7. Right Side Perceiving the Shape of a Space, The Positive Aspects of Negative Space

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Perceiving the Shape of a Space, The Positive Aspects of Negative Space

Source: The New Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain by Betty Edwards

In this chapter, we’ll take up the next component skill of drawing—the perception of negative spaces. You will use your new skills of seeing and drawing complicated edges in order to draw the edges of negative spaces.

This exercise will be a stretch for some, a joy for others. There is an antic or whimsical quality to seeing negative spaces. In a sense, you are seeing what is not there. In American life, it is often a new experience to realize that spaces are important. We tend to focus on objects; we are an objective culture. In other cultures, working “within the space of a problem” is common practice. My aim is to make spaces become “real” for you and to provide a new experience in seeing.

In this chapter, you will also learn to find and use a “Basic Unit” that will enable you to correctly size the first shape you draw. And you will dip into lights and shadows by working on a toned ground.

Let’s quickly review the five basic skills of drawing. Remember, these are perceptual skills: The perception of

• Edges (line of contour drawing)

• Spaces (negative spaces)

• Relationships (proportion and perspective)

• Lights and shadows (shading)

• The gestalt (the “thingness” of the thing)

What are negative spaces and positive forms?

Two terms traditionally used in art are “negative spaces” and “positive forms.” In the drawings of the bighorn sheep, for example, the sheep is the positive form and the sky behind and ground below the animal are the negative spaces.

The word “negative” in negative spaces is a bit unfortunate because it carries, well, a negative connotation. I have searched in vain for a better term, so we’ll stick with this one. The terms negative spaces and positive forms have the advantage of being easy to remember and they are, after all, commonly used in the whole field of art and design. The main point is that negative spaces are just as important as the positive forms. For the person just learning to draw, they are perhaps more important!




Fig. 7-1. Jeanne O’Neil.


“Expression to my way of thinking does not consist of the passion mirrored upon a human face or betrayed by a violent gesture. The whole arrangement of my picture is expressive. The place occupied by the figures or objects, the empty spaces around them, the proportions, everything plays a part.”

— Henri Matisse

’’Notes d’un peintre,” 1908


Demonstration drawing by instructor Brian Bomeisler.


Unity: A most important principle of art.

If negative spaces are given equal importance to the positive forms, all parts of a drawing seem interesting and all work together to create a unified image. If, on the other hand, the focus is almost entirely on the positive forms, the drawing may seem uninteresting and disunified—even boring—no matter how beautifully rendered the positive form may be. A strong focus on negative spaces will make these basic instructional drawings strong in composition and beautiful to look at.


Fig. 7-2. A variety of formats.


F’g- 7-4.


Fig. 7-5. Albrecht Durer (1471-1528) Nude Woman with a Staff (1508). Courtesy of The National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa.

The negative shapes surrounding the figure are beautifully varied in size and configuration.


Fig- 7-7.



Why is learning to see and draw negative spaces so important?

When a person just beginning in drawing tries to draw a chair, that person knows too much, in an L-mode sense, about chairs. For example, seats have to be big enough to hold a person; all four chair legs are usually all the same length; chair legs sit on a flat surface, and so forth. This knowledge does not help, and in fact can greatly hinder, drawing a chair. The reason is that, when seen from different angles, the visual information may not conform to what we know.

Visually—that is, as seen on the plane—a chair seat may appear as a narrow strip, not nearly wide enough to sit on. The legs may appear to be all of different lengths. The curve of the back of a chair may appear to be entirely different from what we know it to be (Figure 7-1).

What are we to do? An answer: Don’t draw the chair at all! Instead, draw the spaces of the chair.

Why does using negative space make drawing easier? I believe that it’s because you don’t know anything, in a verbal sense, about these spaces. Because you have no pre-existing memorized symbols for space-shapes, you can see them clearly and draw them correctly. Also, by focusing on negative spaces, you can cause L-mode again to drop out of the task, perhaps after a bit of protest: “Why are you looking at nothing? I do not deal with nothing! I can’t name it. It’s of no use … ” Soon, this chatter will cease—again, just what we want.

