research point: positive and negative space

Look at a range of artists working today and see how they incorporate positive and negative spaces in their work. One example is Gary Hume; try to find some others and annotate some examples of their work in your learning log.

I’ve annotated photographs of these works in a sketchbook – this is the online version of those notes. I’ve spent most time with the works by current artists (as per the course research point), but have added Matisse and Ben Nicholson on the end because of the influence of Matisse, and because Nicholson seems to be doing something different with his interplay of positive and negative space.

Lunker 1997 by Peter Doig born 1959

Lunker 1997 Peter Doig born 1959 Presented by the artist and Charles Booth-Clibborn 1998

Etching seems to be a natural partner to playing around with positive/negative space.

The subject is silouhetted but has become an abstract shape – and this works like the classic Rubin’s vase – the water becomes a huge arrow, split by the figure, the forest a creature with hair standing on end and jaws open…

The reflection becomes part of the mass – what’s not real becomes solid, while the sky begins to seep down in to the dark – sculpting the forest.

The figure and boat have lost all curves and softness, they are angles – this seems to give both positive and negative space equal attention. The head becomes part of the distant landscape, the arm part of the water’s currents. There is a fusion of man and boat into his surroundings.

There is a constrast between the texture of the water and the matt of forest and man and boat – investigate etching process – is this the natural outcome or something the artist insisted on?

For me the whole is about how we actually see, when faced with a dark sky and a low sun on the water – its brilliance can be blinding.

Lunker: the biggest fish in a given body of water. I didn’t know this until right now (yes! it suddenly occurred to me to look it up) and it has changed the way I see this image. It has made the scene more specific – tied to an event – the search for, or the catch of the lunker? Before knowing this, the scene was more peaceful and timeless.


Title and date unknown, from the Friday 13th series by Peter Doig, and via an interview in with Robin Enright

I chose a second Peter Doig painting which seems to work as the perfect complement to Lunker when it comes to talking positive and negative space.

Darkness of sky and water frame the boat and its reflection – they surround it, hold it – the boat is literally enveloped by the night.

As with Lunker, man and boat are fused with nature  – the girl’s arm becoming another thin white tree trunk, the girl and the boat both in and out of water.

Again, the reflection has become part of the boat’s mass, it is simply a double boat, one attached to the other.

Not so clear on the photograph is that the blackness as a real inky blue depth with scrapes and splashes of white – specks of light. Doig has captured the colours of moonlight, yet this is too bright – this is searchlight, flashlight.

It looks as though he has sketched the girl and inside of the boat in pencil. The boat is roughly covered in green paint, her hair is a uniform yellow and the highlights are white. Looking closely however there are layers of other colours, touches of pink, beige, grey.

When I come to research the painting, the way I feel about it changes, as it did when I found out what a Lunker was. I had found this work intriguing and poetic. While I haven’t been able to find its title, it clearly forms part of Doig’s Friday 13th series. Put poetry and intrigue aside – this painting is a scene straight out of a 1980s slasher movie. This makes the image less interesting to me. As a total lightweight the it comes to horror films, I’ve never seen the film, and I am open to believing I may feel different about the painting should I do so.


Mamma Andersson has highlighted negative space by leaving it blank.

We have our subject, wrapped around a blanket, surrounded by books and magazines. The space around is essentially blank, framed by a slightly less blank grey.

The figure could be floating, suspended in a nothingness. We can work out that the blank space is the bed but this just leaves us wondering what is real, what is imaginary.

Because of the single overlap of white space on the corner of one book, we understand the form – that the whiteness is a bed – but we get the feeling that the bed has been erased, wiped out. This raises all sorts of questions – why? A bed is a highly charged thing. Has someone removed the bed? Access to the bed? Are they no longer sharing the bed? Who’s bed is it? The title ‘Who is sleeping on my pillow’ has overtones of the 3 bears fairytale to it. Is this someone who shouldn’t be here? What will happen when they are discovered?

I don’t think this painting needs the title, just the simple act of creating this blank negative space around the subject creates a tension that draws the viewer in.


Title unknown, Mamma Andersson, via


From the Concrete Cabin series, Peter Doig

These two paintings feel very similar to me – not just in subject matter but because both artists are playing again with negative space – making us wonder what is real, what might be imaginary.

