January 23, 2023

Negative Space (Why It's Such a Big Deal)

Authored By Lisa Larrabee

If you do an online image search for "negative space drawings," you will find many examples ranging from traditional academic exercises to very creative design solutions.  Variations of negative space exercises exist at all levels of drawing classes (whether or not it is explicitly labeled as such).  So, what is "negative space," and why is it such a big deal?

Negative Space is a term used in art to describe the Space around or between an object or multiple objects.  You can think of the object as the "positive" form you can typically touch (like a houseplant).  The "negative space" is all the space around the object you cannot touch (like the spaces around and between the leaves).

In this example, the positive form is a clipping from a fig tree.  There is a lot of detail that you may focus on if you were drawing, painting, or simply observing this subject.  There are overlapping leaves creating lighter and darker values and different shades of green.  There are subtle details like the veins along the surface or the textures of the branches.

When I blackout the positive shapes, we lose the previous detail.  The focus is still on the subject, but the emphasis is now on the unified shape created.  It is like a silhouette with flattened shapes.  This is an example of simplifying the figure-ground relationship.  Our figure-ground perception allows us to group visual information as foreground and background.

Creating an inverse of the black and white places more emphasis on the negative space.  These dark shapes carry more weight visually, making us pay more attention to them.  In the previous example, the negative shapes were white, which allowed our brain to dismiss these negative shapes as "nothing" in order to focus on what our brain perceived as "something."

The Danish psychologist Edgar Rubin developed the most recognizable example of the figure-ground relationship. When shown the first version (left), we notice the two profiles in silhouette because they carry the visual weight.  When the image is inverted (right), what was the negative space now has the visual weight, and we can more easily see the vase in between the faces.  The figure-ground relationship is flipped.  The vase becomes the "figure," and the profiles become the background.

Why Is Negative Space a Big Deal?


Negative space is equally as important as positive space.  You cannot draw an object accurately if the negative space is inaccurate.  If you develop your ability to focus on the negative space, you can use those negative shapes to more accurately draw the positive shapes.  The focus becomes less on what the subject is and more on the relationship between the shapes.  Viewing the negative space as simple shapes also makes them easier to draw.


Consider balancing the design elements between the positive and the negative shapes (or the figure-ground).  How you place and/or crop your subject can create interesting negative shapes within the boundary of your artwork.  You can comfortably balance the relationship between the positive and negative shapes or emphasize a greater amount of positive or negative space to support a mood or narrative.  It's your choice. There are also opportunities to play with the figure-ground relationship that create surprising illusions (like Rubin's vase).  Many examples of drawings, paintings, and graphic design use the positive/negative figure-ground relationship to great effect.  Search figure-ground illusions for some incredible examples.


Do not underestimate the power of editing.  Selecting what information to leave out is just as important as deciding what should be included.  Our natural tendency is to focus on the positive subject and ignore the space around it because our brain filters out the space as less important or "nothing."  There are so many interesting details in a subject (light and shadows, colors, textures, etc.) that it can be difficult to focus on the negative space.  However, you can reduce the details in your subject and emphasize the interesting shapes and variations within the negative space.  Creating artwork with dynamic negative space opens up so many many incredible possibilities.  You are missing a huge opportunity if you have ignored or neglected the negative space.

Emphasizing Negative Space

In this example, you can see that I began my painting by blocking in colors in a range of mid-values (nothing too light or dark).  I also layered pigments and built up some textures.  Once the surface was dry, I sketched some of the important shapes of the tree and the figure with paint.  There is very little detail in the primary or secondary subjects.

Spring Renewal -early painting stage, artist Lisa Larrabee

I created the strongest value and color contrast when I painted the negative spaces around the tree.  Nothing within the subject was painted equal to the light value of the sky.  I added very little information to the tree.  Mostly the landscape was painted around it.  I developed the figure to a degree but also left out much information.

Spring Renewal, oil on panel, artist Lisa Larrabee

People have often commented on the "pink flowers in the hair."  This is an example of the figure-ground relationship playing tricks in your mind.  Without the figure, the light pink daubs of paint read as the sky shows in between the gaps in the tree's foliage.  They are negative shapes that are part of the background.  However, if you focus on the figure, the painted daubs connect with the subject and become interpreted as flowers in the hair.

Art Challenge

  • Choose a  subject that has interesting negative shapes.  Look for examples with closed shapes (negative space surrounded by positive form).  
  • Organic shapes (like plants) are more forgiving.  Structured inorganic shapes (like a pair of scissors or a chair) will help you identify mistakes more easily.
  • Do NOT sketch in the guidelines of your subject. Try to hold the positive form in your mind, but do not draw it.
  • Draw the outline of a negative shape. "Jump over" from the positive form to the next negative shape.  I like to begin with a closed shape (like the examples in violet).

There are many variations to try.  I have students begin by toning paper (either with vine charcoal or graphite).  This is very forgiving because you can blend away mistakes into the tone and try again when needed. Once the negative space is drawn, you can either erase the tone from your subject (which emphasizes the negative space) or erase the negative space, which will reveal the positive subject.

You can also draw your negative shapes in pencil and color them when finished.  Have some fun adding color or whimsical patterns.  In school (at KCAI), I did numerous negative space studies using India ink and a brush. I couldn't go back to fix most mistakes, but the results were very graphic and bold.

Be prepared for your drawing to get off track because you aren't sketching in any guidelines.  That's expected.  Make the corrections and keep going. 

If you find it too difficult to draw only the negative space without any of the positive, give yourself very light guidelines, so you don't get lost.  Don't get discouraged.  The more time you spend concentrating on the negative space, the more your brain will get used to "seeing" it rather than ignoring it.  With practice, you will develop better drawing accuracy and make more interesting designs and composition choices that incorporate the positive and negative shapes more intentionally.

