Visual Art – Positive and Negative Space
An alternative way to understand composition
This is a very brief look at what negative space is and how an understanding of it is not only critical for good composition but can lead to an entirely different view of composition.
Most people who are into the visual arts have heard the terms positive and negative space and have a vague idea that the foreground object fills positive space and that everything else constitutes negative space or similar. That is great as far as it goes but it isn’t really that useful. Like everything in life it becomes much more interesting when an attempt is made to apply it.
The above image (shot from the chair in the sitting room making this perhaps my laziest post ever) has been processed to really show the positive and negative space. If it is light it is negative and if it is dark it is positive (with the exception of parts of the wooded stem).
Now a question, what defines this image is it the leaves and stalky bits of the plant or is it the shapes that they cut out of the wall behind them? I would argue for the shapes behind them as it is this that first attracted me to this subject. It certainly wasn’t the plant as it is one of the most boring plants in the world to shoot- boring single color and single toned leaves that soak up light like a sponge and give very little back. It is the black hole of the plant world and would probably vote Republican if given a chance.
Note that the above mini rant focused on the plant itself, its surfaces and the space it occupies. Now if we look at the same plant in terms of the space it creates around it i.e. the negative space it is a completely different story. The predominately triangles that the plant creates out of the white background have fascinated me, literally for years.
Obviously this is an oversimplification but it is done to make the point. A more accurate and nuanced assessment may be that the negative shapes combine pleasingly with the positive ones to create something interesting.
Generally speaking I always subconsciously balance the positive and negative space. To me this is the absolute crux of good composition. The comment is often made that my images have a stillness or a peacefulness to them and I think that that quality comes from this balancing of positive and negative space. Like everything composition related this becomes instinctive with practice. The words positive, negative or space don’t enter my head while I’m lining a shot up.
This is where it all gets clever because other compositional issues and problems now start to fall away. Worried about backgrounds? No need any more as once you think in terms of positive and negative space the whole background problem falls away, it all gets tied up into the more central theme of balance. If I am assessing visual art by a student I look at how they handle backgrounds as this is where the shortcomings show themselves. Generally speaking it is only when the student understands positive and negative space that equal and confident consideration can be given to the whole picture surface, whether it is a drawing, painting or photograph.
The other problem that is solved is the ‘how to make an image balanced without resorting to mirroring the left and right hand sides. The tendency when we start out on the visual arts journey is to seek out balance but we lack the tools to make that balance happen in a sophisticated way so we resort to mirroring i.e. finding a symmetrical object, standing plum in front of it and pressing the shutter. This gives a thin version of balance but the result is almost always very static and lifeless in a visual sense. The understanding of negative space so that it is treated with exactly the same amount of respect as the positive space is the first step towards a deeper understanding. It is the key that unlocks the door.
The Next Step
Not all scenes are as cut and dried as the plant example or even the tree and sky above. What if there is no obvious background? (Incidentally I would consider the clouds positive with the tree in the above image.
Sometimes it is just a matter of scale, but you may have to work a little to define the positive and negative spaces and, there may not always be a right answer.
This is how I’d break down the image above. I’d call the entire egg and the darker sides of the metal bowl positive space and the rest of the bowl the negative space. The lighter part of the right hand side I’d call positive. The areas that I have defined (broadly by tone in this case) balance each other out therefore the composition works.
Obviously the different areas of the image cannot be considered positive or negative randomly there has to be an internal logic. Saying that, and this is where it gets good, it doesn’t actually matter much which term you apply to which group of shapes the positive could be called negative and vice versa and everything still works.
Grasp this fully and you are well on your way to understanding both composition and abstraction. Both are essential to an understanding of visual art. Even if you claim to have no interest in abstract art abstraction still has to be understood to fully appreciate or create representational art.
I still teach the standard composition stuff, rule of thirds, golden mean, the spiral stuff etc. but I am pretty sure that that is probably unnecessary and the time would be better spent exploring positive and negative space.