Drawing Basics: How Are YOU Using Negative Space?

B&W #6, 2000, oil drawing on paper, 12" x 9" by Lisa Dinhofer
B&W #6, 2000, oil drawing on paper, 12" x 9"
by Lisa Dinhofer

An artist I interviewed recently, Lisa Dinhofer, said that being a good draftsman isn't enough. She said putting the emphasis on the objects in your scene is risky if it leads to forgetting that the negative space is where your piece is either going to excel or be average. Understanding negative space is one of the fundamental skills in drawing. Dinhofer agrees: "The most important part of a painting is the space between the objects. It's also the hardest part to paint. But that's where the poetry is."

In some cases, the negative space is drawn, even if it is just some hatching to provide a tone. But often in people's drawings, the negative space is simply the paper. And that makes choosing the paper very important.

I am a fan of toned paper. It's expensive, but if I plan on spending even a coupla hours on a drawing, the cost is justified. I use colored pastel paper in a pad, usually from Canson. But I also like using Bogus Rough Sketch from Bee Paper. It's designed for fashion sketches, but its significant tooth and nice brown tone make it a great paper upon which to work up and down in value. Will it survive 300 years of humidity, traces of acidity, and UV light? Probably not, but my financial plans for my grandchildren currently do not include the future sale of my sketch-group sketches.

Dinhofer was talking about paintings, and that usually means actively adding some pigment to an otherwise white surface. She is going to have to put some paint in those negative spaces anyway. But more important, she sees them as active, crucial areas of the painting. But in a drawing, what should one do? Is Dinhofer suggesting that placement on the page and composition are more important in a drawing than just about anything else? (I'll ask her, but I'm interested in your thoughts on this.)

Would anyone like to chat about this topic? Please comment below.

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Bob Bahr

About Bob Bahr

Hi. I'm the managing editor of American Artist, Watercolor, Drawing, and Workshop magazines. Drawing magazine is primarily my responsibility so I spend a lot of time looking at drawings, talking with draftsmen, and drawing ... but I love to paint, too.

4 thoughts on “Drawing Basics: How Are YOU Using Negative Space?

  1. In reference to paintings, I had an instructor years ago who commented that “ít’s the greys that make the colors sing.” To me this means a number of things. First, the grays (neutrals in negative spaces) give the eye somewhere to rest, and make areas of color pop. This doesn’t mean that the negative areas are necesssarily gray, and certainly doesn’t mean they should be boring. It does mean that, unlike our emotions, negative space can be very positive! I paint and love color, but I think the concept holds for drawing (and sculpture, etc.)

    Just as what someone doesn’t say often says more than the words they emit, negative space contributes immensely to the totality of the piece of art. My preference in drawing is that negative space – areas around and the windows in the drawing – are the kind of gray that makes the colorful dance of the pencil sing. Again, I don’t think this means gray literally, just that negative space is a purposeful foil – sometimes filled with strokes, sometimes left as the plain paper – to the subject. It should help the subject to pop – it’s part of the story, too……..what are you saying when you “don’t”say anything?

  2. Indeed, Garwood.

    I recall reading a quote from Miles Davis in which he said his music is in what he DOESN’T play. Certainly, Miles played silence better than just about anyone. He knew when to play sparsely and went to blow.

  3. Well, this is a different type of answer, but I use negative space as a form of measurement. For instance, if I am drawing someone’s arm, I will look at the space between that person’s body (or whatever might be connected to it or nearby) and arm and use the shape of that space, rather than the arm itself, to establish length, shape, value, degree of contrast, and any number of things. I may use the space to soften or delineate edges or shadows as well.

  4. Reading this was a good reminder to think about negative space. It’s just a habit to focus on the subject of the painting — the portrait, for example — and forget the importance of the space where the portrait is not. (How’s that for a Zen koan?)