Did you accept the Art Challenge?  Share your progress on our private forum with friends of the Art Verve Academy.

Follow Lisa Larrabee
on her instructional blog at
or visit her website at

January 3, 2023

Why Make Studies?

Authored By Lisa Larrabee

Artists often create studies before beginning their artwork.  A study can be a detailed drawing or painting that allows the artist to observe a subject thoroughly and learn more about it.  Studies can also be quick, simple images that let the artist work through various options before committing. Each type of study could be its own article, but the following list is a summary:

  • Composition Studies focus on how different elements are placed within the boundaries of the artwork.  Many guidelines can help you make strong compositions, such as using the rule of thirds, a pyramid/triangle composition, an "S" composition, a circular path, etc.
  • Value Studies help to plan a value map within your composition.  This is an opportunity to group similar values to create larger unified shapes and contrast in areas of interest.  You can also establish a mood by exploring whether your artwork will have a high key (light value range), low key (dark value range) or whether it will include a full range from dark to light.
  • Color Studies should be based on your value study.  Experiment with various color choices to see how they impact the overall feeling of your piece.  Consider whether to use a limited or full-color palette.  You can also use color studies to create emphasis through color.
  • Detailed Studies are often more about observation and accuracy.  The purpose is to spend time with your subject and get to know the structure and form.  Studies may be done from different perspectives either to consider which angle is preferred or to better understand the subject.
  • Style/technique Studies can be used to explore which techniques you want to use or what options you have to stylize, exaggerate form, introduce textures or patterns, etc.

If studies are so helpful, why are so many developing artists resistant to doing them?  One reason that I hear the most is that they just don't want to spend the time.  They are excited to start and don't want to lose their initial energy or momentum.  Many artists jump right into their artwork and allow the challenges to be resolved through the process.  However, this has its risks!  Taking time at the start to explore your options through studies allows you to contrast what works and (just as importantly) what does not. 

It creates opportunities to resolve problems before they come up in your artwork.  This can save you from wasting time trying to resolve a problem on a larger piece that could have been addressed in a quick study.  Studies also allow you to explore some ideas you hadn't considered when you first started that may be more interesting than your initial plan.

Quick Study Demo

Reference Photo
Reference Photo

Let's look at some simple composition/value studies and the thought process I used when making changes from one to the next.

I took this photo hiking with my family.\x26nbsp; I thought the old, abandoned miners\x27 cabin looked quirky and had some interesting angles

It is important to identify what drew you to your subject.  It may be the shape, the lighting, the textures, or the mood.  When you are clear about what you found interesting, you can consciously use that information to guide you through the many choices that will present themselves.

These studies are small and quick (about 3-4").  I used a pencil to mass in simple value shapes and a sharpie to add the bold contrasting shapes.

Study #1

The first version on the left looks like the cabin is an isolated dark shape stuck to the side of the composition.  I darkened the value of the foreground to create a more integrated larger shape.  The change creates a more interesting division diagonally.  The lighter top shape is mirrored by, the darker bottom shape.  Still, the overall design looks boring.  Most importantly, it does not communicate what I found interesting about the subject.

Reference Photo
Study #2

With the second study, I chose to zoom in on the doorway.\x26nbsp; This allowed me to play up some of the funky angles of the cabin and give a glimpse into the angles inside that I found interesting.

As I sketched this study, I paid more attention to the stacked logs.  I realized there was an opportunity to play up the repeated pattern of the circles while also emphasizing how the building was falling apart.

There were still problems to address, but I felt I was getting closer to something interesting.

In the third study, I cropped out some of the heavy dark roof and adjusted the values to make the interior more visible.

Study #3

It is important to include the boundary you are designing within when creating your studies.  It is also important to leave extra space around the border.  This serves two functions.\x26nbsp; First, it creates a visual separation between each study so that the compositions don't run together.  Second, it allows you the room to extend the boundaries if you choose to.

Study #3 has three versions.  I wanted to lengthen the door and exaggerate the shape, so I extended the boundary at the bottom of the image.  However, I felt the door was too centered.  I also really enjoyed the irregular edge of the corrugated roof that had been cropped out of the picture.  By extending the boundary on the left side, I enhanced the diagonal pattern of circles and created a more interesting negative shape that echoes the triangular roof shapes.

Creating studies is all about exploring your options and problem-solving.\x26nbsp; Each study I did gave me new information.  I analyzed the study to identify what I felt was working and what wasn't working and then created another version based on my analysis.  The studies were quick and messy, but they gave me all the information I needed to create an image that captured what I found most interesting about the subject -the quirky, irregular angles inside and outside the cabin.

It would have been mediocre at best if I had skipped this process and jumped right into completing the finished piece.   All the techniques in the world cannot save a weak composition.   Most importantly, it would not have communicated what I found so exciting about this old cabin.  Take a little time to explore your options with some quick studies.  You may be surprised where they lead you.

Art Challenge

  • Choose your subject.  Ask yourself what it is that drew you to it. Be specific.  It will help in your decision-making.
  • Select from the list of studies (composition, value, color, detailed observation, or style/technique).
  • Explore your options.  See how each decision you make affects the outcome.
  • Choose the option that best communicates what you found most interesting about your subject.

Exploring your options through quick studies allows you to try things you wouldn't usually try.   Some will work, and some won't.  Learn from your successes and failures to determine what you want the piece to become.

Did you accept the Art Challenge?  Share your progress on our private forum with friends of the Art Verve Academy.

Follow Lisa Larrabee
on her instructional blog at
or visit her website at