Wednesday, April 20, 2016

The Value of Negative Spaces

"Vernal Equinox II"
the negative sky shapes
holds space for the trees
Recently I attended a meeting of a local critique group.  One of the participating artists had some very nice pieces with good use of clear color against neutrals and large negative spaces. The paintings were of children in various poses.  In my opinion the artist had a nice sense of placement of the figures on the page, both in size and location, creating lovely “negative” spaces that contributed to the “story” the piece was suggesting. Many of the critique group suggested that the pieces cropped, tighter and tighter, in towards the figures.  I disagreed.  I felt the artist did a great job of creating more interest in the subject through her use of generous negative space.  For instance, one painting was of a very young child seated feet out as toddlers do, finger drawing on the ground.  The figure was in the bottom part of a vertical sheet of paper leaving the top half empty.  To me that space told the story of the child growing and standing and filling that space. Cutting that space out lost that part of the story and reduced my interest in the painting. 

"Wishes On The Wind V"
lots of negative space
at play here
 Later I was thinking about the value and contribution negative spaces can make in a painting.  A simple definition of “negative space” might be the areas around a subject. Not all paintings have a “subject”. Not all have a “focus” either. For those works that do, the negative space is what is left if you cut out the subject.  It can be very little or a lot.  There are artists whose work is as much a work in the negative spaces as in the positive, or subject matter.  A few I can quickly name are Will Barnet, Milton Avery, Modigliani and Mary Carlton. Is negative space a component of design? Yes! It’s part of “shape”. Composition is simply an arrangement of shapes. Shapes themselves can be busy, quiet, light, dark, soft, hard, small, large, simple, complex, organic, geometric, singular, repetitious, etc.

As an artist I LOVE shapes. They are spaces that can be empty or be filled with color or texture or to contain line or to be defined by line. They can blend smoothly into one another or contrast sharply. After the experience at the critique I am more aware of the positive value of a negative space, that space I'm creating with all my other shapes. I will use them, create them, more thoughtfully in the future. 


  1. Great topic, and typically not discussed much. As an artist, the negative space is often the last think I think of as I design a painting.

    1. I've realized it is less in my planning than it should be and have resolved to consider it as much as I do the positive shapes.