An analogy to clarify the concept of negative spaces

In drawing, negative space-shapes are real. They are not just empty “air.”

The following analogy may help you to see that. Imagine that you are watching a Bugs Bunny cartoon. Imagine that Bugs Bunny is running at top speed down a long hallway, at the end of which is a closed door. He smashes through the door, leaving a Bugs-Bunny shaped hole in the door. What’s left of the door is negative space. Note that the door has an outside edge (its format). This edge is the outside edge of the negative space-shape. In this analogy, the hole in the door is the positive form (Bugs Bunny) gone poof!

Now, take your Viewfinder/plastic Picture Plane and look at a chair. Close one eye and move the Viewfinder backward and forward, up and down, as though framing a snapshot. When you have found a composition that pleases you, hold the Viewfinder very still. Now, gazing at a space in the chair, perhaps the space between two back slats, imagine that the chair is magically pulverized and—like Bugs Bunny, in a poof!—disappears, leaving only the negative spaces, the one you are gazing at and all the rest of the spaces. They are real. They have real shapes, just like the remains of the door in the analogy above. These negative space-shapes are what you are going to draw. In short, you will draw the spaces, not the chair.

The reason? Recall our definition of edges: All edges are shared edges where two things come together. The negative spaces share edges with the (now absent) chair. If you draw the edges of the spaces, you also will have drawn the chair, because it shares edges with the spaces. But the chair will “look right,” because you will be able to see and draw the spaces accurately. (See the examples of negative-space drawings of chairs.)

Note that the format is also the outer edge of the chair’s negative spaces (another shared edge) and together the chair-form and the space-shapes fill the format completely. Technically speaking, the whole image, made up of positive forms and negative space-shapes, is called the composition. The artist composes the forms and the spaces within the format, arranging them according to certain “rules” called the Principles of Art.

Art teachers often laboriously try to teach their students “the rules of composition,” but I have discovered that if students pay close attention to negative spaces in their drawings, many compositional problems are automatically solved.

Defining composition

In drawing, the term composition means the way the components of a drawing are arranged by the artist. Some key components of a composition are positive shapes (the objects or persons), negative spaces (the empty areas), and the format (the relative length and width of the bounding edges of a surface). To compose a drawing, therefore, the artist places and fits together the positive shapes and the negative spaces within the format with the goal of unifying the composition.

The format controls composition. Put another way, the shape of the drawing surface (usually rectangular paper) will greatly influence how an artist distributes the shapes and spaces within the bounding edges of that surface. To clarify this, use your R-mode ability to image a tree, perhaps an elm or a pine. Now fit the same tree into each of the formats in Figure 7-2. You will find that—to “fill the space”—you have to change the shape of the tree and the spaces around the tree for each format. Then test again by imaging exactly the same tree in all of the formats. You will find that a shape that fits one format is all wrong for another.

Experienced artists fully comprehend the importance of the shape of the format. Beginning students in drawing, however, are curiously oblivious to the shape of the paper and the boundaries of the paper. Because their attention is directed almost exclusively toward the objects or persons they are drawing, they seem to regard the edges of the paper almost as nonexistent, almost like the real space that surrounds objects and has no bounds.

This obliviousness to the edges of the paper, which bound both the negative spaces and positive shapes, causes problems with composition for nearly all beginning art students. The most serious problem is the failure to unify the spaces and the shapes—a basic requirement for good composition.

The importance of composing within the format

In Chapter Five, we saw that young children have a strong grasp of the importance of the format. Children’s consciousness of the bounding edges of the format controls the way they distribute the forms and spaces, and young children often produce nearly flawless compositions. The composition by a six-year-old in Figure 74 compares favorably with the Spanish artist Miro’s composition in Figure 7-3.

Fig. 7-3. Joan Miro, Personages with Star (1933). Courtesy of The Art Institute of Chicago.

