The Purpose and Function of Positive Space in Art

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Positive space is the area or part of an artwork's composition that the subject occupies. For instance, the positive space could be a vase of flowers in a still life painting, a person's face in a portrait, or the trees and hills of a landscape. The area around the positive space is called the negative space.

Using Positive Space in Art

When we think about positives and negatives in general, we tend to think of lights and darks or blacks and whites. This is not so when we speak about positive and negative spaces. Sure, the positive space of a particular painting may be white and the background black, but it can also be the complete opposite.

Instead, we are talking about space, one of the basic elements in art and an important factor in composition. Essentially, a composition is made up of the frame of the artwork and the positive and negative spaces within that frame. The negative space helps define the positive space.

Every piece of art has positive space, even abstract pieces that seem to have no well-defined subject. In these, it is often the shapes, lines, or forms that become the positive space.

It's also important to remember that positive space is not necessarily the primary subject of the art alone. In Vincent Van Gogh's painting "Oleanders" (1888), for example, the vase filled with flowers is the main subject, so it is part of the composition's positive space. However, the book resting on the table is also positive space, even though it is a secondary subject.

Positive space is not limited to two-dimensional artwork, either. In sculpture and other three-dimensional works, the positive space is the sculpture itself and the negative space is the area around it.

Alexander Calder's hanging mobiles are perfect examples of this. The thin wires and small pieces of metal are the positive space and the minimalism of the artwork has a great impact. The effect can change from one installation location to another because of the negative space around the mobile.

Balancing Positive Space

When composing a piece of art, the artist must decide how to balance the positive and negative spaces of the piece. Every piece of art is different, though there are some common ways to approach it.

In flat artwork, such as paintings, drawings, and photographs, artists often like to offset the positive space to one side of the work. This allows the negative space to lead the viewer to the subject. Sometimes, the positive space may overtake the frame and the negative space is minimized. Other times, the negative space may dominate while the positive space is very small.

Each of these approaches can affect the perceptions that viewers take away from the work. Positive space is just one of the tools that artists can use to guide how their work is seen. When it's executed well and balanced with negative space, the impact can be quite dramatic.