Design Series: Negative Space

Negative space is part of Design, but neither an element or principle. It could be included in the lesson on Form or Space, but Sandy and I have chosen to talk about it separately. Be sure to listen to the Episode 114 of Sandy’s podcast, Quilting… for the Rest of Us. where we discuss this topic.


In many basic drawing classes, students learn that there are three basic elements of a composition: the frame, the positive and the negative space. The positive space is easiest to understand. Generally, it is the space occupied by your subject. Conversely, negative space is the space that is not your subject. (Artinspired wiki, Positive & Negative Space page)

  • Positive Space is created by objects that are seen as a main element appearing to be in front of the background.
  • Negative Space “is the space between an object, around an object, but is not part of the actual object itself. It is the opposite of an identifiable object which can at the same time be used to help define the boundaries of positive space.” (
  • The concept of positive and negative space are also called “figure” and “ground”. (Pentak & Lauer, pg.150)
  • “Negative space, in art, is the space around and between the subject(s) of an image. Negative space may be most evident when the space around a subject, and not the subject itself, forms an interesting or artistically relevant shape, and such space is occasionally used to artistic effect as the “real” subject of an image. ” (
    • think about the design that appears when you put blocks together and get a secondary design.
  • empty space, space around an object or form; also called white space” (

If you have 4 identical white rectangles and 4 identical black squares and place the white rectangles horizontally in front of you and put the black squares on the white rectangles in different places on top, you will: (Pentak & Lauer, pg.150)

  • notice very different visual effects “caused solely by its placement within the format” (Pentak & Lauer, pg.150)
  • notice that the location of the black shape immediately organizes the empty (white) space into various shapes (Pentak & Lauer, pg.150)


“Notan is a Japanese word meaning dark-light. The word, however, means more than that. The principle of Notan as used here must further defined as the interaction between positive (light) and negative (dark) space. The idea of this interaction in Notan is embodied in the ancient Eastern symbol of the Yang and the Yin, which consists of mirror images, one white and one black, revolving around a point of equilibrium. Here the positive and negative areas together make a whole reality. In the Yang and the Yin symbol…opposites complement, they do not conflict. Neither seeks to negate or dominate the other, only to relate in harmony. It is the interaction of the light and the dark, therefore, that is most essential.” (Notan, pg.6)

YinYang from (
YinYang from (

We, as Westerners, have issues understanding the harmonious relationship of the light and the dark, because of our cultural heritage. “The Western culture thinks in terms of opposed dualities and attaches the moral values of good to the positive, of bad to the negative. Or we seize upon the positive as the only reality and dismiss the negative as invisible and non-existent.” (Notan, pg.6)

  • Remember, again, the secondary design that can pop up unexpectedly when 4 blocks are put together. You don’t want something ugly where your blocks meet. This is kind of the premise of Notan. Thinking of the whole design is the key rather than just the positive space.

Confusion and Trickery

Franz Kline's White Forms (
Franz Kline’s White Forms (

Source: via Jaye on Pinterest, piece is Franz Kline’s White Forms

“Sometimes positive and negative shapes are integrated to such an extent that there is truly no visual distinction.”In Franz Kline’s White Forms, “we automatically see some black shapes on a background. But when we read the artist’s titles, White Forms, suddenly the view changes, and we begin to focus on the white shapes, with the black areas now perceived as negative space. The artist has purposely made the positive/negative relationship ambiguous. (Pentak & Lauer, pg.154).

Source:, piece is Pablo Picasso’s Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler

“In most paintings of the past, the separation of object and background was easily seen, even if the selected areas merged visually. But several twentieth-century styles literally do away with the distinction. We can see that the subject matter of the painting,” Pablo Picasso’s Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, “is a figure. Despite the cubist abstractions of natural forms into geometric planes, we can discern the theme. But it is difficult to determine just which areas are part of the figure and which are background. The artist, Picasso, also broke up the space in the same cubist manner. There is no clear delineation of the positive from the negative.” (Pentak & Lauer, pg.154-155).  In Georges Seurat’s Silhouette of a Woman, the Black Bow and The Artist’s Mother (Woman Sewing), (late 1800s, not 20th century, not a Cubist) the positive and negative spaces meld so much as to confuse the mind as to which is which.

Some artists play with the reversal of positive and negative space to create complex illusions. The prints of M. C. Escher … often feature interlocking images that play with our perception of what is foreground and what is background. Other artists take these illusions of positive and negative images to even greater lengths, hiding images within images. Perception of form and shape are conditioned by our ingrained “instinct” to impute meaning and order to visual data. When we look at an image and initially form an impression, there is a tendency to latch on to that conclusion about its meaning, and then ignore other possible solutions. This may make it hard to see the other images. Training the eye to keep on looking beyond first impressions is a crucial step in developing true visual literacy.” (Art Design & Visual Thinking

Inverted Star Tutorial - purchase on Craftsy
Inverted Star Tutorial – purchase on Craftsy

Above star is a great use of negative space. Flipping the negative space to positive. See below for homework on this block.


