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The Elements of Art - SPACE

A Guide for Teachers

SPACE: it’s a word with a lot of meaning. But we’re not talking about outer space or free space, we’re talking about space, the element of art! Just like value, space is another element that sometimes gets shoved to the back of our brains because it’s not really in the forefront. Don’t worry -- despite its name, space isn’t like rocket science. It just tells us how we should place our elements in an art piece!

Not a fan of reading? Don’t worry. We have a short and sweet video called Space: Elements of Art Explained that gives you a fun and quick rundown of the element!

What is space in art?

Space, the element of art, is the area around and within the elements within an art piece. It’s also the distance between each element within a piece, whether they’re close together or far apart. Space is very relevant when it comes to creating cohesive compositions. Using positive space and negative space to create readable silhouettes, and foregrounds, middle grounds and backgrounds to create scenes are two ways that artists utilize space in art. There’s a lot in that little section that you may not know the definitions for, but let’s start with positive space and negative space!

Positive and negative space

Barking Dog by Keith Haring (1990)
Barking Dog by Keith Haring (1990)

When creating an art piece, you’ll most likely have varying objects and elements within it, like characters, creatures, buildings, props, etc. Those are all your positive space! Negative space is the opposite -- all the space in between each object is considered negative space. The water in an ocean, the sky, the ground, or just a pattern or solid colour are all possible sources of negative space.

Barking Dog by Keith Haring is a good example of positive and negative space. The dog is an easy to spot point of positive space, with ultra bold black line art making it an easy center of focus. This leaves the red surrounding the dog as the negative space, again, being simple to point out. But not all pieces have an easy to spot positive and negative space!

Violin and Pitcher by Georges Braque (1910)
Violin and Pitcher by Georges Braque (1910)

Violin and Pitcher by Georges Braque has a really tough-to-spot positive and negative space. But even though it feels like looking through a broken window, you can still kind of spot the violin and the pitcher. Because they’re what our eyes are drawn to first, or the center of focus, we can assume that that’s our positive space. Usually, with most non-abstract art, your positive space should be easy to spot so that your artwork is readable. Most of the time, you want your point of focus to be in your foreground or middle ground. But I’m getting ahead of myself -- let’s define those first!

Foreground, middle ground and background

The foreground in a composition is what’s closest to the viewer within a scene. The background is what’s farthest from the viewer, and the middle ground is everything in between.

Red House by Lawren Harris (1925)
Red House by Lawren Harris (1925)

Foregrounds, middle grounds and backgrounds are easiest to spot when put into scenes. For instance, Red House by Lawren Harris! The trees in the front and the first few piles of snow are closest to us, making them the foreground. The rows of houses that are farthest from us are our background. That leaves the red house that’s in between it all our middle ground AND our focal point! But just like positive and negative space, what if there doesn’t seem to be a foreground, middle ground OR background?

Upon first glance, Composition A by Piet Mondrian doesn’t appear to have any of those, and that assumption is correct! Not every art piece needs or has a foreground, middle ground and background. Like I mentioned briefly before, those are mainly used for scenes, not necessarily something quite as abstract or two dimensional as this. In fact, not having a foreground, middle ground, and background is quite common for modern character artists and cartoonists, who instead of illustrating scenes, choose to work with a plain solid colour background. But even if they’re optional, they’re still important to know in order to create cohesive compositions.

Space in composition

Your composition is your art as a whole! Every piece of art you create is a composition, and utilizes the different elements of art and principles of design to create something cohesive and pleasing to the eye. Space within a composition is all about how you place your elements within an art piece to make them feel cohesive. To do this, space usually works hand in hand with harmony and balance, which are two principles of design. Truthfully, you should consider every single element of art to create a successful composition. But I find that space is one of the biggest contributors that’s always forgotten about.

a screenshot from Studio Ghibli's Kiki's Delivery Service
Kiki's Delivery Service (1989)

Scenes that have depth need know what its foreground, middle ground and backgrounds are in order to work. Or, if those aren’t present, your negative space and positive space need to work together in order to create a clear and interesting silhouette. Studio Ghibli is known for its beautiful compositions, but let’s use this screenshot from Kiki’s Delivery Service to start. Tons of plants frame the foreground, Kiki herself remains in the middle ground as our focal point, and everything behind her acts as support in the background. A small thing that’s also quite smart about this composition is how the window pane cuts out a rectangle of negative space that quite literally frames Kiki.

Silhouettes and space in art

A screenshot from Studio Ghibli's Ponyo
Ponyo (2008)

Silhouettes were mentioned in the shapes blog as well, but they work a little differently when it comes to space. Rather than focusing on the shapes that silhouettes create, we instead are focusing on the positive and negative space that make our shapes readable! Even if foregrounds, middle grounds and backgrounds are optional, positive and negative space will always remain.

This screenshot from Ponyo is an example of how only positive and negative space are used within a composition. While you could say that the clouds are the background and a bit of the road is the foreground, all in all there isn’t anything that screams all three. However, the clouds and ground act as support for the positive and negative space. When converted to black and white, it’s still easy to spot what the characters are doing, meaning that the silhouettes are very readable. Readable silhouettes are what you want when it comes to character poses, and they rely on positive and negative space to work.

There you have it! While not as in the forefront as colour or shape, space is like adding the final touches on a cake -- it's what brings an entire piece together! Understanding how you can use your foreground to frame your composition, your midground to add emphasis to your focal point, and how you can use your background to support your piece are important concepts. They aren’t always needed within every composition as we learned, but positive and negative space is present no matter what, so mastering how to use space in creative and innovative ways are key to creating great works of art!

SPACE: Classroom Art Activities!

  • Try to draw by using only negative space! See if you can create some kind of positive space by only drawing what’s around it!

  • Draw just a silhouette! Can you tell what’s happening with the silhouette without adding any extra details?

  • Try to draw a full scene with depth! Lots of artists tend to struggle with backgrounds -- can you create a full scene?

Want to learn more about space, and how to apply it? You can learn to use it for the first time in our drawing foundations class! If you’re a little more advanced with your artwork, consider checking out Art Mentorship, which helps people learn independently. If you want more resources on the elements of art, find them on our YouTube playlist for more quick rundowns on them all!

Teacher Resources:

If you’re a teacher that’s looking for classroom content centered around the element of arts, space, visit this quick and easy resource!

If you’d like more worksheets related to the elements and principles of art, check out our teachers pay teachers page, where you can get worksheets and lesson plans for your classroom! More classroom resources like this one can be found on our art resources for teachers page, where we’ve covered all of the elements of art.

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