Positive/Negative Space

Stuart Vail

One of the first ways we are taught about positive and negative space is in the kerning, or spacing, of letters in a word. Letters can be jammed tightly together or have wide spacing with lots of “air” between each. The positive space is the body of the letter itself, and the negative space is between the letters. Without the negative space, we wouldn’t see any letters—no space between, no openings in the letters such as O, B, and R—just a solid blob. So, it’s the negative space that defines the shape and identity of everything.

There are many ways to think about positive and negative space. For instance:

The left column indicates the factual, the concrete, while the right is where all the creativity resides—kind of like the right side of the brain. What isn’t said or seen can carry loads of significance, and I propose to you that the negative space is vastly more important, interesting, and creative than the positive.

Think of a swimming pool filled with water. Imagine, then, putting a dozen swimmers into the pool and simply have them stand still. They are surrounded by water, which is the negative space between each person, the space that separates one person from another. Drain the pool and now there is just air in between, where there was once water. The air now is the same negative space occupying every nook and cranny where the people are not. What isn’t a person is negative space. We can “tighten the kerning” by having everyone stand close to one another, or we can loosen it by spreading them out. Take away the negative space completely and we’d have a pool full of nothing but flesh and bone.

If there were no negative space in music, all we would have is a drone. In considering only rhythm, this solid line represents one sustained note.


It’s just a drone, one sound going nowhere. Now, start cutting out some sections of that line to create spaces.

__ _ _ _    __ _   ___ _ _      _ _ _ _   __ 

We’re left with a rhythm, individual attacks of varying lengths and spaces in between (rests). This is the essence of rhythm. The famous Morse Code signal for SOS is:

_ _ _   ___ ___ ___   _ _ _

(three dots is an S, and three dashes is an O)

Every letter and number of the Morse Code alphabet is signified by combinations of dots and dashes, all of which create a rhythm of some kind, which would not exist without the spaces in between, what you don’t hear.

Stomp on the floor twice and then clap once (boom-boom-clap). Repeat this rhythm with a short rest between each group. What you end up with is the iconic drum rhythm from Queen’s “We Will Rock You.” Without that extremely important rest, you would not have that rhythm. Fill it up with another clap and you’d have boom-boom-clap-clap-boom-boom-clap-clap, which is entirely another thing. It takes that rest, that empty, soundless space to create the instantly recognizable rhythm that’s known all over the world.

Think of a patient hooked up to a heart monitor in the hospital:


Whoops, the patient is dead. Without those crucial spaces between the blips, there is no life. The negative spaces create the rhythm, and without rhythm, there is no life, literally.

Consider the music of Count Basie. His playing was so sparse, but his little nuggets of occasional notes were gems. When listening to him playing, we wait for those bits, and when they happen, they are perfectly placed and say far more than if he had been playing non-stop the entire time. That’s what made Basie so special.

Compare his economic playing with that of Coltrane’s wall-to-wall cascade of notes. With both, there is a definite sense of rhythm, spaces between notes. In Coltrane’s case, the “kerning” is simply a lot tighter.

A long time ago I saw this drawn on a wall:

Most people will simply see two triangles—
one, an inverse of the other.
I saw more than that.
I immediately saw two human figures.

The first is a bird’s-eye view and the second, a worm’s-eye view. It’s a lesson in perspective, and years later I was able to use this example for drawing a figure in this manner when I gave a drawing tutorial in one of my sister’s art classes that she taught. To reverse engineer this, strip away all non-essential parts that define the prevailing shape of a human body as seen from higher up, and you end up with this:

Study the above triangle and “see” the human figure I just described. It’s there. I love how it suggests the above-view of a person. It really needs nothing else, and this drawing allows the imagination to fill in with whatever the viewer wishes to conjure up.

I was once asked to draw the cover for a script by a friend of mine. The climax of the story involves the hero being chased up the Eiffel Tower, and at one point he’s hanging off a ledge. My friend wanted a picture of the tower, showing the guy hanging, and a city scape of Paris in the background. I tried to imagine how on earth I could do that—especially since the person would be a mere dot on the page. Then I realized that I merely had to suggest the tower.

By showing only a small piece of the structure, we immediately know that it’s the Eiffel Tower. The downward perspective gives us a sense of the immense height, and a bit of the Seine and city below are all we need to identify the place and situation. It’s what I didn’t draw that magnifies the impact and gives the image meaning, context, and clarity.

When someone asked Michelangelo how he was able to carve the famous “Pietá” out of a block of marble, he said the figure was always inside the block. He simply removed what was non-essential to get to it. The “non-essential” is the negative space that literally gives the Pietá, the positive space, its form. The absence of the negative space reveals what was inside the block of marble, seen only by the imagination of the Master.

In the image below, the viewer’s eye is immediately drawn to the white circle. The black is the negative space, giving the circle its shape, its definition. Without the black, the circle would be invisible against the white page. I indicated above that the “invisible” represents the negative space. This can work both ways, depending on how you see it. If this was a canvas painted entirely black and representing the positive space, the addition of a painted white circle can be construed as the empty space, devoid of black, where black paint isn’t. It’s how you look at it, and it can just be a matter of context.

In Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet is a character named Pursewarden, a poet. He says, “…reading between the lines, where all true writing is done.” It’s what an author doesn’t say that can have so much meaning.

One of Durrell’s characters was walking in the streets of Alexandria, Egypt, and he observed the “men sipping their morning newspapers.” He could have said he observed the “Arab men sitting in sidewalk cafes, sipping tea and reading their newspapers.” While that is a thorough description of the scene, it’s also boring. “Men sipping their morning newspapers” is so much more interesting and poetic, while providing everything you need to know by what he doesn’t say. I love that kind of writing.

