Positive and Negative Art Projects


Positive space and negative space art projects explore the use of space in all art media. Negative space, or "white-space" artwork challenges both the artist and the viewer to fill in omitted detail; positive artwork asks the viewer to separate shapes and create depth of field naturally, without being “told” by the artist how and where to look. Traditionally, drawings, designs, photographs and paintings are the most common places to find positive and negative images.

Book Cover

  • Design a book cover using negative or positive space. Either remake an existing cover, such as your favorite book’s cover, or invent a new title, theme and imagery for a book idea. If you start with negative space, choose a few simple shapes you feel might work for the book’s theme and tone. For example, if you are working on redesigning "Catcher in the Rye" by J.D. Salinger, you may choose simple line drawings for the grass, a carousel horse and the shape of a city skyscraper. Whichever shapes or images you choose, lay them out on a sheet leaving a whole block, or pieces of the cover, without any image. Since the book is set mostly in winter, make the snowy landscape part of your negative space. Add the tall skyscraper with white windows set in a field of “snow,” which is really the white page, with a footprint in the snow. Leave it up to the reader’s imagination to understand what the filled, and empty, spaces signify. You can also use photographs for book covers or inspiration. A photographer intentionally chooses to capture a subject in a mostly blank background, to accentuate the subject.

Puzzle Painting

  • Create a painting similar in composition to Picasso’s “Guernica,” a puzzle loaded with characters, shapes and images. Select a few images or a theme for the painting. It can also be a set of shapes and designs. When painting, don't leave any blank space. In “Guernica,” there are a few sections where only the black background shows. Viewers understand this as “night,” but it may be another, larger shape behind the whole war depiction. Avoid leaving any space white, black or otherwise blank so that every inch of the canvas, or other material, is filled. This lets the viewer experience the painting as a full and vast landscape to be figured out.

Line Portrait Drawing

  • Drawing a simple line drawing, in ink or pencil, lets you experiment with both positive and negative space. If you are drawing a portrait of your girlfriend, for example, use a study of her face but only draw the shapes you see and can draw instantly. If you are drawing her eyes, draw two white almond shapes with no iris inside. This is an example of negative space, because the viewer has the choice of either filling eyeball and iris or determining that you are leaving the eyes blank for a reason, like in a Modigliani painting. Or, you can draw a complete realistic portrait, to show a full use of positive space. For more negative space, when you draw the hair, do not draw every strand of her hair, but imply that she has a full head of hair by leaving blank spaces. For example, to show a shiny strand of hair, start the line regularly, then lift the pencil from the page for a few seconds, and then continue that same strand. It will appear like a line of shine, not a bald spot.

Positive and Negative Mural

  • Murals often show positive space, because the artist wants to fill the wall with as much color and objects as possible. However, negative-space murals — that leave gaps in an image or landscape — may draw in a viewer more. For example, "Rubin's vase," the vase-face optical illusion, is an example of art that plays with the effects of positive space and negative space. In one look, you see Rubin's two faces staring directly at each; in another glance, you see a sturdy, rotund vase where the faces were. The faces are positive space when you focus on them, but they are negative space when you focus on the vase.The flip-flopping creates a brain exercise in determine what is real and what is only perception. The work of M.C. Escher also demonstrates the value of positive and negative shapes. In "Sky and Water," he uses positive an d negative space to define the shapes of fish and birds. Create a mural on a public wall or a wall in your home that has a similar effect, challenging the eye to see one image and then another.

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