Negative Space (Why It's Such a Big Deal)

by Lisa Larrabee

If you do an online image search for "negative space drawings" you will find a tremendous number of examples that range from traditional academic exercises to very creative design solutions.  Variations of negative space exercises exist at all levels of drawing classes (whether or not it is explicitly labeled as such).  So, what is "negative space" and why is it such a big deal?

Negative Space is a term used in art to describe the space around or between an object or multiple objects.  You can think of the object itself as the "positive" form that you can typically touch (like a houseplant).  The "negative space" is all of the space around the object that you cannot touch (like the spaces around and between the leaves).

In this example the positive form is a clipping from a fig tree.  There is a lot of detail that you may focus on if you were drawing, painting or simply observing this subject.  There are overlapping leaves creating lighter and darker values and different shades of green.  There are subtle details like the veins along the surface or the textures of the branches.

When I blackout the positive shapes, we loose the previous detail.  The focus is still on the subject, but the emphasis is now on the unified shape created.  It is like a silhouette with flattened shapes.  This is an example of simplifying the figure-ground relationship.  Our figure-ground perception allows us to group visual information as foreground and background.

Creating an inverse of the black and white places more emphasis on the negative space.  These dark shapes visually carry more weight which make us pay more attention to them.  In the previous example, the negative shapes were white which allowed our brain to dismiss these negative shapes as "nothing" in order to focus on what our brain perceived as "something".

The most recognizable example the figure-ground relationship was developed by the Danish psychologist Edgar Rubin. When shown the first version (left) our tendency is to notice the two profiles in silhouette because they carry the visual weight.  When the image is inverted (right) what was the negative space now has the visual weight and we can more easily see the vase in between the faces.  The figure-ground relationship is flipped.  The vase becomes the "figure" and the profiles become the background.

Why Is Negative Space a Big Deal?


Negative space is equally as important as the positive space.  You cannot draw an object accurately if the negative space is inaccurate.  If you develop your ability to focus on the negative space, you can use those negative shapes to more accurately draw the positive shapes.  The focus becomes less about what the subject is and more about the relationship between the shapes.  Viewing the negative space as simple shapes also makes them easier to draw.


Consider how to balance the design elements between the positive and the negative shapes (or the figure-ground).  How you place and/or crop your subject can create interesting negative shapes with the boundary of your artwork.  You can choose to comfortably balance the relationship between the positive and negative shapes or choose to emphasize a greater amount of positive or negative space to support a mood or narrative.  There are also opportunities to play with the figure-ground relationship that create surprising illusions (like Rubin's vase).  There are many examples of drawings, paintings and graphic design that use the positive/negative figure-ground relationship to great effect.  Search figure-ground illusions for some incredible examples.


Do not underestimate the power of editing.  Selecting what information to leave out is just as important as deciding what should be included.  Our natural tendency is to focus on the positive subject and ignore the space around it because our brain filters out the space as being less important or "nothing".  There are so many interesting details in a subject (light and shadows, colors, textures, etc.) that it can be difficult to focus on the negative space.  However, there is an opportunity to reduce detail in your subject and emphasize the interesting shapes and variations within the negative space.  Creating artwork with dynamic negative space opens up so many many incredible possibilities.  If you have been ignoring or neglecting the negative space, you are missing a huge opportunity.

Emphasizing Negative Space

In this example, you can see that I began my painting by blocking in colors in a range of mid-values (nothing too light or dark).  I also layered pigments and built up some textures.  Once the surface was dry, I sketched in some of the important shapes of the tree and the figure with paint.  There is very little detail in the primary or secondary subjects.

Spring Renewal -early painting stage, artist Lisa Larrabee

I created the strongest value and color contrast when I painted the negative spaces around the tree.  Nothing within the subject was painted equal to the light value of the sky.  I added very little information to the tree.  Mostly the landscape was painted around it.  I developed the figure to a degree, but I also left out much information.

Spring Renewal, oil on panel, artist Lisa Larrabee

People have often commented on the "pink flowers in the hair".  This is an example of the figure-ground relationship playing tricks in your mind.  Without the figure, the light pink daubs of paint read as the sky showing in between the gaps in the foliage of the tree.  They are negative shapes that are part of the background.  However, if you focus on the figure, the paint daubs connect with the subject and become interpreted as flowers in the hair.

Art Challenge
  • Choose a  subject that has interesting negative shapes.  Look for examples with closed shapes (negative space surrounded by positive form).  
  • Organic shapes (like plants) are more forgiving.  Structured inorganic shapes (like a pair of scissors or a chair) will help you more easily identify mistakes.
  • Do NOT sketch in guidelines of your subject. Try to hold the positive form in your mind, but do not draw it.
  • Draw the outline of a negative shape. "Jump over" the positive form to the next negative shape.  I like to begin with a closed shape (like the examples in orange).

There are many variations to try.  I have students begin by toning paper (either with vine charcoal or graphite).  This is very forgiving because you can blend away mistakes into the tone and try again when needed. Once all of the negative space is drawn, you can either erase the tone from your subject (which emphasizes the negative space), or you can erase the negative space which will reveal your positive subject. 

You can also draw your negative shapes in pencil and then color them in when finished.  Have some fun adding color or whimsical patterns.  In school (at KCAI), I did numerous negative space studies using India ink and a brush. I couldn't go back to fix most mistakes, but the results were very graphic and bold.

Be prepared for your drawing to get off track because you aren't sketching in any guidelines.  That's expected.  Make the corrections and keep going. 

If you find it too difficult to draw only the negative space without any of the positive, give yourself  very light guidelines so you don't get lost.  Don't get discouraged.  The more time you spend concentrating on the negative space, the more your brain will get used to "seeing" it rather than ignoring it.  With practice, you will develop better drawing accuracy and make more interesting design and composition choices that incorporate the positive and negative shapes more intentionally.
Best of Luck!

~ Lisa

For more examples using negative space in painting, check out my previous posts:

Painting Negative Space: Part I

Painting Negative Space: Part II

Painting Negative Space: Part III