Unfortunately, as you have seen, this ability lapses as children approach adolescence, perhaps due to lateralization, increasing dominance of the language system, and the left hemisphere’s penchant for recognizing, naming, and categorizing objects. Concentration on things seems to supersede the young child’s more holistic or global view of the world, where everything is important, including the negative spaces of sky, ground, and air. Usually it takes years of training to convince students, in the way experienced artists are convinced, that the negative spaces, bounded by the format, require the same degree of attention and care that the positive forms require. Beginning students generally lavish all their attention on the objects, persons, or forms in their drawings, and then more or less “fill in the background.” It may seem hard to believe at this moment, but if care and attention are lavished on the negative spaces, the forms will take care of themselves. I’ll be showing you specific examples of that.

The quotations by the playwright Samuel Beckett and the Zen philosopher Alan Watts (on page 123) state this concept concisely. In art, as Beckett says, nothing (in the sense of empty space) is real. And as Alan Watts says, the inside and outside are one. You saw in the last chapter that in drawing, the objects and the spaces around them fit together like the pieces of a puzzle. Every piece is important and they share edges. Together they fill up all of the area within the four edges—that is, within the format.

Fig. 7-6. Paul Cezanne (1839—1936), The Vase of Tulips. Courtesy of The Art Institute of Chicago.

By making the positive forms touch the edge of the format in several places, Cezanne enclosed and separated the negative shapes, which contribute as much to the interest and balance of the composition as do the positive forms.

Look at the example of this fitting together of the spaces and shapes in the still-life painting by Paul Cezanne (Figure 7-6) and the figure drawing by Durer (Figure 7-5). Notice how varied and cate how a trained artist does this. We had to carefully introspect what we were doing when starting a drawing and then figure out how to teach the process, which is fundamentally non-verbal, extremely rapid, and “on automatic.” I have called this method, “Choosing a Basic Unit.” This Basic Unit becomes the key that unlocks all of the relationships within a chosen composition: All proportions are found by comparing everything to the Basic Unit.




“Nothing is more real than nothing.”

— Samuel Beckett


”You can never have the use of the inside of a cup without the outside. The inside and the outside go together. They’re one.”

— Alan Watts




Fig. 7-8. Henri Matisse, Young Woman in White, Red Background, 1946.

Fig. 7-9.



The Basic Unit—A definition

In Chapter Six, I stated that all parts of a composition (negative spaces and positive forms) are locked into a relationship that is bounded by the outside edge of the format. For realistic drawing, the artist is bound to that relationship in which all the parts fit together: The artist is not at liberty to change the proportional relationships. I’m sure you can see that if you change one part, something else necessarily gets changed. In Chapter Six I used a child’s jigsaw puzzle to illustrate the important concept of shared edges. I’ll use the same puzzle to illustrate the Basic Unit (Figure 7-7).

The Basic Unit is a “starting shape” or “starting unit” that you choose from within the scene you are looking at through the Viewfinder (the sailboat on the water). You need to choose a Basic Unit of medium size—neither very small nor very large, relative to the format. In this instance, you could choose the straight edge of the sail. A Basic Unit can be a whole shape (the shape of a window or the shape of a negative space) or it can be just a single edge from point to point (the top edge of a window, for example). The choice depends only on what is easiest to see and easiest to use as your Basic Unit of proportion.

In the jigsaw puzzle, I chose to use the straight edge of the sail as my Basic Unit.

Once chosen, all other proportions are determined relative to your Basic Unit. The Basic Unit is always called “One.” You can lay your pencil down on the puzzle to compare the relationships. For example, you can now ask yourself, “How wide is the boat compared to my Basic Unit, the long edge of the sail?” (One to interesting the negative spaces are. Even in the Durer, which is almost symmetrical, the negative spaces are beautifully varied. Now, back to the drawing lessons.

Summing up, then, negative spaces have two important functions:

1. Negative spaces make “difficult” drawing tasks easy—for example, areas of foreshortening or complicated forms or forms that don’t “look like” what we know about them, become easy to draw by using negative space. The chair drawings in the margin and the horns of the sheep on page 116 are good examples.

2. Emphasis on negative spaces unifies your drawing and strengthens composition and—perhaps most important, improves your perceptual abilities.

