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Negative space: Top tips and brilliant examples

If you're inspired by our examples of negative space, on this page, the artist Timothy Von Rueden shares his top five tips on how to harness negative space in your own artwork. As an artist who strived for realism, learning to use the impact and value of negative space within a piece helped him break the confines of what he believed a work of art should be.

How to use negative space

When you’re learning how to add values to create form, the idea of intentionally leaving areas blank and untouched may seem troublesome. But I’ve learned that with great art, not everything has to follow a set rule or be rendered entirely realistically in a drawing. 

This is especially true for traditional medium such as graphite, where there’s no hue or saturation contrast to rely on for directing the viewer’s eye. However, too much negative space may leave the drawing lifeless or unintentionally sloppy in execution, so there’s clearly a balance to be struck. 

There’s power in keeping an area entirely blank to tell a narrative that would have been diminished had you filled it in. It can be empowering and bold as an artist to let your work be left with areas that others may describe as unfinished. Below, I’ll go over some of the points on how negative spaces can add to your overall composition and leave a lasting impression on the viewer.

01. Draw less to create more

(Image: © Timothy Von Rueden)

Sometimes you can create more of an impact by what you don’t draw than by what you do. Adding areas of negative space can directly alter the overall meaning and reception of your drawing. I thoroughly recommend that you experiment with keeping some areas blank and see how the tone changes.

02. Experiment with silhouettes

(Image: © Timothy Von Rueden)

The use of negative space can create shapes and silhouettes based on the shading around it. That shape then creates a powerful source of attention and point of interest. By filling in the area around the shape, you give it form and a presence that can’t be ignored.

03. Add contrast

(Image: © Timothy Von Rueden)

Similar to the contrast of light and dark values, negative space may also add a detail contrast. When placing detailed areas next to an area of negative space, there’s a pleasing visual contrast. The simplicity of the negative space will draw attention and create an area of rest.

04. Create glow and illumination

(Image: © Timothy Von Rueden)

The lack of any value may create the perception that an area is glowing. This effect can be enhanced via use of lighter shading on the inside of the form emitting from the negative space. It’s a visual illusion that can add another layer of lighting and intrigue to your scene.

05. Use negative space to create narrative

(Image: © Timothy Von Rueden)

Not all negative space needs to create a shape or a glow. Sometimes it’s a powerful effect that can be used to add narrative and possibly some mystery for the viewer to read into. Just because it doesn’t make sense in a realistic execution doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try it!

This article originally appeared in ImagineFX magazine. Subscribe here (opens in new tab).

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Timothy is an independent artist showing and selling his work at various conventions across the United States.