in logo design as we see in the FedEx logo and the white arrow that is created in the negative space.  Once you sharpen your eye to negative space you might find yourself spotting the ‘hidden’ shapes in the negative spaces everywhere.

Negative Space Can Help with Planning a Painting 

Good composition is very important in painting and using negative space can be a way of balancing elements.  The negative space can do a lot to help give interest to the subject and make a more pleasing composition.  It is important not to view negative space as ‘the dead space’ around a subject but an important part of the picture.

How Can I Teach Myself To Look at Negative Space?

In my art classes I ask my learners to do a negative and positive space drawing next to one another.  This way you recognise both positive and negative space and will know the difference. You can create ‘negative space drawings’ by overlapping elements together and observing all the spaces that are created between the objects.

negative and positve space learner
Here we see a learners positive space and negative space drawings

The drawing exercise above is where I would start in recognising what negative and positive space just to get to know the difference between the two.   I like to do this exercise with complete beginners because it is not that challenging because there aren’t many overlapping objects creating different shapes.

When you are ready for the next step up try selecting a variety of different objects and overlap them to creative more complex areas of negative space.  Objects with ‘holes’ are great for negative space studies; scissors, chairs, stalls and small leafed foliage are all excellent studies.  Then block in the spaces with a soft pencil or charcoal pencil to identify the negative space.  Do remember you are only ‘drawing’ the spaces between the object, you are not drawing the object and then ‘colouring in’ the spaces this is not the same.

A learner has blocked in the negative space around small leaved foliage.

Chairs and stalls or scaffolding are great for more complex studies! Looking at the negative space around chairs and stalls will also help you with perspective which is an issue with these subjects.

Learning about the importance of negative space – stalls and ladders are good for more complex negative space studies.

I think when you consider negative space carefully it teaches you how important the background is in artwork.  This is a topic that often crops up with those learning to draw and paint, the background is forgotten.  I have written a post about this issue ‘Why You Shouldn’t Forget the Background! as I felt so strongly that backgrounds are important.

Have you got any further tips about negative and positive space?  Do share your thoughts below.

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