Part Two: Research Point: Today’s Artists’ use of Positive and Negative Space

What are Positive and Negative Space?

All pieces of art consist of positive and negative space. ‘Positive’ space is the area of a piece which contains understandable visual information; a person’s features, a flower’s petals, leaves and stem, and so on. ‘Negative’ space is the area of a piece which contains no understandable visual information, such as a background and is a very important tool in the construction of all pieces of art. The balance between positive and negative space is meant to be rather equal and complementary to one another.

Whilst artists may work in different ways (such as expressionism, cubism or surrealism), positive and negative space is always there. When you first think about creating a piece, you are presented with a blank page with no visual information at all. This is completely negative space and creates no visual stimuli whatsoever. If you were to draw the outline of a circle, the outline would become the positive space, with negative space both around and inside it. By adding tone by drawing or painting to the inside of the circle, you would be creating more positive space in the piece and changing the ball into a sphere or a hole, if coloured in completely and depending on the styles used. If detail was added to the outside of the circle, this would then become the positive space, leaving a hole inside the circle in the remaining negative space.

Artists, whether in drawing, painting or sculpting, have used positive and negative space throughout the history of time, a few examples of which are shown below.

Comparison of Works

I came across a few artists whose work really caught my eye, (as shown below) and compared their styles. The results of my findings are as shown below:

