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Negative Space in Drawing: 3 Helpful Uses

I first stumbled upon the idea of negative space in drawing while reading “Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain” by Betty Edwards a long time ago. It opened up a new way of analyzing shapes, edges, and space for me. Ever since, I’ve been curious to learn how I could use negative space to improve the composition of my drawings.

In this post, I’ll explain what negative drawing is, how it differs from positive forms, and provide examples of how you can put negative space to good use in your drawings.

What is negative space?

Negative space is the space between things. It’s the empty space around the positive forms you’re drawing – a sort of nothingness surrounding the shapes you’re trying to draw.

Negative space in a chair drawn by Vincent Van Gogh.

For example, if you imagine yourself drawing a chair: the negative space would be all the space not occupied by the chair itself. This includes the background space surrounding the chair as well as the empty gaps confined between its various parts like the legs and slats.

As beginners, we often find ourselves focusing solely on the positive forms in our drawings. It might initially feel a little counterintuitive to shift our attention to the empty space in and around what we’re drawing.

Negative space between the arms and legs of an archer drawn by John Singer Sargent.

Understanding negative space is important because it not only helps you figure out the tricky details in observational drawing (more on that below) but is also a key ingredient in enhancing the emphasis and balance of your drawings.

In the following section, I provide three examples of how observing and manipulating the negative space can help you improve your drawing.

3 Ways you can use negative space to improve your drawings

A. Figuring out the tricky parts

When drawing something from observation, focusing on the edges of the negative space within and around the positive forms can help you understand the shapes, proportions, and perspective of your subject more easily.

For example, let’s say we want to draw the “Porch of the Maidens” pictured above. Most beginners might naturally ignore negative space and start drawing by focusing on the beautiful marble sculpture figures one by one until they get the structure just right.

This can be challenging for many beginners, especially because there’s foreshortening at play (meaning things closer to view appear significantly larger than those further away due to perspective). Focusing only on the positive forms might lead to a lot of trial and error in outlining the structure of the Porch accurately.

Instead, if you begin by drawing the negative space between the sculptures first and then filling in the rest, it makes the drawing much more manageable.

Action Step

As a quick experiment, grab a piece of paper and spend a few minutes drawing the structure of the “Porch of the Maidens” the usual way, ignoring the negative space. Then try another drawing, this time paying attention to the negative space (highlighted in pink), and see if it helps you draw better.

B. Emphasizing the focal point

Negative space can be a useful tool for directing the viewer’s gaze toward the main point of interest in your drawing.

A study sketch of a portrait by Diarmuid Kelley.

In the drawing above, you can see how drawing a small negative space under the face directs our eyes toward the sitter’s face and helps convey his story and emotions better.

C. Balance your composition

Balancing the proportions of positive forms and negative space can lead to a more visually pleasing composition. Too little negative space can make your artwork look cluttered and overwhelming. Conversely, too much of it can sometimes make the artwork seem a bit dull.

Negative space in the portrait of Madame X by John Singer Sargent.

Notice how Sargent breaks up the big negative space in the portrait above by adding a table next to Madame X for her to lean on and this creates a more interesting composition in my opinion.

There you have it art friends. I hope this post helped you understand the importance of negative space in your drawings. Don’t be afraid to experiment with it in your artwork. It’s a valuable tool that can improve your drawing skills and make your compositions more engaging. Happy drawing!