I realize that it is counter-intuitive—that is, it goes against common sense—to think that focusing on the spaces around objects will improve your drawing of the objects. But this is simply another of the paradoxes of drawing and may help to explain why it is so difficult to teach oneself to draw. So many of the strategies of drawing—using negative space, for example—would never occur to anyone “in their left mind.”

Our next bit of preparation is to define the “Basic Unit.” What is it and how does it help with drawing?

Choosing a Basic Unit

On looking at a finished drawing, students just beginning to draw often wonder how the artist decided where to start. This is one of the most serious problems that plague students. They ask, “After I’ve decided what to draw, how do I know where to start?” or “What happens if I start too large or too small?” Using a Basic Unit to start a drawing answers both these questions, and ensures that you will end with the composition you so carefully chose before you started a drawing.

After years of teaching classes and workshops, struggling to find words to explain how to start a drawing, I and my fellow teachers finally worked out a method that helped us to communione and one-third.) “How wide is the sail relative to my Basic Unit?” (One to two-thirds.) “Where is the sea/sky edge from the bottom of the format?” (One to one and one-quarter.) Note that for each proportion, you go back to your Basic Unit to measure it on your pencil and then you make the comparison with another part of the composition. I’m sure you can see the logic of this method and how it will enable you to draw in proportion.

As I teach you how to find and use a Basic Unit, this method of starting may seem a bit tedious and mechanical at first. But it resolves many problems, including problems of starting and of composition as well as problems of proportional relationships. It soon becomes quite automatic. In fact, this is the method most experienced artists use, but they do it so rapidly that someone watching would think that an artist “just starts drawing.”

An anecdote about French artist Henri Matisse illustrates this point and also illustrates the almost subconscious process of finding a Basic Unit. John Elderfield, curator of drawings at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, in his wonderful catalog of the Matisse Retrospective Exhibition of 1992, states: “There is a 1946 film of Matisse painting Young Woman in White, Red Background [see Figure 7-8]…. When Matisse saw the slow-motion sequence of the film, he felt ‘suddenly naked,’ he said, because he saw how his hand ‘made a strange journey of its own’ in the air before drawing the model’s features. It was not hesitation, he insisted: ‘I was unconsciously establishing the relationship between the subject I was about to draw and the size of my paper.’ ” Elderfield goes on to say, “This can be taken to mean that he had to be aware of the entire area he was composing before he could mark a particular section of it.”

Clearly, Matisse was finding his “starting shape,” the head of the model, to make sure he would have it the right size to show the whole figure in his painting. The curious thing about Matisse’s remark, I think, is that he felt “suddenly naked” when he saw himself apparently figuring out how big to make that first shape. I think this indicates the almost entirely subconscious nature of this process.

Later on, you too will rapidly find a starting shape or a Basic Unit or your “One”—or whatever you may eventually call it. And someone watching you will think that you “just started drawing.”

Getting off to a good start

I hope that you will become used to quickly choosing a Basic Unit to ensure a good composition. I imagine that you have already grasped the (visual) logic of starting your drawing this way, but allow me to put it into words once more.

When students are first learning to draw, they almost desperately want to get something down on the paper. Often, they just plunge in, drawing some object in the scene in front of them without paying attention to the size of that first shape in relation to the size of the format.

The size of the first shape that you draw controls the subsequent size of everything in the drawing. If that first shape is inadvertently drawn too small or too large, the resulting drawing may be an entirely different composition from the one you intended to depict.

Students find this frustrating, because it often happens that the very thing that interested them in the scene turns out to be “off the edge” of the paper. They don’t get to draw that part at all simply because the first shape they drew was too large. Conversely, if the first shape is too small, students find that they must include much that is of no interest to them in order to “fill out” the format.

The method I am recommending to you, of correctly sizing the first shape (your Basic Unit) that you set down, prevents this inadvertent problem and becomes quite automatic with a bit of practice. Later on, when you have discarded all of your drawing aids—the Viewfinders and plastic Picture Plane, you will use your hands to form a rough “viewfinder” (as in Figure 7-9), and you will still size the first shape (which, in these lessons, we are calling your Basic Unit) correctly for your chosen composition.



