Interpreting positive and negative space is one of the compositional skills practised by visual artists when they draw and paint. It is also a handy method to trigger one's imagination either as a drawing exercise, or when illustrating.
What is positive and negative space?
Positive space is the space occupied by the subject. Negative space is the space on the page around it. A classic example of this is the image below, the Rubin Vase -
The positive space is the yellow vase. The negative space is the inverse of this space, i.e. everything outside the vase. In this picture, can you see the two profiled faces in the negative space? This is a well-known example of illusion, thanks to its use of positive and negative space. However, negative space usually does not have another recognizable image.
Using a printout of an image of one of my stone kitchen tiles, I drew a scene on that printout inspired by the shapes and tones I saw there. The Angry Polar Bear (above) is one such illustration. The Infamous Heart-Nosed Hedgehog below, is another of these The Sketchbook Project drawings.
What is the positive space in the drawing below? What is the negative?
The Positives (and negatives) of the Polar Bear & The Hedgehog
Surprise! Although you probably guessed it, the same tile image inspired the polar bear and hedgehog drawings. Here they are, together.
The Infamous Heart-nosed Hedgehog . The positive space is the hedgehog. The negative space, is all the other space. In this case, that space is filled in with clouds.
The Angry Polar Bear. Using another printout of the same tile, I placed my subject, the polar bear, in what was the negative space of the hedgehog illustration. You can see the shape of the hedgehog in the space to the left of the polar bear. So, in this drawing, the positive space is the polar bear.
But wait! There are actually two subjects in this drawing! There is a little figure in a fur-trimmed hooded parka in the bottom left corner. His head is where the hedgehog's eye is in the hedgehog drawing. This little figure is also a positive space (although his actions may be negative. I will leave that up to your imagination!). So the negative space of this image is all the space around them, including the top right corner of the image.
Does this help you to understand positive and negative space?
To see my 2013 The Sketchbook Project (Brooklyn Art Library, Brooklyn, New York) about a polar bear world "CRAM" click here