Getting to Grips with Negative Space

Observational drawing is as much about what you don’t see as it is about what you can see. Mastering the art of drawing negative space will give your drawings a real sense of depth and volume because it helps to show the relationship between objects, and avoid pitfalls like outlining your objects which can make your finished picture look flat and lifeless.

A good understanding of negative space will enrich your drawing skills tremendously, which will in term benefit your painting and even sculpting. If you have a spare hour, try sitting down with a sketchpad and an object and drawing the negative space!

1.  What is negative space?
Negative space is the space between objects, or around an object, or even around parts of an object. For example, if you spread your fingers wide in a fan shape, you create four upside-down triangle shapes between your fingers. This is negative space and your fingers are positive space. A good analogy for negative space can be found in the book Drawing on the Right Hand Side of the Brain. The author, Betty Edwards, suggests you imagine the space that Bugs Bunny leaves in a wall when he bursts through it!

2. Choose your negative space wisely
Use a soft pencil, or perhaps set up a small still life, or pick an object that is not too complicated to draw, perhaps a teacup or a mug. Resist the temptation to start drawing the outline of the object ‘from memory’, and instead really look at the shapes of the negative spaces, such as the space between the handle, the surface that it is sitting on. Shade slowly, and leave the object itself blank.

3. Challenge yourself!
If you found the first exercise quite easy, challenge yourself by using more complex shapes, like a potted plant (look at the shape of the space between the leaves), or perhaps a chair.  Play around with using several objects at once, and drawing the space between the objects to see how they interact with each other in a space. You could even try drawing a negative space landscape, particularly if you live in an urban area and can draw space around buildings. The possibilities are endless!

4. Tinker with tone and colour
If you’d like to take your negative space drawing even further, try working out which areas of your negative space would be dark tones, and which would be medium and light tones, a bit like a contour lines on a map. You can even play around with using colour to define the negative space. If you are in a rush, you could make a quick sketch of the negative space (for example, leaves of a tree against the sky) and colour it in with crayons or watercolours when you get home.

5. Figurative or abstract?
Playing around with negative spaces will help you with your drawing, regardless of the direction you want to take. It will help your figurative and observational drawings become more lifelike as you become more sensitive to tone and shape, but it can also help take you towards abstract art, as you begin to see the patterns and shapes formed by the objects. Mondrian’s famous abstract paintings were a development of his drawings from life, which he simplified until they were the distinctive planes and squares we know so well!

Have you tried to draw negative space before? Has it helped your art? Get in touch – we’d love to hear about your experiences with negative space!

Author: Clara Tait

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