As we discuss in chapter three of Design: A Beginner’s Handbook negative space is the area around and between the objects in a composition. Negative space is not just stuff left over after items have been sized and placed, it is an important part of any good composition. The shapes created by negative space interact with the other more obvious elements – reinforcing existing relationships and introducing new ones. In some compositions negative space is as dominant as any of the other elements. Here are a few examples of artworks that exploit the power of negative space.
These corporate logos all use negative space and shapes as active elements. The negative space/shapes enter the main designs and become equal players with the other elements. Viewers might even find themselves switching back and forth between positive and negative shapes as the primary elements. This use of active negative space and shapes is an inventive way to tell a complex story using very compact means.
This painting by Nicholas Africano uses a vast field of empty space as a counter intuitive way to focus our attention on the figure and the text. In this composition the lone figure is a long ways away from the edges of the painting and anything on the wall around the artwork. The figure seems a bit like a specimen – something isolated on a laboratory tabletop waiting to be examined. Viewers automatically want to get closer to the image and explore it in detail. The text is not merely a sentence but is a stand alone graphic element floating in the composition. Its size, shape and typographic qualities are equal to the isolated figure. Once we examine the role of negative space as it is used here it is hard to imagine this painting without its large supportive empty space. That space is as important as any element in the composition.
Sarah Charlesworth was a photographer noted for “borrowing” images from mass media publications. In her series titled April 21,1978 Charlesworth photographed the front pages of 45 newspapers from around the world. She deleted all the text from the stories and left only the accompanying photographic images floating against blank backgrounds. The main story that day was the kidnapping of Italian Prime Minister Aldo Moro by the radical political group Red Brigade. Looking at each newspaper’s page layout (where they placed the photograph of Moro) and the relative sizes of all the photographs we can easily tell how important this major story was in different parts of the world. In this instance the absence of text actually clears away any competing and distracting story lines. The negative space joins with the photographs to tell an alternative and parallel version of the news.