Using Positive & Negative Space to Achieve Image Balance

Using Positive & Negative Space to Achieve Image Balance

Artists use Negative and Positive Space to achieve balance in an image. It refers to the area that forms the image. Positive and Negative Space exist as a unit, just as the sun and the moon make a day.

Positive space is the area that forms the Subject and Negative space is the area all around and between that point.

Positive Space:
Bird (Focal Point)

Negative Space:
Yellows and greens (Background)

Positive and Negative Space Can Switch Places

Negative and Positive Space share a common boundary line. The eye focuses on one thing at a time. In the image on the left, the Subject switches, creating meaning of the thing we are paying attention to. When you see the goblet clearly, the faces fall to the background. When you see the faces the goblet falls away.

Boundary Lines Lead the Eye

Negative space traces the subject’s (Positive Space) boundary. Any merges happening in that line should be meaningful.

Cachan - Patis Paton
Southern Hebrides Scotland – Patis Paton Photography

In this image by Patis Paton Photography, the eye is drawn to the small white boat at the center of the image (Positive Space). It is clearly outlined by the boundary lines of the mountains and water around it. The eye is led by the dark foreground (texture and lines), making a clear boundary line for the water and mountains – which also have clear boundary lines forming positive and negative space for each other. This leads up to the sky where we have meaningful merges with the clouds that say ‘distant high mountains’.

Using Positive and Negative Space Advantageously

The photograph’s goal is to keep the viewer’s eye engaged in the image. What this means is that the ‘subject’ needs to stand out, and elements in the ‘background’ must act as a container, or add context – without distracting. Think of your ‘subject’ as the soloist in an orchestra. You would want the background music to blend and harmonize with the solo and not overpower it. Below are some ways you can help the subject stand out:

  • Use strong background elements to lead or highlight the subject. Subject enhancers can be used to push the subject forward. This is done by highlighting areas of interest that help the eye travel. Some things considered to be subject enhancers are:
    • Bright spots
    • Warm colors (yellows and reds)
    • Things that are in focus
    • People
    • Eyes
    • Leading Lines (including hands and coastlines)
    • Strong contrast
    • Areas with shape and form
  • Use contrasting elements to create depth. Certain elements gravitate towards the background. Use these to achieve depth and context.
    • Low contrast between subject and background
    • Dark areas
    • Unfocused areas
    • Cooler colors (blues and greens)

Caution

If not executed properly, focal enhancers can unintentionally steal the show and become Positive Space. Also, contrasting elements can wash out an image or push the subject to the background, as in the example below:

In this image, the bird is the intended subject. However the white post steals the show. Also there is low contrast between the bird and the background, as the bird is almost the same color as the background. Thus, the intended subject fades to the back, making the white post with green foliage in the foreground more prominent.

“Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist”.
– Picasso


I am writing the Elements of Art articles to deepen the learning from Robin Griggs-Wood’s Art Basic Challenges.

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This Post Has 3 Comments

  1. adele Buttolph

    This is such a helpful post, Jamuna. Negative and positive space is one of the more challenging concepts to grasp. Your way of describing and providing examples works really well. Thanks.

  2. Chuck Lisner

    I love your examples to support your comments. I have seen the goblet and faces image many times but your comments brought it back to life with new emphasis.

  3. Patricia

    Another very helpful post from your Elements of Art articles. A good resource to recall our memories or to learn the main elements that make art even more powerful.

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