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Positive & Negative Space in Art: Definition & Examples

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  • 0:00 Rules of Visual Composition
  • 1:26 Tricks of Perception
  • 2:45 Figure and Ground
  • 3:52 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Ivy Roberts

Ivy is a doctoral student at Virginia Commonwealth University studying media studies and cultural history.

Learn about how positive and negative space direct the viewer's eye to create optical illusions. Investigate the many aspects of pictorial representation that inform the rules of visual composition.

Rules of Visual Composition

Positive space refers to the main focus of a picture, while negative space refers to the background. When used creatively and intelligently, positive and negative space together can tell a story using visual composition alone. The term negative space is something of a misnomer. It emphasizes the idea that the viewer constructs his or her own meaning from the image. Negative space is never blank. It is designed to support the foreground of the picture.

This concept is illustrated in this illustration: rabbit or duck?

Rabbit-Duck illusion

In the drawing, the rabbit is depicted facing toward the right, while the duck is revealed to be a part of the image made out of the rabbit's ears. The duck faces toward the left. In fact, the picture represents both a rabbit and a duck. The viewer chooses which animal they see, forcing the other into the background. If you see a rabbit, the duck doesn't just disappear. It becomes the background.

Negative space is more complex than simply the background of a picture. Without negative space, the positive would have no meaning. Another way of thinking about the relationship would be by comparison to the leading lady in the ensemble cast. She can only be referred to as a lead in relation to the group. Without the group, she no longer has a role as a lead.

Tricks of Perception

Positive and negative space are two aspects of visual composition that form the viewer's perception of optical illusions. Optical illusions are tricks of perception in which the image that one sees, that is the image created in the brain, differs from the objects as they exist in real space. Illustrations and photographs that depict optical illusions try to trick the brain into perceiving spatial dimensions differently from the way they actually appear.

Such a fault in perception informs Gestalt psychology, which investigates the mind's ability to make sense of the world based on a fragmented knowledge of its parts. In this way, psychologist Kurt Koffka is quoted as having said, 'The world is the sum of its parts.'

What do you see in this figure?

Gestalt principles

You might say that the figure could be perceived as a serpent in the water, but a Gestalt psychologist would say that the image is only made up of wavy black lines. The mind inserts parts to the image that are absent in order to make sense of a partial image. In this figure, the black represents the positive space and the empty white area represents the negative space. The concepts of positive and negative space are slightly more complex than simply the foreground and background of a picture.

Figure and Ground

Positive and negative space are related to the concept of figure-ground relationship, which refers to the perceptual distinction we make between the subject and object in a picture. The figure-ground relationship is present in all images.

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