The term negative space comes up quite often in the art community, so there are chances you are familiar with it. In case you heard about negative space, but you are not quite sure what it is, or how it helps you with creating art — this is the article is for you. If you never heard about the term, but you are passionate about drawing, this will be a game changer.

So what is Negative Space and why is it useful?

To answer this question first we have to talk a bit about the human brain. As you know, the human brain has two hemispheres — left and right. The left hemisphere is the analytical hemisphere. It is the one that controls language, labels stuff and assigns symbols to things. If we want to draw something that is in front of us successfully we need to escape the influence of the left hemisphere. The left hemisphere has assumptions about your subject matter. It knows the chair’s legs are the same size, it knows human arms are the same length and it knows a house must be big enough for a person to fit in. Not just that, but it assigns symbols to most things. For example an eye is represented by an almond shape with a circle in the middle. Unfortunately vision and perspective doesn’t work that way, and since they are the core of representational art we end up creating mediocre drawings and paintings under the influence of the left hemisphere.

symbol examples

Above are a few examples of symbols. These symbols show up most frequently in children’s drawings, but they can be noticed in aspiring artist’s works also. Our default tendency is to translate what we see instead of depicting the image exactly how it appears to us.

 

Negative space is the space around and between your subject matter. So, positive space would be the space occupied by an apple, and negative space would be the space around the apple. However, since negative space shares edges with your subject matter (the apple), by drawing only the negative space you end up with a drawing of an apple. Since the left hemisphere cannot label and assign symbols to abstract shapes and negative spaces so easily, you escape language and symbols, and end up depicting what you see in front of you. When using this technique, instead of looking where the object is — you are looking where the object isn’t.

chair negative space

Above you can notice how we can search for the negative spaces in the image of a chair. By illustrating the shapes of the negative space, the subject (chair) appears because it shares it’s edges with the shapes of the negative space.

symbols

On the left you can see a woman illustrated with symbols, while on the right there is a drawing of the master Andrew Loomis. The master’s drawing uses shape relationships to depict the same subject. You can feel it’s freshness and liveliness. Also notice the beautiful use of tonal values.

The use of negative space can also significantly improve your composition. Your subject placement skills will increase significantly when you pay attention to negative space. When placing a subject, it is recommended that you avoid depicting your subject touching the edges of your image. By paying attention to negative space and it’s arrangement inside your image, you can easily avoid making that mistake.

You can notice the use of negative space in several different mediums ranging from photography to movies or animation. It is often used to add an airy feel to the image or to create contrast and define the center of interest. In landscape photography strong use of negative space creates a sense of freshness and calmness throughout the image.

That’s negative space in a nutshell — next time you are drawing from life or you are painting a portrait give it a try and have fun with it.

Remember, if a word that describes or labels your subject matter comes to mind when drawing you are on the wrong path. It’s all about shapes.