  • In a picture, the shapes that the artist has deliberately placed are considered the positive shapes. The spaces around the shapes are the negative spaces. It is just as important to consider the negative space in a picture as the positive shapes. Sometimes artists create pieces that have no distinction between positive and negative spaces. M. C. Escher was a master at creating drawings where there was no distinction between positive and negative space. (Skaalid,
  • For every positive shape, there is a negative shape surrounding it. (Artinspired wiki, Positive & Negative Space page
  • A good artist realizes that the space surrounding an object (positive space / shape / mass / etc) is just as important as that object itself. Negative space helps define a subject, and brings balance to a composition.
  • The placement of one shape – a positive figure or foreground – creates another, a negative figure or background. The placement of a shape organizes the empty space around it into more shapes. (The Quilter’s Book of Design, 2d, pg.62) 
  • “Negative space, or whitespace, is a powerful design element which impacts both the aesthetics and usability …; too little and the design feels cramped, too much and related page elements can become disconnected.” (Wayne Moir website:
  • “It is important to remember that both elements have been thoughtfully designed and planned by the artist. The subject is the focal point, but the negative areas created are equally important in the final pictorial effect.” (Pentak & Lauer, pg.150)
  • With three dimensional art [forms], such as a sculpture, one can see how the object occupies space by walking around it, looking from above, below or from the side. Three dimensional objects have height, width and depth. With two dimensional art [like a quilt], the arrangement of objects on the design field can be crowded with lots of objects or nearly empty with very few objects. These design elements have height and width, but no depth. (A Fiber Artist’s Guide to Color and Design, pg.130)
  • “Negative shapes are also an aspect of letter design and typography.” (Pentak & Lauer, pg.150) People design fonts so they look good on the page – the right amount of space between letters and lines, etc.
  • The artist usually wants some back-and-forth visual movement between the positive shapes and the negative” space. “An unrelieved silhouette of every shape is usually not the most interesting spatial solution.” Generally, depending on the message you, as the artist, wants to convey, breaking the “background” into “areas of value that lend interest as well as better positive/negative integration” will make for a better design. (Pentak & Lauer, pg.152)
Swoon Secondary Design
Swoon Secondary Design

I have highlighted the part of my design that is the unintended secondary design. It is less prominent, because of the variety of backgrounds, but still marked enough to pay attention and make some definite decisions about.



  • Photocopy or print famous paintings in black and white. Look at the negative and positive spaces and notice their shapes.  The following are specifically mentioned in Pentak & Lauer: Georges Seurat’s Silhouette of a Woman, the Black Bow and The Artist’s Mother (Woman Sewing), but you can use any. Try to find one or two with simple lines.
  • Cut 4 2.5×2.5″ black squares, cut out 4 2.5″x4.5″ white rectangles. Arrange the black squares on the white rectangles in different ways and notice the way the negative space is organized. (See above)
  • See how the negative space is affected with different iterations of this block. Make the block above with:
    • one solid fabric where the scrappy fabrics are located
    • different solid fabrics in the same color range, e.g. all blues. Tone-on-tones would work, too.
    • change where the colors are with where the background is
    • the same type of fabric layout, then quilt the center with a complex pattern that has its own design, such as a feathered wreath, in white thread to see whether the center Sawtooth Star is still negative space
    • the same type of fabric layout, then quilt the center with a complex pattern that has its own design, such as a feathered wreath, in colored thread to see whether the center Sawtooth Star is still negative space


Art Design & Visual Thinking

Artinspired wiki, Positive & Negative Space page

Artline Elements of Design:


A Fiber Artist’s Guide to Color and Design by Heather Thomas

Design Basics, 5th, c.1999, David A. Lauer, Stephen Pentak (has an excellent section on positive and negative space)

The Quilter’s Book of Design, 2d

Notan: the dark-light principle of design by Dorr Bothwell and Marlys Mayfield, 1968

Wayne Moir website:

Tutorial9: Enhancing your art with negative space:

Bonnie Skaalid, Web Design for Instruction: Classic Graphic Design Theory: Elements of Design: Shape

Author: Jaye

Quiltmaker who enjoys writing and frozen chocolate covered bananas.

2 thoughts on “Design Series: Negative Space”

  1. Thanks for the design series it has / is most helpful in understanding the various art concepts and how it applies to our quilting. I enjoy listening to you and Sandy discuss everything. I particularly enjoyed this podcast and post since I am getting into more MODERN QUILTS.

    Keep up the good work


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