What are Positive and Negative Spaces in Painting?

by | Sep 26, 2008 | Blog | 5 comments

Some of you might have heard the expression positive-negative space from art school days, representing the form and background in a painting. When I taught a basic drawing class many years ago I got a renewed interest in this concept. I noticed that our eyes could focus on positive space or negative space but not both at the same time. For instance, if you place your hand palm down on the table and spread your fingers out a bit, the fingers and hand are the positive space, and the space in between the fingers are negative space. Try it out. I can make my eyes focus on one or the other, going back and forth between the fingers and the space, but can’t really get both in focus simultaneously.

M C Escher black and white painting drawing of hands showing positive and negative spaces

Photo: M. C. Escher, Drawing Hands, Lithograph, 1948

Above is a painting by M. C. Escher who used this optical trick idea as the basis of his work. In my class I noticed that figures would get out of proportion if students only focused on the positive form – the figure – but when they consciously drew the space around the figure – the background or negative space – the figure would improve tremendously. The phrase “negative space” must have seemed too negative to some, because I noticed other teachers referring to it as “Figure-Ground”. My favorite phrase was “Figure and Arena” which reminded me of a performer in a circus. When I started teaching abstract painting I liked to use the term “charged space” instead of our old buddy “negative space”.
A friend of mine gave me a refreshing look on this subject. He would look at someone’s painting, and analyze it by seeing the background as the artist’s “inner” self, and whatever forms were painted (objects for a still life, brushmarks in an abstraction) symbolized the artist’s projected personality – what parts of ourselves we allow visible to other people. I decided to look at my work retrospectively in these terms and was surprised to find that in fact, there must be some truth to this.
abstract acrylic painting with floating shapes and atmospheric space

Cosmic Haze, Nancy Reyner, 48″ x 62″, acrylic on canvas,1998

Above is a painting I did years ago. There are many floating forms, and it has a crowded or busy feel to it. At the time I painted it I was trying to deal with lots of obligations in my life – not enough time spent alone.
Abstract art with blue shelf and orange sphere.
Blue Table, Nancy Reyner, 48″ x 36″, acrylic on canvas, 2001
Then I painted this one. It’s hilarious to see that I have actually pushed the forms off the canvas, but still hanging on “stage” at the far right edge. At that time I was spending more time alone in my studio.
Abstract colorful landscape painting with textured layers.
Gold Crystals Melting, Nancy Reyner, 20″ x 16″, acrylic on wood panel, 2008
Now I am meditating much more on a daily basis, especially before I paint, and my current work feels like its all “charged space”, and in fact I like calling them “energy fields”.
top banner: M. C. Escher, Day and Night, woodcut, 1938.

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Hand painting pink wall with sponge.

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  1. Anonymous

    I’d passion to ascertain that too!

  2. Learn to Paint

    Great points. I often try to look at the "negative" space in paintings as the subject of focus. It can tell a lot about the painter's psyche and inner self, and is often intentionally meant to.

  3. linda

    Wow, this is so helpful to me concerning what has always been a somewhat difficult concept for me to grasp, when looking at my work or as I am painting…where is that “negative” space supposed to be? anyway, thank you for clarifying it for me.

  4. Sarah E.

    I like your friend’s outlook. This puts a whole new spin on things for me…thanks!

  5. Sarah

    I like your phrases “charged space” and “energy fields”. I also like the idea of pre-work meditation. Like Tricia of Let’s Create (your link was mentioned in a comment on her blog), my muse tends to go on vacation with no warning! I’ll be back often…!


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Professional fine artist Nancy Reyner’s blog about art, painting and creativity. Her career spans over 30 years. She lives in Santa Fe in the US. Subscribe below for free tips on art and painting.

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