negative space

Ma is a Japanese word which roughly translates to gap, space, pause or the space between two structural parts. 

IMG_7247This assignment asks the student to focus on the negative space, the space that surrounds an object (or the subject), the space in between things. I point out, in the still life, the area which they will be focusing on. It’s sort of the opposite of how we normally see, I explain. In the process, should you find yourself drawing the positive space (the foliage, in this case) simply stop, refocus and continue. We are training the brain to work a little differently.

Once they understand what they are doing, they have so much more to see and respond to. Negative space helps to define the boundaries of positive space and brings balance to a composition.  It also gives the eye a place to rest.

All of the drawings are strong graphic compositions. The contrast allows for a particularly type of delicacy and boldness to take place at the same time. In general the class enjoys the study. In some cases students are so immersed in the work, I have to remind them to take a break.

There is something great about teaching this particular assignment because as soon as the students grasp the concept, they quickly begin to use it and consequently experience things around them very differently.


Anne’s Cactus Skeleton


Trenary’s Weeds and Clover


Terry’s Poinsettia


Adam’s Flowers


Clay’s Leaves and Berries


Heather’s Plants

Drawing 2 students work with color and have a little bit more freedom with how they approach the study.


Susan’s Ironed Weed


Cassidy’s Fall Leaves


negative space

I could understand what he was saying, but it didn’t come naturally to me. I had to be reminded to look for it. To see the stuff that’s there but not there.

-Carol Rifka Brunt, Tell the Wolves I’m Home


We are looking at the space between and around the subject – we are looking at negative space. After I have given the directions I come around and remind  each student what we are doing.  Some students find themselves frustrated and others take to the focus easily. That’s just the way it plays out. And though a few insist that they don’t exactly have it down, they all come through with beautiful completed works.

Here are a few examples:


The Tim Burton Leaf by Robert


Angel Hair by Joshua


Fall by Angie


Tales of Two Cats by JT


Popay works on his drawing


The Stand Out by Popay


Bella is completely focused.






Aloe Vera by Kayla

Kayla (above) a Drawing 1 student, completed both in class and home work and still worked on an extra drawing. She went outside and after seeing what she was doing I handed her a box of pastels with not much direction on how to use them. I just thought she should have fun and experiment – she did.

Below are Drawing 2 students. They experiment with different media, though still focus on negative space.





Ma is a Japanese word which can be roughly translated as gap, space, pause or the space between two structural parts.

IMG_5028 IMG_5029

focusing on the negative. it’s a good thing.

But to me nothing – the negative, the empty – is exceedingly powerful.                                                                 Alan Watts

The Japanese refer to it as Ma which roughly translates as “gap”, “space”, “pause” or “the space between two structural parts. Negative space, in art, is the space around and between the subject(s). The use of negative space is a key element of artistic composition.

Emphasis is on negative space in this assignment. Though compositions may appear simple, the concept isn’t always easily grasped.  Several students have a more than difficult time with it.  I remind them they are learning to look and see in a new way. The brain is rewiring, patience is key. We’ll use the concept throughout the rest of the semester they’ll all have it down, if not now, eventually.

Below are examples of some of the drawings we critique today. You decide…do the positive and the negative space balance?