Negative Space in Painting | Embrace the Negative for Positive Results

Retaining a positive outlook when painting is an important factor to a successful outcome. As any athlete will attest, if you think you’ll hit the ball, you probably will. By keeping a positive can-do attitude as an artist, you’ll likely produce a more confident painting. Yet there’s one instance when a negative viewpoint may prove extremely useful—the evaluation and representation of the negative space around and between subject matter.

My plein air pastel, Atlantic Afternoon (9x12), required a focus on negative space, so I indicated the big shapes and masses that comprised the fence structure instead of painting every fence slat.

My plein air pastel, Atlantic Afternoon (9×12), required a focus on negative space, so I indicated the big shapes and masses that comprised the fence structure instead of painting every fence slat.

















Simply defined, negative space is the area adjacent to an object. Negative spaces are typically abstract in nature; once they’re defined, the identity of the object they abut will become recognizable. When we look at something, we quickly process all of the available visual information, both positive and negative, and determine what we’re looking at. Historical associations based on life experiences are then made that, when left unchecked for artists, can cause us to put too much detailed information into the actual painting of objects. When we identify a tree, we know it has leaves, so we often focus on the application of individual leaves, losing the visual impact of the tree within the composition of the painting. What’s more powerful is the art of suggestion.

Early in my artistic training, one of my teachers stressed the importance of focusing attention on the spaces surrounding an object instead of the object itself. Simple drawing exercises in which, for example, I drew a dining room chair by representing the spaces between the legs, or I created the appearance of individual trees within a dense forest without making a vertical mark to indicate their trunks, were very eye opening to me. I learned that negative abstract shapes engaged the viewer’s imagination and heightened a sense of mystery within a painting.

Most negative spaces are recessionary to the positive object they surround, which makes them often darker than the object. Opaque painting mediums, such as oil and pastel, make it easy to apply darks in advance of lighter pigment applications; however, this application order can make it more difficult for many artists who work in these media to easily see the power of the negative spaces that surround objects within a scene. Watercolorists, on the other hand, have to start with the lights and finish with the darks to retain transparency. This forces them to identify negative spaces early in a painting.

Negative space is also useful when defining the sparkle effect of light that travels behind objects. Sky holes through trees and the impression of light upon a distant field behind a row of trees are good examples. Recently, while painting the slat fences that run poetically along the sandy dunes of the beaches of the New Jersey shore, I was placed in a situation that demanded a focus on negative spaces. It was difficult to not make a pastel mark for every slat of the fence; however, by reminding myself to indicate the big shapes and masses that made up the fence structure, as if a sheet had been placed over it, and then focus on the abstract pieces of negative space that showed through, I was better able to capture what I felt was the true essence of the scene. Sometimes the best way to stay positive is to embrace the negative!


• Read Richard McKinley’s latest column “Watch Your Tone” about the importance of your painting’s surface tone in the new August issue of Pastel Journal on sale now in the North Light Shop.

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• New on DVD! Painting snow in pastel with Liz Haywood Sullivan!

• New on DVD! Painting surface color and texture with Liz Haywood Sullivan!

• New on DVD! Plein air painting in pastel with Liz Haywood Sullivan!

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