How to Use Negative Space

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Negative Space Drawing - What Is Negative Space?

An incorrect approach to negative space focuses on the form of the object while drawing
An incorrect approach to negative space focuses on the form of the object while drawing.

In negative space drawing, instead of observing the positive shape of an object, you draw the shape of the space around the object. This may include any background detail or pattern, or it may be drawn as a simple silhouette. In many drawing books, you'll find an example that begins with drawing an outline of the object, and shading all around it. Although it is a silhouette, this is NOT correct negative space drawing. As you draw the outline, you are doing a POSITIVE drawing - focusing on the positive spaces - the solid shapes of the object, looking at the shape of each part of the object, drawing its outline, then shading. This method will not help you achieve the objective of the negative space drawing exercise, which is to understand the shapes and spaces around an object.

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Negative Space Drawing - Observing Shapes and Spaces

Negative space drawing example

The correct approach to negative space drawing involves observing the shapes formed between different parts of the object or between one edge of the object and a boundary. By drawing the background spaces or shapes between the edge of the object and the opposing edge or boundary, the positive form of the object is left un-drawn, resulting in a correct negative space drawing. This is the reverse of normal positive space drawing, where you would be looking at the form and drawing its edges.

In the in-progress example, note how a sketched border closes off external shapes. The stripes in the background cloth allow the observation of small shapes which add up together to reveal the silhouette of the object. The most obvious example of clear negative spaces in this drawing are the arches and triangles, which are easy to observe.

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Applying Negative Space Drawing

A plant bordered in red

Seeing negative spaces correctly is a skill worth developing. Negative space is used a great deal when you want to avoid outlining and create true value drawing. It is needed when you have a texture like light-colored hair or grass, when you need to focus on the dark shadows behind and underneath the strands. The 'foreground' - the positive shapes of light hair or grass - are 'left behind' as white paper while the shadows and darks are drawn with dark charcoal or pencil.

A sound understanding of negative space drawing is critical for watercolor painting, as a watercolor is built through a progressive overlaying of negative-space areas, working from light to dark.

In the photograph, note how the red-outlined dark areas lock together to reveal the form of the foreground shapes of the leaves. Focusing on the leaf forms is fine for a line drawing, but if you want a shaded value drawing, you'll need to observe the negative spaces as shown, so that you can leave behind the positive space, drawing the leaves lighter, and leaving the white edges and veins of the leaves clear.