Art Lessons on the Elements of Space


In art, the element of space includes positive and negative space as well as two-dimensional and three-dimensional space. Effective use of illusion gives two-dimensional works a three-dimensional appearance. Sometimes these illusions work so well they confuse our perceptions. M.C. Escher's work provides brilliant examples of the use of space as a tool to fool and confuse the eye. (See Resource 1.) Following are some principles art teachers can convey to help students understand the elements of space.

Positive and Negative

  • Creating art involves an interplay between positive space, the object, and negative space, the background. Use the illusion in the vase and faces picture here to examine positive and negative space. (See Reference 2). If you're a teacher, have a few vase cutouts similar to those in the picture to use as tracers. Ask students to trace the outline of the vase in the middle of their picture. Ask them if they see anything besides a vase. Now have them color the space around the vase a dark color without coloring the vase. The negative space on each side of the vase becomes two faces pointing in profile at each other, illustrating negative space as an element of a picture.

    Have students draw simple shapes on a piece of paper. Do not color them or allow them to touch each other. The shapes, the positive space, dominate the picture. Now have students color in the negative space, the area between and around the shapes, in one solid color. Discuss what they now see. The negative space dominates the picture.


  • When you sculpt, you create three-dimensional objects that have height, width and depth. When you draw or paint, you create two-dimensional objects that have height and width. Value, the use of shade and light, helps create depth on a two-dimensional drawing. Lighter values appear closer while darker values appear farther away. Create those values on a circle and the circle appears to be a sphere.

    Teachers can introduce value by giving students a ball and flat circle. Ask them to use one of these to help them draw a ball. They typically choose the circle to trace. Ask them how they can make the flat circle look like the three-dimensional ball. Introduce value as a tool to create three dimensions. Have them place a thumb on one spot of the circle. Instruct them to keep that spot white but, very lightly, around the thumb's white spot, color in lighter to darker values. Explain that at the edge of their circle, the color becomes its darkest.

Warm Versus Cool

  • Give students shape cutouts. Have them trace as many as will fit on the paper without overlapping. Explain cool colors as greens, blues and purples, and warm colors as reds, oranges and yellows. Cool colors generally recede and seem far away while warm colors appear closer. Used in a picture, that creates an illusion of far and near space.

    Have students color two circles a warm color and the rest cool colors. For this activity, they leave the negative space white. Ask them which seem closer and which seem farther away. It helps students to see the depth created if partners hold the papers up for each other from across the room.

Overlap and Size

  • Overlapping objects also create space in a two-dimensional piece of art. Tell students to place a tracing shape on the paper and trace the entire outline once. Have them color this first shape entirely so it is more noticeable. Place the tracing shape on the paper again with part of it overlapping the first shape drawn. Trace around the shape again but stop when you get to a part that will overlap the first shape. Subsequent shapes never get a whole outline so that they appear to be behind the one just drawn. When finished, have them color the rest of the shapes in three or four different colors. For an interesting design challenge, tell them that same colors may not touch.

    Size creates the illusion of shape. Pass out shapes of varying sizes to trace. Ask students if they have ever been on a roller coaster or in a plane and looked down at the people below. The people on the ground appear smaller than you because they are farther away. Have students trace the small and large shapes putting larger shapes toward the bottom and smaller shapes toward the top of their paper. Exaggerate the effect that smaller seems farther away by having them color the smaller shapes in a cool color and the larger shapes in a warm color.

    Once students have tools for using space in their pictures, their two-dimensional works begin to appear three-dimensional.


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