What if a simple technique could change your compositions?
Did you know that what you don’t include in your art matters as much as what you do? Have you wondered what’s stopping your art from popping the way you wish it did? Then it’s time to learn about negative space in art!
My problem as an artist has always been resisting the urge to cover the page or canvas with subject matter. The blank space was almost painful to look at and seemed to be yelling “Fill me!”
The result was often pages covered in busy patterns, literally without an inch of space. I’ve since learned that intentionally leaving some emptiness results in a less crowded and better-looking result. And I’m here to share that knowledge with you, so you can create balanced, eye-catching art.
What do positive and negative space mean in art? They are what create the tension in a piece. The interaction between these two elements is what directs your eye where to go when you view a design or painting. What you don’t include (negative space) is as important as what you do include (positive space).
Let’s look closer at each definition.
This is essentially the action in your art, or the subject matter. It’s what you’re drawing or painting onto the blank space, or the shape created by the space.
In the piece below, the tree is the positive space.
This is the canvas or background that shows through or surrounds your subject matter, but it doesn’t have to be white or completely blank.
In the image above, the white areas surrounding the tree is the negative space. This is a simple example, but we’ll get into more complex interplays of negative space vs positive space later.
There are a number of convincing reasons to start prioritizing negative space in your artwork.
Negative space draws your eye to the subject of your art, giving it space to breathe. When you use it correctly, it gives a natural balance and sense of “rightness” to your composition.
Getting it right can be tricky at first, but becomes easier with practice. Try focusing on the empty spaces around your subject next time, and you’ll end up with more balance in your work.
The photo below is a good (and not to mention, adorable) example of this:
It’s the space around your points of focus that will determine how they look in your finished art piece. Most people don’t appreciate compositions that are too full as they can feel chaotic to look at.
The brain grasps for something to focus on and instead gets confused because there’s too much action and not enough space. Allowing your subject(s) plenty of room to breathe lends them definition and allows the viewer to know what to focus on.
If you’ve been creating art for long, you are already familiar with the challenge of making realistic 3D shapes on a flat, 2D surface.
Leaving negative space around the 3D objects you draw creates a more convincing background, making the objects pop more.
And you can even use the shapes of the negative space around an object to make more realistic 3D shapes.
We will cover this soon in the “Negative Space Drawing Exercises” section.
Our brains love to take shortcuts (even at our own peril) and do things the simple way. Viewing art is no exception to this human tendency.
When you’re looking at a photograph or painting with the correct use of negative space, it allows you to appreciate the composition without much mental effort.
Instead of trying to decide where to look, the viewer’s eye knows where to find the point (or points) of focus and can spend more time appreciating those.
There are a number of ways to use negative space, regardless of the type of art you’re making. If you’re looking to improve balance in your work, use negative space for:
Experiment with creating a drawing that is mostly negative space. Instead of placing your main subject in the center, for example, try placing it in one of the corners and leaving most of the page blank.
Again, the negative space doesn’t have to be white. This photo is a good example of an arrangement that is mostly empty space (the water).
A technique you can use to create really eye-catching designs is cleverly overlapping positive and negative space, like this:
As you can see, the background (negative space) and objects are interchangeable and overlap. The piece has a natural border around it from all the black space used, making the piece come to life.
Experiment with using positive and negative space in varying ratios until you get a feel for balance. For digital art, you can experiment with different aspect ratios when you crop to find a good balance.
This video gives great examples of using negative space in your compositions:
Practice drawing the negative spaces around an object instead of the object itself. If you’re drawing a human figure, for instance, it’s easier to draw the blank spaces between and around body parts than the actual parts. This is because we have fewer preconceived notions about what shapes blank spaces should be.
Proko’s explains the concept well in this video:
Do you have a signature image that represents your business? This image can be placed in white over a color background, or in color over a white background. Or you can use a cut-out to form that image as evidenced by the image below.
This is a familiar example of logo design that utilizes negative space in a clever way. The Facebook logo blends positive and negative space to make a cohesive image. The “F” is part of the background, making the subject of focus and negative space interchangeable.
Next time you’re framing a photo, adjust it with negative space in mind. Leave more emptiness than you feel you “should,” as it can be tempting to want to fill every blank space when that’s the habit you’re in.
You can even look through old photos and play around with different ratios to get familiar with using more negative space.
You’ll quickly notice that more space adds an entirely different feel to your photographs. In the photo below, the composition is much more pleasing to the eye when the bird has extra space around it:
You can use negative space to give your web designs room, defining them with emptiness. Give sentences, words, or logos margins or “padding.”
The example below is mostly negative space with a well-placed border that places obvious focus on the text.
Even the text within the border has extra breathing room, making the design feel clean, simple, and straightforward.
Simple is better in graphic design because your message will come through much clearer when there isn’t clutter surrounding it.
Resist the urge to fill up the page with subject matter and viewers will have an easier time remembering your message.
Although negative space is more about what you don’t do than what you do, it takes time to master the concept.
Most artists are used to focusing on their subject, so switching to focusing more emptiness might feel strange to you at first. But your compositions will benefit from practicing this.
Here’s some help.
This is a composition exercise you can do with traditional drawing methods or in digital design. To do it with digital artwork, you’ll just need to try out different cropping sizes and positions.
You can place your subject of focus in a corner, for instance, instead of the center.
Another option is creating a border full of empty space around your work, like this:
For traditional art, you can get used to thinking of different compositions with plenty of negative space by using borders.
This exercise will help you with making realistic 3D shapes on a 2D surface. Find objects around your home that you can draw from different angles, focusing on the way the negative space changes around them.