Fig. 7-10.


Fig. 7-11.


Note that:

•The toned format on your paper is larger in size than the format of the opening of your Viewfinder.

Though the sizes are different, the proportion of the two formats— meaning the relationship of width to length—is the same.

•Your felt-tip drawing of your Basic Unit on the plastic Picture Plane and your drawing on the toned paper will be the same, but the one on your paper will be larger.

•Stated another way, the images are the same, but the scale is different. Note that in this instance, you “scale up.” At other times, you may “scale down.”


Fig. 7-12.
Fig. 7-13.
Fig. 7-14.
Fig. 7-15.



Fig. 7-16.


Fig. 7-17.



Your Negative Space drawing of a chair

What you ll need:

• Your Viewfinder with the larger opening

• Your Picture Plane

• Your felt-tip marker

• Your masking tape

• Several sheets of drawing paper

• Your drawing board

• Your pencils, sharpened

• Your eraser

• Your graphite stick and several dry paper towels or paper napkins

• About an hour of interrupted time—more, if possible, but at least an hour

Getting set up to draw

You’ll be taking some preliminary steps, so please read all of the instructions before you start. The following are the preliminary steps for every drawing and take only a few minutes, once you have learned the process.

• choosing a format and drawing it on your paper

• toning your paper (if you choose to work on a toned ground)

• drawing your crosshairs

• composing your drawing

• choosing a Basic Unit

• drawing the chosen Basic Unit on the Picture Plane with a felt-tip marker

• transferring the Basic Unit to your paper

• then, starting the drawing

I’ll describe each step,

1. The first step is to draw a format on your drawing paper. For your Negative Space drawing of a chair, use the outside edge of your Viewfinder or the plastic Picture Plane. The drawing will be larger than the opening of your Viewfinder.

2. The second step is to tone your paper. Make sure you have a stack of several sheets of paper to pad your drawing. Begin to tone your paper by rubbing the edge of the graphite stick very lightly over the paper, staying inside the format.

3. Once you have covered the paper with a light application of graphite, begin to rub the graphite into the paper with your paper towels. Rub with a circular motion, applying pressure evenly and going right up to the edge of the format. You want to achieve a very smooth, silvery tone.

4. Next, lightly draw horizontal and vertical crosshairs on your toned paper. The lines will cross in the center, just as they do on your plastic Picture Plane. Use the crosshairs on the plastic plane to mark the position of the crosshairs on the format of your toned paper. A caution: Don’t make the lines too dark. They are only guidelines, and later you may want to eliminate them.

5. The next step is to choose a chair to use as the subject of your drawing. Any chair will do—an office chair, a plain straight chair, a stool, a cafeteria chair, whatever. If you are lucky, you may find a rocking chair or a bentwood chair or something else very complicated and interesting. But the simplest kind of chair will be fine for your drawing.

6. Place the chair against a fairly simple background, perhaps a room corner or a wall with a door. A blank wall is just fine and will make a beautiful, simple drawing, but the choice of setting is entirely up to you. A lamp placed nearby may throw a wonderful shadow of the chair on the wall or floor—a shadow that can become part of your composition.

7. Sit in front of your “still life”—the chair and setting you have chosen—at a comfortable distance of about eight to ten feet. Take the cap off your felt-tip marker and place it close beside you.

8. Next, use your Viewfinder to compose your drawing. Fasten the Viewfinder onto your clear plastic Picture Plane. Hold the Viewfinder/ Picture Plane in front of your face, close one eye, and, moving the device forward or backward, “frame” the chair in a composition that you like. (Students are very good at this. They seem to have an intuitive “feel” for composition.) If you wish, the chair can nearly touch the format so that the chair pretty much “fills the space.”

9. Hold the Viewfinder very still. Now, gazing at a space in the chair, perhaps between two back slats, imagine that the chair is magically pulverized and—like Bugs Bunny, in a poof! — disappears. What is left are the negative spaces. They are real. They have real shapes, just like the remains of the door in the analogy above. These negative space-shapes are what you are going to draw. I repeat: You will draw the spaces, not the chair. See Figure 7-10.

