Basic Art Element — Space

Basic Art Element — Space
A good example of positive and negative space. Painting by Teresa Bernard.

Space is a basic art element that refers to the distance between the area around and within shapes, forms, colors, and lines. Space can be positive or negative. It includes the background, foreground, and middle ground. Both positive and negative space can play essential roles in the overall success of a work of art. By understanding the difference between the two, you will:

    • Become better at designing unified compositions.
    • Be more successful in visually communicating your story.
    • Gain important clues about the meaning of an art piece.

Two types of space exist within art — positive space and negative space. Positive space is the actual objects or shapes within an artwork, and negative space is the space around and between those objects. An excellent way to demonstrate positive and negative space is by utilizing Rubin’s vase. (Refer to illustration.) As you can see, the vase occupies what would be referred to as positive space, and the space surrounding the vase is negative space. Notice how the negative space is forming silhouettes of two faces in profile.

Basic Art Element Space

Positive Space

Positive space is the area or part of the composition that an object or subject occupies. It is usually the main focus of the painting, such as a vase of flowers, fruit, or candle in a still life, a person’s face in a portrait, or an animal in a wildlife painting, or a building, trees, and hills in a landscape. When used skillfully, positive space will add interest by enhancing and balancing the negative space in a composition.

Negative Space

Negative space is that empty or open space that surrounds an object. It helps define the object, gives it some breathing room to prevent the painting from being too crowded, and significantly impacts how the art piece is perceived.

An interesting thing about negative space is that it can prompt viewers to seek out subtly hidden images within the negative space, causing your design to get more attention and be remembered while other less interesting works aren’t.

Why is negative space so important?

  1. It can add interest and is an excellent way to draw attention to your works of art. A good balance between great negative space and intrigue will cause the viewer to desire more time to look at your work of art.
  2. It can draw the viewer in, giving them a sense of inclusion because they discovered a subtle, hidden message or image in the composition. Even though it may be a simple composition, great negative space reveals there is more to the piece than first meets the eye, making it a more rewarding experience for the viewer.
  3. It gives the eye a “place to rest,” thereby adding to the subtle appeal of the composition. The equal amounts of both negative and positive are considered by many to be good design.


  1. Does a negative space have shape?
  2. In what ways is negative space important to the overall success of a composition?

Additional Information

Principles of Good Design: Space

Your Next Art Lesson

If you enjoyed this lesson, be sure to check out another one in this series.

The Basic Elements of Art (Introduction)

Basic Art Element — Color, Part 1

Basic Art Element — Color, Part 2

Basic Art Element — Line

Basic Art Element — Space — You are here

Basic Art Element — Texture

Basic Art Element — Value

More Art Lessons

Good Design Principle: An Introduction

Good Design Principle: Balance

Good Design Principle: Contrast

Good Design Principle: Emphasis

Good Design Principle: Movement

Good Design Principle: Proportion

Good Design Principle: Space

Good Design Principle: Visual Economy

Good Design Principle: Unity

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UPDATED: 07 June 2021

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