For the best results, pick an object that has holes in it, such as a cup with a handle, or a chair. Look at the gaps inside of the object, seeing their shapes.
This video does a good job explaining how to do this, using a tea kettle as the example object:
Silhouette drawings can involve leaving the subjects of the art white while filling in the rest of the page. It’s a good exercise to practice placing more emphasis on the space surrounding the main focus objects rather than the objects themselves.
You can shade the page with pencil to grey it out or make fun designs like this around the object(s):
Another option for playing around with silhouettes to practice with negative space is figure ground reversal. This involves taking a black and white piece of digital art and reversing the black and white tones.
Since the subject would typically be in black with a white background, this reversal will make the negative space (and the shapes it forms) more apparent.
The image below, Rubin’s vase, is a famous example of exploring positive vs. negative space with tone reversal. Bonus points if you can also make yours into a successful optical illusion!
Now we’re going to cover some brilliant examples of negative space art. Maybe some of these will give you design inspiration and a few ideas for your own work.
In this brilliant, classic example of negative space, the sky is relatively empty, drawing the viewer’s eye to the stars. The mountains and trees are solid enough in comparison to effectively frame the town as positive space.
This piece was done as a Halloween brand campaign. The artist used a clever negative space approach, making the dark forest and moon form a skull.
I also enjoy how the green flames appear to illuminate the empty black forest surrounding the focal point.
Tang Yau Hoong is one of the modern masters when using negative space in his art. Here, the negative space (sky) is being zipped away to reveal another sky, which is also forming buildings along a cityscape.
Depending on how you look at it, the blue sky can also be seen as a type of negative space.
At first glance, this illustration by graphic designer Noma Bar just looks like Jules from Pulp Fiction, but look a little closer and you’ll see Vincent Vega in front of him. It’s impressive that this image is so clear even though it’s mostly solid space.
Alright, so this one’s a little creepy, but this Rembrandt piece is an undeniably great display of well-proportioned negative space.
The positive shapes (heads) on the left even seem to melt into the black negative area of the background, framing the photo and drawing in the eye.
Here’s a familiar, famous example of a balanced piece of art with plenty of negative space.
The Persistence of Memory by Salvador Dali has obvious subjects of interest surrounded by emptiness. The brown of the ground and yellow and blue-hued sky frame the central points of focus beautifully.
Frank Frazetta is best known for paintings and comic book covers. In this piece of sci-fi art, the character and his four Cyclopean buddies appear to be stranded out in space, surrounded by empty blackness.
This illustration was done by French artist Jean Giraud, with the pseudonym “Moebius,” and is made up of mostly negative space. The positive shapes in the piece make a nice, balanced frame for the almost empty sky, giving the picture a spacious feel.
In this piece, the white blank space in the background forms a positive shape on the top of the woman’s shape, successfully merging positive and negative space. When your mind must fill in what you don’t see, it makes viewing the art into a unique, memorable experience.
This sculpture, “Missing Pieces” by Catalano, goes well with its surroundings, allowing the viewer to see the far-off horizon where the man’s torso should be. Again, the mind has to fill in the missing pieces, which makes viewing it fun.
This painting by Octavio Ocampo is a good example of negative and positive space coming together in an unexpected and appealing way. This artist is known for creating “puzzle portraits,” which are mostly optical illusions with sky backgrounds and seemed to count on Gestalt principles for cohesion in his art.
This collage piece is quite empty, but still feels complete due to the way the artist used the blank pages. A couple of figures (one with an upper-half made of negative space) traverse a striped landscape while their friend is beamed up by aliens. That’s what I like to think is happening here, anyway.
In this art by Philipp Rietz, the positive shapes (the boy and the gigantic bubble cloud he’s making) are actually made of space, which would typically constitute, well, the space behind art. Another smart and mind-bending switch of positive and negative shapes and space.
In this Disney poster, the graphic artist used the girl’s hair (positive space) to frame the bear’s face. Her hair is the background for the bear, while the bear’s shape is the background for her, resulting in a fun, creative design
I’m a huge film fan and one of the best movies of all time (visually speaking) is 2001: A Space Odyssey. Kubrick was definitely knowledgeable about the art of negative space. Would this scene be as impactful if it were cluttered or shot closer up? I think not. The scene is also completely silent, successfully transporting the viewer into vast emptiness.
I struggle to figure out the meaning behind Moonassi’s work, but he remains a favorite anyway. In the piece above, the figures rest on and seem to interact with white space, while their bodies appear to be made of black space. Which is positive and which is negative? It’s hard to tell and creates a pleasant mind-bending effect.
The artist’s depiction of the sky is convincing because of the empty space he left around the character. While the piece would still be nice without that, it’s more impactful this way.
In this book cover, the negative space showing through the shape of the wolf reveals a boy’s profile, alluding to the subject and title of the book. The shape left by this carved out negative space makes the perfect spot to put text, drawing the eye in.
In this photo, it’s hard to tell where the water ends and the sky begins, making the background one big, blank white area. Though minimal, this work of art has a clear feeling of solitude to it, made possible by all the space.
In this unique tattoo concept, negative space is used to form a positive image of a tree, as the rest of the trees fade into the negative space of the person’s skin. Pretty clever, if you ask me!
Did you enjoy this tutorial on negative space in art? Playing around with this simple principle can really take your work to new heights. In fact, I had to pause writing this to paint an idea I got for using negative space in a new way.
Feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments and share the article if you enjoyed it! Thanks for reading.