Space in art refers to the distance or area between, around, above, below, or within shapes and forms found within a composition. In this discussion we will be taking a closer look at several different ways space is used in art. These are:
- Positive space
- Negative space
- Two-dimensional space
- Three-dimensional space
Positive and Negative Space
There are two types of space in art: positive and negative. Both positive and negative space are important factors to be considered in every good composition. They occur in both two-dimension and three-dimension art and are complementary to one another. One impacts on and affects the reading of the other.
Positive space is the “occupied” areas in a work of art that is filled with something such as lines, colors and shapes. It is the primary subject matter of a painting; the animals, plants, building, mountain, vase, people, etc., that forms your area-of-interest. It dominates the eye and is the focal point in a composition.
In the example here, positive space (the area in black) is represented as the forms themselves… i.e. the vase, the individual letters, or the words “positive space”. It is the opposite of negative space.
Negative space is the unoccupied areas that surround the subject matter. It is more passive in nature and is defined by the edges of the positive space it surrounds. It is what gives definition to our composition.
In the example, it is the “empty space” (the area in black) or unoccupied areas that lies between objects, shapes and forms within a composition, and is also the space in the background that is not at first noticeable. It goes in all directions and goes on forever. It flows in, around and between shapes and objects.
Do you see the shapes in negative space? These shapes have substance or mass and is not simply the absence of something. This is important to remember. Negative space has weight and mass, and plays an important role in defining your subject.
Negative space is most evident when the space around a subject matter, and not the form itself, forms an interesting or artistically relevant shape. In this case the use of negative space is very much a key element of the artistic composition. In the example above, the negative space forms a shape of two men face to face.
Negative space is important in a composition because it gives balance to positive space by giving the eye a place to rest. This is a basic element that is often overlooked as a principle of a good design.
Two and Three-dimensional Space
Two-dimensional space is found on a flat surface such as a canvas. It has no depth, only length and width. In our example, the image appears flat because all the objects and forms lie on the same plane. There is no feeling of depth. However, the same space can be used to make a two-dimensional artwork appear three-dimensional by giving a feeling of depth. Three-dimensional space has width, height and depth.
When we look at a flat surface and have the sensation of looking at spaces and objects that appear to have depth, then we are receiving and believing a group of visual signals working to create the illusion of three-dimensional shapes and spaces within the painting.
These three-dimensional signals are so common in nature that we are almost unaware of them. Yet in the hands of a skilled artist these 3D cues can be used to create the illusion of three-dimension on a flat canvas surface. This occurs when a sensation of space which seems to have height, width and depth are visually created as it has been done with the vase in the example shown on the right.
The tools needed for creating the illusion of three-dimensional space are:
- Overlapping objects
- Changing size and placement of related objects
- Linear perspective
- Relative hue and value
- Atmospheric perspective
Overlapping objects within your composition is the simplest tool you can use for creating three-dimensional space in your painting or drawing. The effect is achieved by allowing the contour of one form to be interrupted by the contour of another form, so that it looks like one form is physically sitting in front of the other.
Another simple tool for creating the illusion of 3D space is by changing size and placement of related objects. When two shapes are the same size and are placed on the same plane, the image tends to appear rather flat and not have much depth to it. However by simply varying the size and placement of the shapes a greater sensation of depth is created.
As a rule of thumb, larger objects tend to appear closer to the viewer and smaller ones tend to recede into the background. Also objects placed lower on the canvas appear closer in distance than those which are placed higher up.
Linear perspective (a.k.a. converging lines) is a graphical system used by artists to create the illusion of depth and volume on a flat surface. As objects move away from the viewer they appear to grow smaller and converge toward a vanishing point at the horizon line. The effective use of linear perspective creates this illusion of diminishing size by treating the edges as converging parallel lines. The vanishing point may be in any direction the viewer looks, including up, and may be visible (on the canvas) or imaginary (somewhere off the canvas).
Using hue and value to create 3D space on a flat canvas surface are very important cues that tell us whether an object is near by or far away. In general, warm colors or hues tend appear closer, whereas cool hues tend to recede away from the viewer. On the same token, close objects tend to exhibit brighter, richer hues, and/or more contrasting in values, including extremes of dark and light. However, distant objects tend to be either similar or neutral in value, and exhibit grayer hues. Colors that are close in value are perceived as being on or near the same plane, but colors that have strong contrast in value appear on separate planes.