Here is the complete script for a potential scene in a play or film:


Those two words carry all sorts of possibilities for suggesting what is going on in the scene. Let’s suppose that because tea is being offered, the first person may be British and somewhat sophisticated. Maybe both are women, meeting for an afternoon tea. The second person is obviously Hispanic, so we could suppose in this little play that the wife of the British Ambassador is offering an afternoon beverage to the wife of the Spanish Ambassador. All that from those two little words. It’s what isn’t said that suggests a world of possibilities. Feel free to fill in your own scenario.*

In another play, imagine a stage full of actors, milling around, talking, doing all sorts of things. It’s chaotic. Some are running from here to there, some are gesturing, some are in heated discussions. In the center is a woman, silently sitting in a chair, staring at the audience, not moving a muscle. I guarantee that amidst all the chaos, the attention of the audience will be on the woman in the chair—similar to how you will immediately focus on the white circle in the black painting. Everyone will be entranced by her inaction, wondering what will happen next. Will she ever move, will she suddenly scream out? In a sense, she is the eye of the storm, with frenetic activity all around her. The longer she sits, the more intense it gets. Without her, the action would get old very fast. So what? Let’s get on with it, you say. But her powerful presence of inactivity holds everything together and creates questions, wonder, expectancy, angst, and perhaps uneasiness. There is a lot of power in how she isn’t doing a thing.

In a horror film, the unseen can be the most terrifying. Walking through the dark woods, not knowing from one minute to the next if a killer will jump out, can be more scary than actually seeing him. It’s the anticipation, the unseen, that is so potent. Spielberg’s “Jaws” barely shows the shark at all, but it’s powerfully suggested by seeing just the fin and the bobbing barrel that the shark is tethered to. We know it’s down there, but our not knowing where it is or when it will suddenly appear is nerve wracking. The climax is when we finally do see the shark as he gobbles up the skipper. The potency of that moment would have been dramatically weakened had we seen the shark throughout the entire film.

Without any negative space, Henny Youngman’s famous line would sound like this: “Take my wife please.” Not funny. But with the gap, that little bit of space after “wife” you get, “Take my wife… (wait for it) Please.” Ba-da-boom. Funny.

Or, “My wife just wants to get out of town any town.” Ho-hum. However…
“My wife just wants to get out of town… any town.”

Henny was the master of knowing just how long to wait before delivering the punchline. The negative space, the beat or two of silence, makes all the difference in the world.

When two lovers are apart for some time, they deeply miss each other. The absence, the not being there, magnifies the love, and when they finally come together, sparks fly and their love soars like never before. That absence, that negative space, creates and amplifies desire far more than never being apart ever could.

In Chinese Water Torture, a person is lying on his back, unable to move, while water from a vessel high above his head very slowly drips, drop by drop, onto his forehead. This can go on for hours, days, and he slowly goes insane. In some forms of this method, the drips are inconsistent, and it’s those varying spaces in between that can drive someone mad. If it were a steady stream, that would be one thing, but the gaps between the drops, not knowing when the next will hit, are what is so potent, so terrifying.

Robert Frost was once asked the meaning of his poem, “The Road Not Taken,” and he said, “I don’t know.” Of course he knew, but why forever squelch any future dialog and creative discussion about what it meant? By not giving away the meaning, he allowed the experiences and cultural background of each reader to color the poem in his/her own subjective way. As Pursewarden said, “…between the lines, where all true writing is done.”

And finally, here is a longer example of negative space, so stay with me.

L. Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz was published on May 17, 1900. At the time, the country was largely run by the railroad and robber barons. Gold was the standard currency. There was a movement afoot to try to convert to silver, allowing more of the lesser-valued coinage to filter down into the hands of the not-rich. Four years earlier, in his first failed run for the presidency, William Jennings Bryan gave his infamous “Cross of Gold” speech, suggesting that the common folk were subjugated by being crucified on the gold cross of the wealthy.

In Baum’s story, the lion is portrayed by Bryan, the Tin Man by the metal workers, and the Scarecrow, the farmers. The cyclone can be thought of as the turbulent political climate at the time. The Wicked Witch of the West represents the Rockefellers and bankers. She doesn’t bleed when Toto bites her, and is so dried up from her wickedness that she is devoid of all benevolent feelings. The water that Dorothy throws on her destroys the pure evil the witch embodies, signifying water’s use in Christian purification and baptism.

In the original story, Dorothy’s shoes were silver; however, when making the film, silver sequins did not show up very well against the Yellow Brick Road, so they were changed to red instead. Be that as it may, in this analysis Baum’s intent is obvious: The silver slippers represent the Silver Standard being touted by William Jennings Bryan. In fact, Oz is an abbreviation for “ounce,” or in this case, the Troy Ounce of silver.

Those silver slippers trod upon a Yellow Brick Road, the Gold Standard, on their way to the Emerald City (green=money), and when the curtain is finally pulled back to revealed the wizard’s fakery, Baum shows us the smoke-and-mirrors attempt of the One Percent to rule us all.

While Frank Baum never acknowledged any hidden meaning or subtext behind The Wizard of Oz, it is a classic case, in every sense of the word, of a story on many levels, and of how what is not said is extremely more powerful than had he simply written a scathing, literal commentary of the state of the nation. And in doing so, he created a classic tale for all time.

Remember what I said about rhythm: Negative spaces create rhythm. Without rhythm, there is no life, literally. Remove the negative spaces from art, stories, and music, and you take all the life out of them. Try to look beyond the shape, the colors, the words, and ask yourself if there is any subtext, any implied meaning behind what you see or hear. What gives it its life? Is it obvious or is it “behind the curtain”? Use your own imagination to…

© 2020 Stuart Vail

*Inspired by an idea in Willard Espy’s Another Almanac of Words at Play.