The Space Between

Have you ever looked at a painting and noticed that, while each object is well-rendered, the painting as a whole doesn’t quite work? It’s probably a matter of composition but, more specifically, the culprit may be an often-overlooked design element: negative shapes.

Negative shapes—the spaces between and around the objects in a painting—are widely disregarded by many artists, particularly new painters. Instead, positive shapes (figures, trees, flowers, clouds, fruit) get all the attention, since they are, after all, the primary subjects. Yet if the negative shapes aren’t “right,” the overall picture will fall short. Negative shapes are by no means incidental—they’re crucial to the success of your work.

The Danger of Thinking Too Positively
Because the negative shapes buttress all the positive shapes in a painting, they affirm the definitions of their forms and can work to push them forward. If the negative shapes are insubstantial, the positive shapes will be mushy. The structure of an image—even a “painterly” image, with softly blended edges—can only be as robust as the negative shapes within it. They serve as part of a contiguous network of shapes that form the structure of a painting’s composition and give it a sense of unity.

The compositional devices of repetition and variation can also apply to negative shapes. A negative shape can repeat a positive shape, whether it’s the same size or larger or smaller than the original.

The trick with all in-between spaces is that because they don’t usually take on a recognizable form, there are no objective standards against which to measure them. So it’s up to you and your own subjective, aesthetic instincts. You must make judgment calls every time you compose a painting. To read negative shapes means to perceive the dynamic interrelationships of all the shapes, then to fine-tune those forms and fuse them all into a firm composition. It’s a challenge at first, but once you master negative shapes, they’ll be one of your most powerful visual tools.

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