Atmospheric perspective combines several tools already described above. This important tool operates when objects that are far away lack contrast, detail, and texture. As objects get farther away, atmospheric perspective shows color gradually fading to a bluish gray and details blurring, imitating the way distant objects appear to the human eye.
As a rule of thumb when using this tool, remember that colors tend to pale and fade as they recede into the distance. Objects become less defined and lack detail.
When used effectively all of these tools to create the illusion of three-dimensional space will create a sense of what is referred to as deep space within your painting. In deep space there are three terms used to describe depth:
- Foreground is the area of a painting that visually appears closest to the viewer. It is often located on a lower plane or bottom of the canvas.
- Middle ground is space that makes up the distance between the foreground and background of a painting. There is no specific measurement for what the limits are. Typically it is located somewhere on the middle plane of the canvas.
- Background is the area of a painting that visually appears to be far away in the distance at or near the horizon. It is usually located on a higher plane of the canvas.
Since a flat surface such as a canvas contains only two-dimensional space, an artist may wish to create the illusion of three-dimension. When an artist begins to cut, divide and rearrange the surface space of a flat surface, the illusion of depth may appear. Even the slightest manipulation of line, value or color will generate the illusion of three-dimensional space.
There are a number of ways to create the illusion of distance or depth on a flat surface. Here are some of those ways:
- Objects that are further away, will appear smaller than those close by. Those same objects will also grow less distinct the further away they are. Their colors will fade and blend into the background colors.
- Objects which are placed higher on a plane create the feeling of depth or distance. The viewer senses that he or she is standing away from the objects and that there is a large amount of space in the foreground.
- Overlapping shapes tend to create a feeling of depth.
- Arrangement of lights. When light is contrasted against dark, a sense of depth is felt.
- Converging lines. Parallel lines, as they move away into the distance, appear to come closer together to form a vanishing point which may or may not be seen. A good example of this is a road or a path.
- Colors. Warm and bright colors appear closer, whereas cool or dull colors tend to recede into the distance.
Click for more information about perspective in drawing.
Examples of the effective use of Space
Positive and Negative Space
The flat back shadows and background in the painting on the left provides a good example of the effective use of positive and negative space in this two dimensional painting.
The painting on the right demonstrates positive and negative space in a three dimensional painting. Can you see the positive and negative here? The fish occupies the positive space and the water represents the negative space around the fish.
Overlapping objects is a helpful tool for creating an illusion of 3D. Depending on how it is applied can give a sense of deep or shallow space within a composition.
The Statue of Liberty in the painting on the left overlapping the river and the horizon helps to create a greater sense of depth than the painting that is on the right. On the left we get the sensation of deep space. On the right the space a shallow.
Changing Size and Placement
Changing the size and placement of the objects in these two paintings helps give more depth to the painting. Changing the size of the Indians makes them appear far away in the painting on the left. On the right, the ballerinas are on a higher plane than the ones in the front pushes them farther away into the background.
Can you see how perspective has given the three paintings above a sense of depth?
Both of these paintings have very strong one-point perspective which helps create the illusion of three dimension.
Perspective gives you the sensation that the train is moving away from you and yet it pulls you down the hallway with it in the painting on the right.
Perspective can also make objects appear 3D. The artist of this building used two point perspective to create an object that appears to have volume. Without two point perspective this building would lack depth and appear flat.
Hue and Value
Warm colors pull you up close. Cool colors recede off into the distance. The painting on the left is a good example of this tool in use.
On the right, light moves toward you and darkness moves off into the background.
As objects move off into the distance they become less detailed and more gray. For example notice the horizon and the mountain in these two paintings.
For more information about atmospheric perspective see article titled Creating Depth in Your Paintings via Atmospheric Perspective.
When used effectively all the tools (overlapping, perspective, atmosphere, hue and value) can create the sensation of deep space.
- What is the definition of space when it is applied to art?
- What are some ways space is used in art?
Your Next Art Lesson
If you enjoyed this lesson, be sure to check out another one in this series.
Good Design Principle: Space
More Art Lessons
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UPDATED: 26 October 2020