Principles of Good Design: Space

In art, space refers to the distance or area between, around, above, below, or within shapes and forms in a composition. In this discussion, we will look at several different ways that 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. Positive and negative space are both important elements to consider in any good composition. They appear in both two-dimensional and three-dimensional art and complement one another.  One impacts and affects the reading of the other.


Positive Space

Principles of Good Design: SpacePositive space refers to the “occupied” areas of a work of art that are filled with lines, colors, and shapes. In other words, the primary subject matter of a painting; the animals, plants, buildings, mountains, vases, people, and so on that comprise your subject matter. It usually draws the eye and serves as the focal point of a composition.

In the example of the vase, positive space (the area in black) is the form itself, i.e., the vase, the individual letters, or the words “positive space.”

Negative Space

Principles of Good Design: SpaceOn the other hand, “negative space” is the unoccupied areas that surround the subject matter. It is more passive and is determined by the edges of the positive space it surrounds. Negative space helps to give meaning to the composition.

In the example, it’s 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? Negative space has weight and mass and plays a vital role in defining your subject. It is not simply the absence of something.

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, negative space is very much an essential element of artistic composition. In the example above, the negative space forms the shape of two men face to face.

Also, negative space is vital in a composition because it gives balance to positive space by giving the eye a place to rest, especially when the composition is quite busy.

Two- and Three-dimensional Space

two-dimensionalTwo-dimensional (2D) space is found on a flat surface such as a canvas or paper. It has no depth, only length, and width.  It consists of straight or curved lines or both and may have any number of sides.

In the example, the two-dimensional image appears flat because all the objects and forms lie on the same plane. It has no feeling of depth. However, the same two-dimensional space can be made to appear three-dimensional by giving it a sense of depth.

Rubins_vaseThree-dimensional (3D) space has width, height, and depth. When we look at a flat canvas and have the sensation of looking at spaces and objects that appear to have depth, we are receiving and believing a group of visual signals working to create the illusion of three-dimensional shapes and areas. This occurs when a sensation of space that seems to have height, width, and depth is visually created, as it has been done with the vase in the example shown.

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.

Creating 3D Space on a Flat Surface

The tools needed for creating the illusion of three-dimensional space are:

    • Overlapping objects
    • Changing the size and placement of related objects
    • Linear perspective
    • Relative hue and value
    • Atmospheric perspective

Overlapping objects within your composition are the most straightforward 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 changing the size and placement of related objects. For example, when two shapes are the same size and are placed on the same plane, the image appears relatively flat and does not have much depth. However, by simply varying the size and placement of the shapes, a stronger 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 set higher up.

Principles of Good Design: SpaceLinear 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 also be visible (on the canvas) or imaginary (somewhere off the canvas).

Using relative hue and value to create 3D space on a flat canvas surface are essential cues that tell us whether an object is nearby or far away. In general, warm colors or hues tend to appear closer, whereas cool shades tend to recede away from the viewer. On the same token, close objects tend to exhibit brighter, richer hues and more contrasting values, including extremes of dark and light. However, distant objects tend to be either similar or neutral in value and exhibit grayer shades. Thus, colors close in value are perceived as being on or near the same plane, but colors with strong contrast in value appear on separate planes.

Atmospheric perspective combines several tools already described above. This essential 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 how 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, and objects become less defined and lack detail.

Deep Space In Art

When used effectively, all the tools needed to cultivate the illusion of three-dimensional space will create a sense of “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 in a painting that visually appears 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 choose to create a three-dimensional illusion. 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 several ways to create the illusion of distance or depth on a flat surface. Here are some of those ways:

  1. Objects that are further away will appear smaller than those close up. Those same objects will also grow less distinct the further away they are. Their colors will fade and blend into the background colors.
  2. Objects which are placed higher on a plane create the feeling of depth or distance. Thus, the viewer senses that they are standing away from the objects and that there is a large amount of space in the foreground.
  3. Overlapping shapes tend to create a feeling of depth.
  4. Arrangement of lights. When light is contrasted against dark, a sense of depth is felt.
  5. Converging lines. As they move away into the distance, parallel lines appear to come closer together to form a vanishing point that may or may not be seen. An excellent example of this is a road or a path.
  6. 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 in Art

Positive and Negative Space

Good Design Principle: Space3D-negative-space

The flat back shadows and background in the painting on the left provide an excellent 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

overlapping-objects1 overlapping-objects2

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.

For example, the Statue of Liberty overlaps the river and the horizon, which helps create a greater sense of depth than the other painting. In the painting with the statue, we get the sensation of deep space, and in the other painting, the space is shallow.

Changing Size and Placement

size-placement1 Good Design Principle: Space

Changing the size and placement of the objects in these two paintings helps give more depth to the painting. For example, changing the size of the Indians makes them appear far away in the painting with the cowboy. Likewise, placing the ballerinas on a higher plane than those in the front pushes them farther away into the background.

Linear Perspective

perspective1 perspective2 perspective3

Can you see how perspective has given the paintings above a sense of depth? The three paintings above have powerful one- or two-point perspective, which helps create the illusion of three-dimension.

In the first painting, perspective gives the sensation that the train is moving away, yet it pulls you down the hallway in the next painting.

Perspective can also make objects appear in 3D as it does in the painting of the building. The artist has used two-point perspective to create an object that seems to have volume. Without two-point perspective, this building would lack depth and appear flat.

Hue and Value

hue1 hue2

Warm colors pull you up close. Cool colors recede off into the distance. The landscape painting is a good example of this tool in use.

In the second painting, light moves toward you, and darkness moves off into the background.

Atmospheric Perspective

Good Design Principle: Space atmospheric-perspective2

As objects move off into the distance, they become less detailed and grayer. For example, notice the horizon and the mountain in these two paintings.

For more information about atmospheric perspective, see Using Atmospheric Perspective To Create Depth in Your Paintings.

Deep Space

deep-space1 deep-space2

When used effectively, all the tools (overlapping, perspective, atmosphere, hue, and value) can create the sensation of deep space.


  1. What is the definition of space when it is applied to art?
  2.  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.

Principles of Good Design: An Introduction

Principles of Good Design: Balance

Principles of Good Design: Contrast

Principles of Good Design: Emphasis

Principles of Good Design: Movement

Principles of Good Design: Proportion

Principles of Good Design: SpaceYou are here.

Principles of Good Design: Visual Economy

Principles of Good Design: Unity

Want More Art Lessons?

After you’ve finished the lessons on the Principles of Good Design, why not move on to the Basic Art Elements? To begin, go to The Basic Elements of Art(An Introduction)

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UPDATED: 07 April 2023

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