Negative Space: To boldly go where nothing has gone before

If you’re an artist, you’re consciously aware of the space around and in between the subject(s) of your artwork. You’re intentionally leaving unused space in the composition. This space is often referred to as negative or white space. Creatively used, negative space can generate a visual element all of its own.

We have all seen the work of M. C. Escher and his intricate drawings showing negative space in action. In the linked image, you see a symmetrical pattern of bats, but if you focus on the white space; it’s a symmetrical pattern of angels. Each composition is its own pattern, depending on if you’re focusing on the subject or the white space the subject created. Escher is the master of negative space. When negative space is used as a secondary visual composition, it can create tension or act as a stimulus in the composition, capturing the viewer’s attention and drawing them deeper into the composition.


Another good example of this can be seen in company logos where the designer’s use of negative space creates a subliminal message, alluding to the marketing message or emphasizing a product’s asset. If you focus on the negative space between the E and the x in the FedEx logo to the right, you’ll see an arrow, subliminally creating a message of motion or direction.

But negative space can also be used as a pause in the action. A place for the eye to rest; take in what has been seen before moving to the next place along the visual path. In design, this space is just as important as the elements of the composition. As avid consumers, we constantly want to fill in every available open space with content, unaware that we’re creating visual clutter that over-stimulates the brain. If left unfilled, the negative space allows the brain to relax, digest what has been examined, quietly focusing your mind on what’s important. While the temptation to the novice is to fill the space with something, anything, just so it’s not left empty, the professional knows just how important the negative space is to the piece.

I like to think of negative space as the path and everything else as the destination. The less cluttered the path, the easier it is to navigate to and enjoy the destination. No one wants to jump over barriers and steer through detours to discover the main event. Learn to appreciate the pauses. Resist the urge to fill every available space. Keep the path accessible. This applies not only to design and composition, but to life itself.