Detail of final pastel painting

Improve Your Paintings With The Power Of Negative Space

I’m writing this sitting in Frankfurt airport as I travel home from my 7-day Croatia workshop. Teaching this workshop got me thinking a lot about negative space – both its power as a visual device and as a tool to aid in the creation of a painting. My demo and lesson on the last day touched on the use of negative space.

Here’s my demo:

My class demo which included showing how I use negative space. Here I was also playing with neutrals in the background. I was also demonstrating the advantage of using a dominant value (here the mid-value) and also a very small amount of another value (here it's the light value that fills that role).

My class demo which included showing how I use negative space. Here I was also playing with neutrals in the background. I was also demonstrating the advantage of using a dominant value (here the mid-value) and also a very small amount of another value (here it’s the light value that fills that role). Gail Sibley, Olive leaves in Istria, Unison pastels on Pastel Premier ‘Italian Clay’, 12 x 9 in. (Happy that the workshop organizers Mario and Minja are now the owners of this pastel!)

 

Negative space: Demo in black and white. This reveals that I could have darkened the background as the middle-value. Still, I like the way it looks and left as is.

Demo in black and white. This reveals that I could have darkened the background as the middle-value. Still, I like the way it looks and left it as is.

 

When we look at the world, we see it in three dimensions, and we rarely see the space around objects. When we prepare to draw or paint a subject, however, if we are intentional in our looking, we can then see the negative space by which I mean the space in and around objects. In making our marks on a two dimensional surface, the negative space becomes just as important as the positive shapes. Understanding negative space will help you render a subject as well as give your work more impact.

 

Using negative space to help render your subject

If you’re having difficulty seeing a subject and recording it’s dimensions on paper, examine and draw the space and shapes around it. And when it comes to painting, don’t feel obliged to put down the subject in its perfect and final form from the start. Instead, create shapes that are amorphous. You can then paint the negative space and so doing, ‘carve’ out the subjects as clearly or as vaguely as desired.

 

Using negative space to make your work more powerful

In carving out the positive shapes, you create hard and soft edges. The balance between these edges help attract and lead the eye. As a visual artist, you cover your surface with a variety of shapes whether positive shapes or negative space. All become important parts of the painting puzzle. They’re abstract shapes that come together to create a visual representation
in a way the speaks of your artistic intention.

 

Let me take you through another painting I did a couple of days after the demo. (I’m sorry there are so few progress photos – I got immersed in painting and forgot to record more steps!)

 

Negative space: 1. The set up

1. The set up

 

Negative space: 2. The thumbnail. Most of the painting is a light value (background and light side of yellow dahlia) with the middle value unusually taking up only a small amount of space (the red flower and shadow side of dahlia).

2. The thumbnail. Most of the painting is a light value (background and light side of yellow dahlia) with the middle value unusually taking up only a small amount of space (the red flower and shadow side of dahlia).

 

Negative space: 3. The vine charcoal sketch on Pastel Premier 'Italian Clay'. Notice how little drawing I actually do.

3. The vine charcoal sketch on Pastel Premier ‘Italian Clay’. Notice how little drawing I actually do.

 

Negative space: 4. First layer on. You can see how vaguely all the leaves are applied

4. First layer on. You can see how vaguely all the leaves are applied

 

5. You can see how I have "carved" out the olive leaves by applying light coloured pastels in the negative space around the leaves.

5. You can see how I have “carved” out the olive leaves by applying light coloured pastels in the negative space around the leaves.

 

6. The final work. I added details and played with layering of light colours in the negative space. Gail Sibley, "Villa Gloria Bouquet," Unison pastels plus a couple of Sennelier colours on Pastel Premier 'Italian Clay,' 9 x 12in

6. The final work. I added details and played with layering of light colours in the negative space. Gail Sibley, “Villa Gloria Bouquet,” Unison pastels plus a couple of Sennelier colours on Pastel Premier ‘Italian Clay,’ 9 x 12in. Available.

 

Negative space: 7. The painting in black and white showing the small area of mid-value and the dominant value of light.

7. The painting in black and white showing the small area of mid-value and the dominant value of light.

 

Negative space: 8. The ten pastels I used - three light, four mid-value, three dark value. Mostly Unison pastels plus two Sennelier pastels (centre).

8. The ten pastels I used – three light, four mid-value, three dark value. Mostly Unison pastels plus two Sennelier pastels (centre).

 

Can you see why I’m somewhat obsessed with negative space? I love using this method to create an image!

Do you use negative space as an important part of your painting process and the painting itself? Whether you do or don’t, I’d love to hear from you so please leave comment!

 

Until next time (when we have a guest blogger who is an artist of roomscapes…!),
Gail

 

PS. If you wished you could have been on the Croatia workshop, know that I have another painting holiday coming up on the Costa Brava, Spain in early May 2018. Click here for more info.

6 thoughts on “Improve Your Paintings With The Power Of Negative Space

  1. MAI NGUYEN

    Dear Ms.Gail,

    Thank you very much for your share, I am a new coming joint your web site but i can see I have a lots of benefit seen I joint your member, I alway confusing with my subject when I drawing but I can see how I can management with my drawing after today.

    Again, thank a lots for your share.

    Best regards,
    Mai Nguyen

    Reply
    1. Gail Sibley Post author

      Hello Mai,
      Many thanks for your comment and for subscribing to HowToPastel. I am glad this blog post will be helpful to you. Along with seeing and simplifying values, looking at negative space really will help with drawing and sorting out the chaos and complexity that you see.
      Gail

      Reply
  2. Ruth Burley

    Thanks for sharing Gail!! Between seeing your step by step and also seeing a post showing work by Mike Beeman showing his step by step, I feel that I HAVE to try both of your techniques!! They will work together very well, I think. By the way, you make me smile. Thanks!!!

    Reply
    1. Gail Sibley Post author

      Hah hah Ruth that’s wonderful!! Look forward to seeing the results. I’m curious about Mike’s post. You can always add a link here to it.

      Reply

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