Seeing just a piece of the building leaves the windows suspended in a blankness. Mamma Andersson lets her trees weave in and out of the building while Doig has meticulously painted the space between the trees – filling the natural space with man-made space.

Aside: it was a pang of nostalgia that made me look closer at Doig’s Concrete Cabin series – they reminded me very strongly of a house I would come across as a kid when walking through local woods. It was spooky and creepy, and we would never dare to get too close. The house turned out to be Homewood House, built by Patrick Gwynne in the 1930s – an architect heavily influenced by Le Corbusier – who built the ‘concrete cabin’ of Doig’s paintings. (Homewood House has since been restored and handed over the to National Trust).

Katharine Arnold, Head of the Evening Auction, discusses Peter Doig’s Cabin Essence


Entrance to the Zoo, 1912. David Milne

Not a ‘working artist’ but cited by Doig as an influence, and when I saw his work it reminded me immediately of Alexandra Blum’s paintings. Both artists appear to create negative space where we least expect it – sometimes almost reversing it and giving a feeling of celluloid negative.

Milne hasn’t bothered with the space in between the foliage of his trees, houses, window frames. He’s just left it all blank. It acts as a highlight, brightening the scene – so even though he has worked with black outlines, we get the impression this is a  bright day with flashes of sunshine.


Tower, 2012, Alexandra Blum

Alexandra Blum really toys with the idea of space itself – what is there, what is not. Her images make us consider space, especially in a city – the space of air that a building inhabits. We often think of the footprint, but less of what is taken from the space above ground.

In Tower, the stark white spaces make me think of obliteration – and this has an association with war – of what was taken away from London, what remained. Of how we use the space has changed. Is that tower block and that church only standing for those that remember it?

Bathers with a Turtle, 1907-1908, Matisse


Dance, 1909-10, Matisse

Doig mentions Matisse’s Bathers with a Turtle in his interview with Robin Enright, 2006 and I see similarities in how both Doig and Matisse have framed their subjects with strong negative space.

Bathers with a Turtle has rhythm – triangle, triangle, triangle – curve! The eye is drawn from the foot that points to the hand feeding the turtle to the lower legs of the other two girls and up and around the back of the seated girl, finally to the standing figure.

Seems to have placed emphasis on these spaces with a finely marked dark line. They send the eye swooping up around the painting to that weird, weird face! It’s such an interesting painting  – but keeping to the subject of neg and pos space….Dance – the spaces around the dancers’ bodies have their own movement, they are doing their own dance. These spaces are bold and clear and add strength to the momentum and tension through the linked hands of the dancers.


Blue Nude II, 1952, Matisse

Later, and even more balance and interplay between positive and negative space. Matisse creates a beautiful rhythm with three white triangles leading to bottom right of image – petals unfurling – consequently giving the body life and movement.


Goldfish and Palette, 1914, Matisse


Detail from Goldfish and Palette, 1914, Matisse

Matisse gives absolute equal billing to negative and positive space – makes the image ambiguous – it becomes hard to read what is where. This is also what makes it so alive. The table or shelf under the goldfish has become part negative space, unless is it glass? Perspective is distorted, nothing recedes, it is all coming forward. Towards us – gives feeling we are entering the image, we are in the image…

Careless about negative space around the leaves of the plant – seem to be squiggles and blobs of whatever he had to hand!

1943-45 (St Ives, Cornwall) 1943-5 by Ben Nicholson OM 1894-1982

1943-45, (St Ives, Corwall), 1943-45, Ben Nicholson

Nicholson is using positive and negative space to play with perspective.

As with Matisse I see a rhythm here, though Nicholson blends his scene together – the sea becomes a roof top, the church roof becomes the sea – weaving in to a little pool of water by the boats – and the rooftops becomes harbour.

Frames his view – it becomes narrow by bands of colour – curtain? window frame? The ‘space’ of sky has been divided – or is this reflection?

Uses shapes to lead the eye around the image.

Captures the jumble of St Ives, the narrowness of viewpoint from inside the town.

Feels like he has put this together through collage (? find out more) – creating shapes – finding their placement and painting.

Flag? Gone a bit Boden…From Tate’s website Nicholson starting working on landscapes at the suggestion of his dealer, because they were easier to sell than his previous work – the flag is the final patriotic touch.

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