Negative Space: A Way of Seeing

Recently, I decided to pause work on a painting because I felt stuck. A garden scene with lots of shapes and colours, it had been going well but as I progressed, something felt off. It could have been the depth: not enough? Or the colours of the flowers: were there too many? I needed to slow down, focus, and think about what was going on in the painting. I thought back to essential drawing techniques and specifically about the important role of negative space. In this post, I write about this basic drawing technique, how it is a way of seeing, and why it is essential to my practice.

What is negative space?

Simply put, negative space is the space between things. Imagine you are drawing from a still life. It consists of a small round table covered with a tablecloth. In a bowl some apples and pomegranates are nicely arranged. To the left of the bowl is a glass vase holding tall flowers and foliage. Our first instinct may be to draw what we know and can name: a table, a bowl, a flower. If we start this way, our preconceived ideas about these items tend to override what we are seeing specifically. And presumably we want to record, in some way, what we observe. I’ve written about that here.

Paying attention to negative space also helps us get the proportions of the drawing correct. If I don’t think about the negative space between objects, I could get carried away with the details of an object without noticing that my vase is out of proportion with the rest of the still life. When I think “negative space” I think of the relationship between objects, the scale of what I am drawing, and the shape of each line I am making. In my sketch below, the blue areas illustrate some of the negative space.

Sketch to illustrate negative space

Negative space as a way of seeing

Understanding negative space theoretically helps us in practice. Much like an optical illusion, to see negative space we need to let go of the idea of what we see and what we first see. If we think back to the still life example, there are shapes between the objects (the bowl, the vase, the fruit). We might not have language for the shapes we see (like circle or square), but if we see them, we can draw them.

When we see the shapes in front of us, we are not thinking in terms of language. By not thinking this is “a flower”, we avoid relying on our preconceived ideas of what the object is. If I am focused on drawing a flower correctly, I am not present with the flower in front of me. I am not paying attention to the curves of this petal and the relationship between this stem and this leaf. Drawing, or sketching for a painting, is a meditation which necessitates observation in the moment. When we concentrate on the lines, shapes, and values of what we actually see, we can produce something resembling that specific object or scene as we experience it. Focus in on the shapes between the branches in the painting below. Can you see them as the shapes that help to build the composition?

Snowy Trees I, 30 x 40 cm, acrylic on canvas, sold.

An essential part of drawing and painting

Negative space is a basic drawing technique and thus an important part of my practice and that of many artists. Technically, my first step when putting pencil to paper or brush to canvas is to look for the large lines of my subject. I look at the scene as a whole and find the largest shapes. I establish the main relationships. Then I work from large to small: general to detail. It can be tempting to get into the details, but again, we don’t want to rush and forget proportion. Negative space and composition go hand in hand: I build my composition with negative space.

While taking some time away from the painting I mentioned above, I made Swaying Grass. First, I started by painting the canvas a dark green, which was the base I needed to create depth between the tall grasses and abundant blades of grass. Focusing on the negative space–the relationship between objects–as I sketched with paint, the objects themselves began to become defined.

Detail of my painting Swaying Grass, 80 x 100 cm, acrylic on canvas, available for purchase.

To summarize, negative space is just as important as the objects we are painting. When I am drawing, I don’t distinguish between them in terms of language. In other words, I try to forget that I know what a flower is, and, in this way, the flower appears: line by line. This requires trust in the process and patience.

No matter what our drawing style, a refresher in the basics of drawing is always useful. Learning to draw is learning to pay attention to what is in front of us. For me, getting stuck, taking space to reflect on the basics, and resetting produced a new painting. Sometimes we need to put something down and come back later. This experience will allow me to go back to my work-in-progress project with a fresh perspective.

Thanks for reading!   

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