Drawing Negative Space

Positive and Negative Space Art Lesson

The shapes between the shapes are The Negative Space.

We are programmed to see the object itself, because that's the important thing we must recognize.

When we draw or paint, the space around the object becomes important too.
"Background" becomes something that we need to pay attention to, and we have to draw it as well.

We suddenly realize that what's around the object affects our perception of the thing which it surrounds.

In the following picture, everything in deep purple color is The Negative Space of the composition:

Ceramic plates for hot dishes
Example of what is negative spacewith the objects removed, only Negative Space remains

Another name for seeing Negative Space is the Japanese term "Notan"

Designers use this word to refer to the relationship between positive space and negative space, or black and white.
It's an important basic concept in composition design.

Exercise 1 (easy): Ceramics for Hot Dishes

a. Find the following negative shapes in the complete photo, and then draw them with a pencil on paper. 
In order to find them you'll have to slice the space in interesting places.

Shapes cut out from the photo's background
Exercise 1: Learn to see negative space

b. With pencil on paper, draw only the negative space in the original photo. 
Try to draw it in the right size and proportions, so that you create the silhouettes of the objects.

We can break up the negative space to smaller, simpler shapes to help us see and draw it.

Why is it important for artists to learn to see Negative Space?

As I've mentioned, seeing "Notan", seeing the relationships between an object and its surroundings is a fundamental tool for designing compositions.

On a practical level, studying and drawing negative space helps us see and measure the proportions of the positive space (the object).

It's sometimes easier to see simple geometric negative shapes, than it is to understand complex positive shapes, as we will see in this next exercise:

Exercise 2: A "Keter Plastic" Chair


Soft 4B pencil, eraser and paper.

These cast-plastic chairs are a common sight in Israeli back yards. Their form is cast in a single flowing form, which is lovely and rather complex to draw.

Keter-Plastic garden chair

It’s much easier to see and draw all the "windows" and the shapes AROUND the chair.

If we could just draw "everything that is not a chair", the positive form will emerge on the page by its own, like magic

How to start:

Dividing complex shapes into simpler ones

Please refer to the step-by-step stages laid out down the page

First, just look at the chair.

Now, shift your gaze to the spaces inside it and around it. Make a conscious effort to see the "not chair" spaces, the Negative space.

In the color scheme shown here, I've marked all the negative space shapes.

As you'll see, some shapes are simple enough to see and understand. 
Others are more complex, so we break them down:

Look at the shape beneath the arm rest, marked in red. It's a bit strange and hard to describe in a single word, so I have divided it in two. Now, we can call the right side "squarish" and the left side "a bullet shape".

Can you see it?

Look around the spaces under the seat, around the left side and across the top. 
I have divided them all into as simple geometric shapes as could manage.

It takes some practice and imagination, but as you learn to see negative (and positive!) spaces and slice them up in this way, you get a jigsaw puzzle of simple shapes that are easy to draw.

In the drawing sequence below you can see the order in which I've broken up the shapes around the chair when I drew them, along with some pointers.

I start with the inside "windows", the easy shapes that will serve as a measuring unit for the rest of the drawing, and then make my way clockwise around the form, shape by shape.

Step by Step:

Step by Step demonstration 1
Step by Step demonstration 2

The work:

Draw a horizon line and a plumb line (vertical) for reference. Just pencil it in lightly, to help you judge angles. 

  1. Identify a shape, and give it a name: squarish, triangular, oval something like that.
  2. Study and measure it for width, length, and angle of orientation in relation to the horizon and verticals, and to other shapes.
  3. Draw it.
  4. Repeat 1-3. Fix and adjust previous shapes you've draw if necessary. Erasers allowed!

For the first group of shapes, make sure to draw them in a size that will allow the rest of the drawing to fit your page. Measure how many times the group fits in the whole chair and draw it to scale.

If you misjudge the size of the first few shapes and not fix them as you go along, the entire drawing will be wonky, because that's your reference.

So, take your time getting the beginning right. In this case I would take my time getting this group of shapes just right (the vertical holes in the back rest).

Quick pencil sketch of a Keter-Plastic garden chair.Fast impressionistic sketch. I didn't try to measure anything here, I just drew, as fast as I could, "everything that's not a chair".

Another way to do this exercise is copy the shapes on a new layer in Photoshop, or physically using a light table.

Because this is an exercise in observation.

The point is to learn to see negative space and figure out how to break complex shapes into simpler ones.
Measuring sizes and angles is a different skill, and you might want to concentrate on one thing at a time.

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