Fig. 1. Caulfield, P Pitcher (1981-1982) Fig. 2. Hume, G Waterpainting (1999) Fig. 3. Durrant, J Watercolour (2013) Fig. 4. Bar, N Pointed Sense (unknown)
Patrick Caulfield was a British artist who was renowned for his bold colours and simplified images.  His work has often been linked with the Pop Art movement, but he was not happy about this as he viewed his work as more formal in nature. Gary Hume is a British artist who is associated with the Young British Artists (‘YBA’) generation.  He works with only a small selection of colours and simplifies the visual information within his pieces.  Hume has made comment about how his pieces are all religious. Jessica Durrant is an American artist who specialises in the fashion, beauty and lifestyle genres and illustration.  She also uses positive and negative space regularly within her work.  Whilst I cannot find any religious connotations in her work, Durrant uses a very strong focus on the female form and in empowering women. Noma Bar is an Israeli graphic designer and illustrator who works with simplified images without excess visual information to avoid distraction and the strong use of positive and negative space.  Whilst I cannot see any references to religion in the pieces per se, I know Bar follows the Jewish religion, so I believe his upbringing in this religion will have some form of impact in his work, even if indirectly.
This piece appears somewhat differently to the rest.  Instead of using the negative space to imply an alternative image, this artist appears to use the negative space as part of the positive image by carefully placing certain shapes in precise locations so as to help the viewer’s brain create an imagined outline and thus the complete object.  This piece is fascinating in a completely different way to the others, but I think it very clever in its own unique way.  This piece was created using screen print on paper. This piece appears to be the silhouette of a woman (or several women, perhaps) who are moving either towards the ‘lens’ or away from it.  The piece is monochrome in colours and simply consists of what appears to be a background of green and a white continual line drawing of the woman / women layered on top of each other in white.  The piece was created using household paint on an aluminium panel, as is the artist’s preferred method. This piece appears to be the side view of a woman’s face in the negative space.  It appears as though the positive space in the piece is the watercoloured part as it is the only section with visual information, but yet is the background of the image.  I think it rather fascinating as I find myself constantly questioning which part of the piece is the positive and which the negative!  The piece was created with watercolours, but I also wonder whether the artist used masking fluid to ensure there was no bleeding of the colour. This piece appears to be computer-generated, having a green negative background and the positive foreground silhouette of a moving dog who is exiting through the right-hand side of the piece.  When looking again, what originally appeared to me as a negative background can actually be interpreted as a positive foreground of the silhouette of the front end of a moving dog entering the piece from the left-hand side.  This piece is fascinating to me as I am constantly pulled between the two silhouettes as to which is the ‘real’ animal.  Perhaps it is actually a pack of dogs / wolves etc caught mid-prowl?
The colour in this piece makes me consider that the contents of the pitcher must be hot or at least warm – perhaps coffee? The overall colouring of the piece is warm in nature, so perhaps it is actually misleading and the pitcher is actually filled with cold juice? In this piece, I can see the woman / women moving around the piece.  The movement appears chaotic and frantic to me due to the many overlapping lines. This piece reminds me of cold, running water and wonder if perhaps she is in the shower washing away her tribulations of the day? In this piece, I can hear a dog barking, imagine being able to stroke its fur and tail.  I imagine a very strong, confident dog.  The simplicity works rather well in the sense that a dog’s life is rather simple; he eats, drinks, sleeps… There are no worries for the average dog about working, paying bills etc.
This piece differs from the rest in the way it uses the negative space, allowing the mind to complete the outline of the pitcher, whereas the rest show the outline completely and do not require the viewer’s mind to fill the blanks.  Similar to Bar’s piece, the colours and shapes are made of solid blocks of colour. This piece is similar to Durrant’s piece as it seems to focus on women, showing an appreciation for their form, as well as only using two colours.  This piece is similar to Bar’s piece in the sense it has several perspectives instead of one single one. Again, this piece is similar to Hume’s piece as it focuses on women and also the contrast between the white of the page and the blue paint. Similar to Hume’s piece, this has more than one perspective; showing the front end and then the back end of a dog.  This piece differs from Durrant’s piece as it has only flat, solid colours, similar to that of Hume’s and Caulfield’s pieces.
I find the white space in this piece to be the main point of emphasis, but also rather confusing and frustrating as I cannot see the need for it to be there.  The background is a completely different colour, so this cut out space appears to be solid.  If trying to imagine holding the pitcher up, I can only imagine hitting something such as a solid piece of plastic or ceramic etc, which I find really frustrating.  I really just want to colour the section in to match the rest of the background.  Perhaps this was done by the artist on purpose to create such frustration? The points of emphasis in this piece are the lines used and the eyes, lips breasts of the woman / women. For me, the strongest point of emphasis to this piece is the divide between the positive and negative space; between the white space and the coloured space.  There are strong, dark features to the face in the eyes / brow and lips. The black in this piece is much bolder than the green, which is rather mellow, so is the main point of emphasis to this piece.
Due to the bold, solid shapes used in this piece, I cannot see any expressive marks here at all. This piece is full of expressive qualities in respect of the constant flow of lines and the mass of faces. The running colour and the hair in this piece provide quite a nice amount of expressive quality. Due to the solid shapes in this piece, there is not much in the way of expression, which appears only available in the quiffs of the fur.
Whilst I find the colours in this piece somewhat soothing to my eye, I am also increasingly frustrated due to the handle. I find this piece rather chaotic and frustrating and too much visual information for my liking. This piece makes me feel inspired and empowered as a woman.  However, I also feel somewhat sad; perhaps this is because I question what the character in the piece may have endured and what the ‘tears’ may represent. This piece also makes me feel emboldened as I cant help but feel as a member of the pack would; needed, on a mission, determined to continue their current mission, perhaps to find prey.
This piece is very successful in the fact it is able to request the viewer’s brain to fill the blanks due to the perfect placement of the shapes used.  As stated above, however, I do not like the space inside the handle and find it rather disappointing and frustrating. I think the successes of this piece are the contrast between the green and the white and the movement.  As stated above, I do not enjoy this piece as much as some of the others as the eye is pulled in too many directions all at once and I find it rather confusing and chaotic. I really like the outline and separation of the two sections in this piece, as well as the contrast between the two.  However, I think the several spots of paint on the face of the woman let the piece down somewhat.  I think it would be better if it had been created without this inclusion. This piece offers a strong double-meaning within it and also the movement.  However, I think the face is too large for the rest of the body.
For this piece, I would use markers and collage on coloured paper. If I were to recreate this piece, I would use masking fluid with watercolours acrylic or ink creating an overlay before removing the masking fluid. For this piece, I would use ink over masking fluid.  Whilst I know this piece was created with watercolours, I would be interested to see what results could be achieved using the same method but with inks. For this, I would use a black marker on a muted coloured page.

