Research Point: Positive and negative space

In this part of the course I was introduced to the concepts of positive and negative space, both of which are essential for achieving a balance in a whole drawing/artwork, but is not something I had really given much thought to before.

The first thing I did was to look up a definition of the terms, and found the following, on very useful, especially as it gave a very familiar example of an optical illusion I remember seeing as a child:


Rabbit-Duck illusion

Fig. 1

“Positive space refers to the main focus of a picture, while negative space refers to the background.[…] The term negative space is something of a misnomer. It emphasizes the idea that the viewer constructs his or her own meaning from the image. Negative space is never blank. It is designed to support the foreground of the picture.” (Roberts, 2017)
The example given in this is the image on the left (Figure 1) of a depiction of what could either be a rabbit or a duck. If the viewer chooses to see the image of a rabbit, the duck image fades into the background, and vice versa.

I have started looking at a couple of artists whose work features strong use of positive and negative spaces,

Patrick Caulfield

Patrick Caulfield was a painter and printmaker who was known for his bold style. Although he was often compared to pop artists of the same period, Caulfield very much considered himself a “‘formal’ artist” (Feaver, 2015)

One example of his work, is the following:

Patrick Caulfield, 'Coloured Still Life' 1967

Fig. 2

Coloured Still Life is a screenprint that was made in 1967, and uses bold colours and overlapping images to create a sense of perspective to the objects depicted. The block of blue colour in the background brings focus to the still life objects.

Patrick Caulfield, ‘Still Life with Dagger’ 1963

Fig. 3

Still Life with Dagger intrigued me, as it made innovative use of space, which in one sense flattens the image, but the way that the beads are positioned and drawn gives it a perspective again. It is interesting using the same colour to ‘fill’ the jug, as the background (or table?). It may be that this is intended to indicate that the jug is made of glass or some other transparent material.

Patrick Caulfield, 'The Hermit' 1967

Fig. 4

Another image I found by Caulfield was not a still life, but it did have an interesting use of positive and negative space. The Hermit consists of only the three primary colours, and it is up to the viewer to decide how they want to interpret this: which is the positive space and which is negative. The red appears to be a rocky surface, such as a cave, but the orange could either be a view outside the cave, or a view inside the cave, since the colours are abstract. This reminded me of the tarot card of the same title, especially because of how open it was to interpretation!

Gary Hume

Gary Hume is another British artist whose work uses similar colourful yet minimal techniques to that of Caulfield, with strong uses of positive and negative space.

Fig. 5

Vicious, above, uses negative space to show the silhouette of a person, while the background of flowers, is shown with bolder colours and a bit more detail.

More artists’ work

I then looked for other artists that incorporate positive and negative spaces in their work and found the following that particularly stood out:

Still life with vases on a table, 1931 - Giorgio Morandi

Fig. 6

Figure 6, which is Georgio Morandi’s Still Life with Vases on the Table, uses postive and negative spaces to show the objects that are being portrayed. The main shapes in this composition are assumed to be the white shapes of the objects, but then, having identified them and the white shapes as being negative spaces, I then focus on the shapes behind the white spaces, which occupy the positive space.


Composition is something I often find difficult, and I want to look more at the use of positive and negative spaces as I progress.

Some of the suggestions in the coursebook include:

  • Using thumbnail sketches to work out a composition -this is something I already try to do, but which I could do a lot more of;
  • Remembering that I don’t need to include all of the objects I am drawing – this is something I often forget, and results in either too much white space on the paper or distorted objects as I try to fit them all in;
  • Contrast – this can be acheived through colour, tone or shape;
  • Repetition of shape, colour or theme;
  • Using alternate formats of paper or materials to draw on.


Figure 1, unknown artist. Sourced from: Roberts, Ivy (2017) Positive & Negative Space in Art: Definition & Examples. Available at: (accessed on 04.04.17)

Figure 2. Caulfield, Patrick (1967) Coloured Still Life. Available at: (accessed 05.04.17)

Figure 3. Caulfield, Patrick (1963) Still Life with Dagger. Available at: (accessed 05.04.17)

Figure 4. Caulfield, Patrick (1967) The Hermit. Available at: (accessed 05.04.17)

Figure 5. Hume, Gary (2010) Vicious. Available at: (accessed 05.04.17)

Figure 6. Morandi, Georgio (1931) Still Life With Vases On A Table. Available at: (accessed 05.04.17)


Roberts, Ivy (2017) Positive & Negative Space in Art: Definition & Examples. Available at: (accessed on 04.04.17)

Kaupelis, Robert (1980) Experimental Drawing. Watson-Guptill Publications: New York.

Feaver, William (2015) Patrick Caulfield Obituary. Available at:  (accessed 05.04.17)



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