Creating a Design; Negative and Positive Space

Negative SpoaceTo create a design from a drawing you have produced requires a special skill. You need to understand both positive and negative space. It is sometimes hard to realise that the space created in the background (the negative space) can be as important as the positive space (the image).

In my experience, beginner painters nearly always paint the most interesting thing first – the motif. The background is left until last and seems to just be completed as a necessity rather than as an integral part of the painting (design). When this approach is used you can be pretty sure that the background will not enhance the overall painting.

I ALWAYS paint the background (negative space) first. In this way, I can make it much more interesting and exciting, because I am personally excited about it. A painting usually shows the emotional feelings of the artist and if you are excited and feeling creative when you paint the background, the person looking at the painting will feel that energy too.

Do not approach the negative space in your work of art, with the attitude of “Hurry up and get it finished so that I can look at my lovely motif”.

This attitude has no doubt come from early Renaissance paintings when master painters emphasised the motif which often displayed a strong sense of tone, with light shimmering off glass or fruit looking good enough to eat. The background was often left dark and with little or no shapes/patterns showing; it simply was a surface on which the painting (motif) rested..

Today it is considered essential in a work of art to have the negative space as important and as interesting as the positive space. You could say this is the definition of what makes a good design (rather than a good painting). However, I believe good paintings also show good design qualities.

Illustrations to Demonstrate Positive and Negative Space

Let me show you what I mean by positive and negative space. Note the shadow of the photo of the flower. This is actually creating interesting negative space behind the motif (flower). The picture of the flower is then sketched (using both left and right hand) and this becomes the motif or positive space for the art work. However, if I make another sketch of the flower again, this time only concentrating on the space between the leaves; these shapes become the negative spaces as I see them. Instead of saying you cannot draw, what you should be saying is that you do not look (observe) at the detail.

Below is a picture of a conceptual design for men’s product; now you would have difficulty picking out the positive from the negative space in this design. The background is as important as the foreground (motif). You need to keep this in mind when doing more realistic designs.

Tips and Hints

This is one skill pretty easy to follow; simply paint the background first and make it as interesting as possible. If you find it boring and lacking in interest, then make an effort to add an element of design to it e.g. shape, tone and colour, to build the area into something more exciting. However, if you want to learn some specific methods for improving and better understanding negative space, join the online Silk Painting course currently used by artists in America, England and Australia.

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