Experimentation

I decided to experiment in my sketchbook in different media with the concept of positive and negative space.

Experimentation with Positive and Negative Space

I first tried to use PVA glue and the wax of a candle to create the ‘negative’ space when layering over the different media.  I was rather disappointed with the PVA glue as it did not provide as much resistance as I thought it would.  If anything, it reminded me of the trail a snail would leave; rather shimmery in appearance.  It was interesting, however, as it seemed like a hidden message within the piece which only became visible when looked at in a certain way – this started to remind me of my research into Redon’s Two Trees and the fact that the average viewer would generally glance at the piece quickly and then move on without giving enough time to actually see the hidden message.  I think I may potentially use this again moving forward; perhaps to show a hidden message, or maybe to add a sort of pearlized shimmer to certain objects.  The candle wax, however, provided a fantastic amount of colour separation and a clear negative space, however, the grease in it seemed to ruin the page on the other side of my sketchbook in places and due to the fact it reset rather quickly with cooling, I think I could only really use this method on rather thick material or material I do not wish to use the other side of and only for places I wish there to be expressive marks made as the lack of control is to temperamental to try and use for a specific shape or object.

I then came across something called masking fluid, which I had never heard of before.  I decided to experiment with it by drawing around my hand on the page over the different mediums and then adding a wash of diluted ink over the top before removing the masking fluid to reveal the surface underneath.

Reflection

I think I have found a real appreciation for the positive and negative space within artwork and how important a role both play in all pieces. I’ve realised there is a delicate balance between the two and getting them both right can lead to phenomenal results.

I was actually really pleased with how easily the masking fluid was removed and how crisp the lines were underneath in my experiment.  This is definitely something I really want to use again in my future pieces and perhaps also my final piece for this part of the course.

NB: Citation for images used in my sketchbook can be found by clicking here.

List of Illustrations

Fig. 1. Caulfield, P (1981-1982) Pitcher [Screenprint on paper] At: https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/caulfield-pitcher-p78308 (Accessed on 13 March 2019)

Fig. 2. Hume, G (1999) Water Painting [Household pain on aluminium panel] At: https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/hume-water-painting-t07618 (Accessed on 19 March 2019)

Fig. 3.  Durrant, Jessica (2013) Watercolour [Watercolour paints] At: https://plus.google.com/photos/116570597784626887840/albums/5927011673564805793/5927011675196366658?pid=5927011675196366658&oid=116570597784626887840 (Accessed on 19 March 2019)

Fig. 4. Bar, N (unknown) Pointed Sense [Computer-generated] At: https://www.dutchuncle.co.uk/noma-bar-selected-images (Accessed on 20 March 2019)

Bibliography

Fussell, M (unknown) ‘Positive and Negative Space’ In The Virtual Instructor.com [online] At: https://thevirtualinstructor.com/positive-and-negative-space.html (accessed on 11 March 2019)

Tate (unknown) ‘Gary Hume born 1962’ In Tate.org [online] At: https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artists/gary-hume-2403 (Accessed on 11 March 2019)

Jessica Durrant (unknown) ‘’[online] At: http://jessicadurrant.com/about (Accessed on 12 March 2019)

Dutch Uncle (unknown) ‘’[online] At: https://www.dutchuncle.co.uk/noma-bar-selected-images (Accessed on 11 March 2019)

Wikipedia (2019) ‘’ [online] At: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Noma_Bar (Accessed on 12 March 2019)

Tate (unknown) ‘’ [online] At: https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/caulfield-pitcher-p78308 (Accessed on 13 March 2019)

Wikipedia (2019) ‘’ [online] At: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Patrick_Caulfield (Accessed on 12 March 2019)

Wikipedia (2019) ‘’ [online] At: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gary_Hume (Accessed on 11 March 2019)

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2 thoughts on “Part Two: Research Point: Today’s Artists’ use of Positive and Negative Space

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