Positive And Negative Spaces in Oil Painting

Positive and negative spaces are important for paintings, because it effects how a viewer can interpret the piece and your subject. A typically accepted rule is that the positive and negative spaces in your painting should be roughly equal.

Positive and Negative Spaces in Oil Painting

Every drawing and painting has many different parts, depending on how you decide to look at it. You can concentrate only on color and see all the different hues, focusing on that while you paint.

You can concentrate on tone and notice the contrast between dark and light, paying attention to light and shadow. Or, you can concentrate on space, and see three parts: the frame, negative space, and positive space.

Knowing where the frame of your painting lies is easy; it’s simply the top, bottom, and side boundaries of your composition. But positive and negative spaces are slightly more complex. Positive space, put simply, is your subject.

Imagine you’re painting a vase full of flowers, and the vase is sitting flush with the bottom of your frame, while the flowers reach upward to the tops and sides. This vase, full of flowers, is your subject. It is the positive space. It’s called positive because it is the space actually occupied by your subject.

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The negative space is everything else. It’s all the space behind and around the vase and the flowers—the space which is not occupied by your subject. You might think of it as the background. The shape of your subject determines the shapes of the negative space. The bounds of this negative space are the edges of your subject and the frame.

Look at a painting of a vase of flowers and try to force your eye to white out both the vase and the flowers, as if you used a knife to cut along all its edges and then pushed it out of the canvas. What would the remaining shape be?

This creates a painting that is easy to view because the eye has something to focus on without problem. Negative space is best used to create contrast between the background and the subject so that the painting comes together better as a whole.

Practicing drawing an object focusing only on the negative space instead of the object itself is a good challenge for making yourself more aware of the space. You’ll notice it’s very difficult to keep your focus on the shape of the negative space rather than the positive.

One time-tested technique to combat this is to view the subject upside down. Obviously this isn’t possible for you to turn everything in your kitchen upside down in order to paint the negative space around a vase—instead, use another painting that has prominent negative space. Upend it and re-paint it, focusing only on the shapes created by the bounds of your subject’s lines. It’s a real eye-opener.

Being more aware of negative space will improve your skill as a painter. Your painting isn’t just about the subject and the lines it creates—it’s also about the background and how it interacts with your subject. When both the positive and negative space come together in a complimentary way, your painting will be more pleasing for viewers to look at, in a very subtle and almost undetectable way.

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