Basic Art Element — Space

Space is one of the basic elements of art. It refers to the distance between or 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 important 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.

There are two types of space that 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. A good 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.

positive and negative 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 wild life 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 to define the object, gives it some breathing room to prevent the painting from being too crowded and has a huge impact on how the art piece is perceived.

An interesting thing about negative space is it can be used to prompt viewers to seek out subtle hidden images within the negative space causing your design to get more attention and to 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 looking 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 is 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 — Form

Basic Art Element — Line

Basic Art Element — Shape

Basic Art Element — Space

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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Creating Better Compositions In All Your Paintings

A composition is the careful placement of the various elements within a painting. It can either be a good composition or a not so good one. When the composition is done successfully, however, it will draw the viewer’s gaze into and around the painting surface leading it from one element to another taking everything in and finally resting on the main subject of the painting.

The purpose of this article is to equip the painter with the tools needed to help him/her build better compositions within all their paintings. Three composition techniques that every painter should use are (1) the rule of thirds, (2) the rule of odds, and (3)  the rule of space. Let me explain each.

Rule of Thirds

rule of thirds example
Rule of Thirds

The rule of thirds is a useful guideline used by many professional photographers to aide them when composing the subject matter of their photographs. It is also a very helpful technique that can be used by painters as well.

The idea behind this rule is to divide your painting surface into 9 equal parts. Then position the most important elements in the scene along these lines, or at the points where they intersect.

To create a landscape composition, follow these steps:

    1. Divide your canvas into 9 equal segments by drawing 2 vertical and 2 horizontal lines at the 1/3 and 2/3 measurements creating a grid.
    2. Determine where the horizon is going to be, ether on the top horizontal line or the bottom line.
    3. Arrange the most important elements of your subject matter at one or more of the points where the lines intersect (also referred to as ‘hotspots’).

The rule of thirds states that a painting has a stronger composition and is much more interesting to view if the center of interest is not directly in the center of the canvas, but rather at one of the four focal points where the vertical and horizontal lines intersect. By placing a secondary object at the opposite intersection, balance in the composition can be achieved.

In the instance of the example above, note how the horizon falls close to the bottom grid line, and how the subject matter (the tree) is placed at an intersecting area on the left. By doing this, it has served to add balance and create interest in the composition.

When you apply the rule of thirds to your work, it guarantees you’ll never have a painting that’s split in half, either vertically or horizontally, nor one with the main focus right in the center like a bull’s-eye. When a subject matter is placed directly in the center of the canvas it tends draw the eye into the center and the rest of the painting is ignored. When the subject matter is located on or near a hotspot, the eye is drawn to the focal point and then around the painting creating a flow or movement from one element to the next.

Rule of Odds

rule of odds example
Rule of Odds

The rule of odds states that a composition is much more interesting to look at when it contains an odd number of elements rather than an even amount. An even number will have the tendency to create symmetries that can quickly become boring and uninteresting to look at.

When we see multiple objects that are even in number our mind tries to group them into pairs, which often leaves the center of a scene empty. The human eye is naturally attracted to the center and an even number of elements creates an empty space in that center. Having an odd number of things in a composition means our eye and brain can’t pair them up or group them easily. There’s somehow always one thing left over, which keeps our eyes moving across the composition.

The rule of odds also applies when there is a single subject surrounded by an even number of supporting subjects. In this way there will always be an element in the center “framed” by an even number of surrounding objects. This framing is more comforting to the eye and thus creates a feeling of ease and pleasure.

Rule of Space

rule of space example
Rule of Space

The rule of space as it applies to art is a simple technique that creates a sense of motion, activity or conclusion in a composition. It involves creating negative space that relates to the focal point. Some things to keep in mind are:

    • When painting a portrait (whether a person or animal), if your subject is not looking directly at you, leave some negative space in the direction the eyes are looking even if they are looking at something off-canvas.
    • When picturing a moving object, such as runner or vehicle, placing negative space in front of the runner or object rather than behind creates a sense of direction or implication of eventual destination.
    • If your subject is pointing at something or aiming at an object place some negative space where the subject is pointing or aiming.

These techniques can be very useful to the artist in creating a good composition. They work best when used together and not individually.

Additional Reading

Principles of Good Design: An Introduction

Two Composition Techniques to Use in Your Paintings

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