Effectively using positive and negative space is key to creating compelling art quilt compositions.
Positive space is the area of the composition that is happening, or of interest
Negative space is the area around the positive space, and the area that is NOT happening, often referred to as “The Resting Space”
You can’t have one without the other, and both serve attention.
Manage Positive & Negative Space in Art
Negative space doesn’t have to be boring to be effective. It is possible to focus the eye and draw attention to the positive space, but not waste the negative space.
In my portrait quilts, I often create the figure, then audition it on several backgrounds to see what works best. White space worked well for my tribute to Malala, but something with more color and visual texture was needed to offset the solid mass of the figure in Busy Signal.
Auditions for Negative Space
Selecting appropriate fabric for negative space in your art is a skill that can be practiced in isolation. As with any skill: repetition builds proficiency. I suggest you do the following exercise in a deliberate and thoughtful manner. This experience will increase your knowledge base and make the process easier in the future.
- Select a small motif. Begin with something simple, but repeat this process with more complex motifs.
- Select a group of fabrics to audition. Look for connections to the motif, i.e. color scheme, shape, line, texture.
- Place the motif on each of the fabrics and take a photo reference.
- Make notes about the effect and the appeal of each combination.
- Also, not the kinds of contrast that are at work: color, value, pattern, line.
Notan: Light-Dark Harmony
Notan is a Japanese terms that means light-dark harmony. This is a way of looking at positive and negative space in terms of value.
The concept is that a composition works well when the light and dark spaces appear in balanced proportions and they work together to create interesting shapes. The light areas should group together and the same for dark areas. Notan commonly done in 2 values, can also work with 3 or 4 values.
Easy Notan Exploration
A simple exploration of this concept is to create mirror image compositions. The photos below show the process with a simple tree drawing, and black and white fabrics.
- Begin with a simple drawing. Add lines to indicate where the design can be cut into 2 halves.
- Transfer the drawing to paperbacked fusible and iron to black fabric
- Cut the design in half and then cut the tree from the background.
- Fuse the back pieces onto white fabric as shown.
Here is another version of this experiment using 3-value notan.
Evaluate Positive & Negative Space Using Notan
The concept of notan can be used evaluate or develop a pictorial composition that is balanced and pleasing. Here is a 5-step process:
- Open an image in a photo-editing program
- Grayscale the image
- Posterize at 2 levels.
- Change mottled areas to white, or black.
- Evaluate the interaction of black and white shapes. If the interplay between black and white; positive and negative space is interesting, this is an indication that the composition is appealing.
Managing positive and negative space is no guarantee that you will create a masterpiece. Consider this just one of the ingredients in the recipe for success.
Learn More in My Color & Composition Class
Interested in learning more? Every month I lead a Color and Composition class where we explore a color scheme, color concept, and a composition concept. We meet online the 4th Saturday of every month 1:00-3:00 PM MDT. To join us, sign up through the Rocky Mountain Quilt Museum.
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