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What is Negative Space?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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Negative space is the space which surrounds an object in a image. In art, it is extremely important, as its use can have a dramatic impact on the mood and tone of the finished work. It is also an important consideration in design, and the proper use of negative space can be especially challenging for typographers, as subtle differences can cross the line between artful success and complete disaster.

In a simple example of negative space, if a person were to trace his hand on a piece of paper and color the tracing in, the white space around the hand would be considered negative space. He could also perform a reversal, coloring in the area around the tracing, but the colored area would still be considered negative space, since the hand is the object in the image. The use of this space in a composition plays a very important role in the finished work.

Artful use of negative space can change the viewer's perception of the object being depicted, or it may create a very specific mood. It is often used to frame objects in art, drawing the attention of the viewer to the focal point of the piece. Many people like to create equal amounts of negative and positive space in a composition to yield a harmonious balance, but this is not required, and playing with the proportions of negative to positive space can actually yield very interesting results.

In addition to being considered in flat visual arts, negative space is also a factor in three dimensional compositions. In Japan, for example, the issue of is considered in garden design, with people referring to it as ma, a Japanese word for “gap.” Negative space is also considered in dance choreography and the positioning of actors on stage in productions ranging from opera to monologues.

In typography, negative space is very important, whether a typographer is composing a magazine article or an art broadside. Depending on how the piece is composed, negative space can change the meaning in a number of ways. When poorly used, it may make a piece hard to read or unpleasant to look at, while well-balanced examples may draw attention to particularly important or notable pieces of the composition. In some instances, it can become as notable as the positive space, especially in the case of some company logos.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Musical Expert researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By anon358340 — On Dec 10, 2013

Excellent description of negative space, so poorly understood. It has a more fundamental basis in physics, mathematics, topology and dimension which is probably why it is so interesting to play with. If an artist could bridge the distinction between positive and negative space without figure ground ambiguity, ah, crowned genius. So many have tried, with only a few suggesting another visual reality.

By Qohe1et — On Feb 03, 2011

I think that if a survey was conducted on photography in which a stunningly beautiful model was placed into a plane negative space, the majority of people would not appreciate the photo. If this stunning model were placed in an environment of beauty, they would find her even more stunning and consider the photograph to be great art. A negative space should also be a testament to the personality and mood of the person involved.

By ShadowGenius — On Feb 02, 2011

Appreciating an environment and a space for objects is an important part of recognizing the beauty of these objects. Something is not considered profound or salient if it is not surrounded by a good setting. Japanese appreciate the value of silence, because it enhances a good word.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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