Monday Morning Art School: make that negative space work for you

The background of your painting is a key element of its composition.

Prom shoes, oil on canvasboard, Carol L. Douglas

Last week I wrote about the lost-and-found edge, and techniques to make edges and lines sink. That allows the viewer to focus on other passages that are more important.

The painter has three tools to drive the viewer’s eyes: hue, chroma (saturation) and value. These are the three aspects of color. The human eye is designed to respond to value shifts first, so that’s where we usually start. However, hue and chroma are also important.

Amp up the contrast in any combination of these three elements and you emphasize a focal point. Soften the contrast and the viewer’s eyes can glide past.

Peppers, oil on canvas, Carol L. Douglas

Negative space is the area around and between the subjects in a painting—it’s what we generally call the background. It should not be an afterthought. Negative space should be carefully designed to be as interesting as the subjects themselves. One of the many ways in which still life is a great training tool is in teaching painters to control this supposedly ‘empty’ space.

Still Life with Partridge and Pear, 1748, Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin, courtesy Städelscher Museums-Verein e.V.

Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin was a master of still life. His Still Life with Partridge and Pearshows just how dynamic supposedly-empty negative space can be in a painting. The brushwork is lively, and the light is concentrated on the shadow side of the pear to drive our eye to that edge. Contrast then drives us to look at the snare and then the bird’s tailfeathers and foot. The background seems quick and loose, but it’s very elegant in its design.

Self-portrait, 1771, pastel, Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin, courtesy Musée du Louvre, Paris, 

Twenty years later, Chardin carried that technique forward in his own self-portrait. The shifting light across the background throws the figure into stark relief. While the focal point is the light side of the face, he makes the shadows earn their keep by creating a vigorous edge down the shadow side of the figure. That line is at least as interesting as the line on the light side of the face, and it’s made visible by the light thrown onto the background.

Tin foil hat, oil on canvas, Carol L. Douglas

That, of course, was the 18th century, and we don’t tend to paint in such high contrast today. That doesn’t mean we aren’t using the same basic techniques. The modern painter can use any of the following in his work:

  • Heighten the contrast between positive and negative shapes with lighting;
  • Use lively brushwork in the background;
  • Carefully plan interesting negative shapes;
  • Bring background color into the foreground objects and vice-versa;
  • Imply background with brushwork, color and shadow;
  • Eliminate background detail, and just imply a shadow;
  • Break or minimize the edges of tables or drapes.