Choosing a Basic Unit

1. When you have found a composition you like, hold the Viewfinder/plastic Picture Plane in that position. Pick up the felt-tip marker. Next, choose a negative space within the drawing—perhaps a space-shape between two rungs or between two back-slats. This space-shape should be fairly simple, if possible, and neither too small nor too large. You are looking for a manageable unit that you can clearly see for its shape and size. This is your Basic Unit, your “starting shape,” your “One.” See Figure 7-10 for an example.

2. With one eye closed, focus on that particular negative space—your Basic Unit. Keep your eye focused on your Basic Unit until it “pops” into focus as a shape. (This always takes a moment—perhaps it is L-mode’s protesting time!)

3. With your felt-tip marker, carefully draw your Basic Unit on the plastic Picture Plane. This shape will be the start of your negative space drawing on your toned paper (Figure. 7-11).

4. The next step is to transfer your Basic Unit onto the paper you have toned. You will use your crosshairs to place it and size it correctly. (This is called “scaling up.” See the sidebar for an explanation.) Looking at your drawing on the plastic plane, say to yourself: “Relative to the format and to the crosshairs, where does that edge start? How far over from that side? From the crosshair? From the bottom?” These assessments will help you draw your Basic Unit correctly. Check it three ways: The shape on your toned paper, the actual space-shape in the chair-model, and the shape in the Picture Plane drawing should all be proportionally the same.

5. Check each angle in your Basic Unit the same way, by comparing three ways as above. To determine an angle, say to yourself, “Relative to the edge of the format (vertical or horizontal), what is that angle?” You can also use the crosshairs (vertical and horizontal) to assess any angles in your Basic Unit. Then, draw the edge of the space at an angle just as you see it. (Simultaneously, of course, you are drawing the edge of the chair.)

6. One more time, check your drawing of your Basic Unit, first with the actual chair-model and then with the rough sketch on the plastic Picture Plane. Even though the scale is different in each, the relative proportions and angles will be the same.

It is worth taking time to make sure your Basic Unit is correct. Once you have this first negative space-shape correctly sized and placed within the format in your drawing, all of the rest of the drawing will be in relationship to that first shape. You will experience the beautiful logic of drawing and you will end with the composition you so carefully chose at the start.

Drawing the rest of the negative spaces of the chair

1. Remember to focus only on the shapes of the negative spaces.

Try to convince yourself that the chair is gone, pulverized, absent. Only the spaces are real. Try also to avoid talking to yourself or questioning why things are the way they are—for example, why any space-shape is the way it is. Draw it just as you see it. Try not to “think” at all, in terms of L-mode logic. Remember that everything you need is right there in front of your eye and you need not “figure it out.” Remember also that you can check out any problem area by returning to your plastic Picture Plane and, remembering to close one eye, drawing the troublesome part directly on the plastic plane.

2. Draw the spaces of the chair one after another. Working outward from your Basic Unit, all the shapes will fit together like a jigsaw puzzle. You don’t have to figure out anything about the chair. In fact, you don’t have to think about the chair at all. And don’t question why the edge of a space goes this way or that. Just draw it as you see it. See Figure 7-12.

3. Again, if an edge is at an angle, say to yourself, “What is that angle compared to vertical?” Then, draw the edge at the angle you see it.

4. Gauge horizontals in the same way: What is the angle, compared to horizontal (that is, the top or bottom edges of your format)?

5. As you draw, try to take conscious note of what the mental mode of drawing feels like—the loss of the sense of time, the feeling of “locking on” to the image, and the wonderful sense of amazement at the beauty of the perceptions. During the process, you will find that the negative spaces will begin to seem interesting in their strangeness and complexity. If you have a problem with any part of the drawing, remind yourself that everything you need to know in order to do this drawing is right there, perfectly available to you.

