Positive & Negative Space in Art | What is Positive & Negative Space?

Sasha Blakeley, Ivy Roberts
  • Author
    Sasha Blakeley

    Sasha Blakeley has a Bachelor's in English Literature from McGill University and a TEFL certification. She has been teaching English in Canada and Taiwan for seven years.

  • Instructor
    Ivy Roberts

    Ivy Roberts has taught undergraduate-level film studies for over 9 years. She has a PhD in Media, Art and Text from Virginia Commonwealth University and a BA in film production from Marlboro College. She also has a certificate in teaching online from UMGC and non-profit marketing and fundraising from UC Davis.

Discover negative space and positive space in art. Learn about negative space drawing and negative space photography. See positive and negative space examples. Updated: 04/14/2021

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Positive and Negative Space

Positive and negative space are two terms that go together to describe an important feature of art. Positive space is, broadly speaking, any space in a work of art that makes up the work's content. The foreground of a piece is positive space. But what is negative space? Space that appears blank or that is in the background of a piece is considered negative space. This positive space art definition is not quite sufficient, however: positive space and negative space are both essential to the experience of viewing art, and one cannot exist without the other. They are part of a mutual relationship within the art.

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Positive and Negative Space Art Examples

What is positive space in art? There are many positive and negative space art examples that have been used throughout the history of art. These elements are used in many kinds of art, including drawing, photography, painting, and sculpture. Discerning how positive and negative space is used a given artwork is an important part of artistic analysis. Here are some examples of positive and negative space in art and how viewers can interpret these phenomena.

Positive and Negative Space Drawing

The positive space in this drawing can be interpreted as a rabbit or as a duck
Positive and negative space are used in this optical illusion

Positive and negative space drawing examples are perhaps best illustrated using optical illusions. An optical illusion tricks the brain into making assumptions about positive and negative space. A good example of positive space drawing is the famous rabbit and duck illusion. The image's positive space is a drawing of an animal, but is the animal a rabbit, facing right, or a duck, facing left? By interpreting the positive space differently, viewers also reinterpret the role and composition of the negative space around the image.

Positive and Negative Space Photography

The use of negative space can make subjects in a photograph stand out more clearly
negative space photography can help subjects stand out

Positive and negative space can also be used in photography. When it comes to positive space, photography usually includes a subject in the foreground that viewers are expected to focus on. The negative or apparently blank space around the subject serves to emphasize the positive space used in the foreground. Negative space photography is often used for portraiture, advertising, and other kinds of photography that wants to create a focus on a particular element in the image.

Positive and Negative Space Painting

This work by Rembrandt uses chiaroscuro to create negative space
Positive and negative space painting often uses chiaroscuro

In painting, positive and negative space can have a profound effect on how people understand what they are seeing. One thing to keep in mind is that in painting in particular, negative space is often black or another color rather than white. Negative space painting is especially clear in paintings that utilize chiaroscuro, the interplay of light and shadows. This can increase the contrast in a work and help viewers focus on what is important in a piece. Negative space in painting can also lend a strong emotional quality to the work by putting increased emphasis on the subjects of the painting.

Positive and Negative Space Sculpture

The negative space in a sculpture can be just as important as the positive space
An example of a negative space sculpture

When it comes to positive and negative space in sculpture, the concept has to be interpreted slightly differently. In sculpture, negative space is usually empty space. What elements of the statue are missing? What gaps exist? These gaps can drastically change how viewers interpret sculptures. Many sculptors have judiciously used positive and negative space for a wide variety of artistic reasons. In this sculpture, for example, the artist has used negative space to indicate the eyes in the figures.


A tessellation pattern relies on equal use of positive and negative space
Tessellations use positive and negative space

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