6. Continue working your way through the drawing, searching out relationships, both angles (relative to vertical or horizontal) and proportions (relative to each other). If you talk to yourself at all during the drawing, use only the language of relationships: “How wide is this space compared to the one I have just drawn?” “What is this angle compared to horizontal?”

“How far does that space extend relative to that whole edge of the format?” Soon, you will be “really drawing.” The drawing will begin to seem like a fascinating puzzle, the parts fitting together in an entirely satisfying way (Figure 7-14).

7. When you have finished drawing the edges of the spaces, you may want to “work up” the drawing a bit by using your eraser to remove the tone in some areas, perhaps erasing the negative spaces and leaving the chair in tone (Figure 7-15). If you see shadows on the floor or on the wall behind, you may want to add them to your drawing, perhaps adding in some tone with your pencil, or erasing out the negative spaces of the shadows. You may also want to “work up” the positive form of the chair itself, adding some of the interior contours.

After you have finished:

I feel confident that your drawing will please you. One of the most striking characteristics of negative-space drawings is that no matter how mundane the subject—a chair, an eggbeater, a can opener—the drawing will seem beautiful.

Perhaps negative-space drawings remind us of our longing for unity, or perhaps of our actual unity with the world around us. No matter what the explanation, we simply like to look at nega-tive-space drawings. Don’t you agree?

With only this brief lesson, you will begin to see negative spaces everywhere. My students often regard this as a great and joyful discovery. Practice seeing negative spaces as you go through your everyday routine and imagine yourself drawing those beautiful spaces. This mental practice at odd moments is extremely helpful in putting perceptual skills “on automatic,” ready to be integrated into a learned skill that you own.

What follows is one last example of the usefulness of negative spaces.

The cognitive battle of perception

Figures 7-16 and 7-17 show an interesting graphic record of the struggle and its resolution in two drawings by a student of a cart and slide projector. In Figure 7-16, the first drawing, the student had great difficulty reconciling his stored knowledge of what the objects were “supposed to look like” with what he saw. Notice in the drawing that the legs of the cart are all the same length, and a symbol is used for the wheels. When he shifted to using a viewfinder and drawing only the shapes of the negative spaces, he was far more successful (Figure 7-17). The visual information apparently came through clearly; the drawing looks confident and as though it were done with ease. And, in fact, it was done with ease, because using negative space enables one to escape the mental crunch that occurs when perceptions don’t match conceptions.

It’s not that the visual information gathered by regarding spaces rather than objects is really less complex or is in any way easier to draw. The spaces, after all, share edges with the form. But by looking at the spaces, we free R-mode from the domination of L-mode. Put another way, by focusing on information that does not suit the style of the verbal system, we cause the job to be shifted to the mode appropriate for drawing. Thus, the conflict ends, and in R-mode, the brain processes spatial, relational information with ease.

Showing all manner of negative spaces

These drawings are intriguingly pleasurable to look at, even when the positive forms are as mundane as schoolroom chairs. One could speculate that the reason is that the method of drawing raises to a conscious level the unity of positive and negative shapes and spaces. Another reason may be that the technique results in excellent compositions with particularly interesting divisions of shapes and spaces within the format.

Learning to see clearly through drawing can surely enhance your capacity to take a clear look at problems and to be better able to see things in perspective. In the next chapter, we’ll take up the perception of relationships, a skill you can put to use in as many directions as your mind can take you.


Demonstration drawing by instructor Lisbeth Firmin.
Demonstration drawing by the author.
Demonstration drawing by the author.
Student drawing.
Student drawing by Sandy DePhillippo.


Winslow Homer (1836-1910), Child Seated in a Wicker Chair (1874). Courtesy of the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute. 

Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640). Studies of Arms and Legs. Courtesy of Museum Boymans-Van Beuningen, Rotterdam. 
Observe how Winslow Homer used negative space in his drawing of a child in a chair. Try copying this drawing. Copy this drawing. Turn the original upside down and draw the negative spaces. Then turn the drawing right side up and complete the details inside the forms. These “difficult” foreshortened forms become easy to draw if attention is focused on the spaces around the forms.