Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Negative Perceptions In Illustration Composition

N is for Negative. © 2015 Don Arday.
The relationship of positive and negative form plays an essential role in understanding and applying visual literacy. Compositionally speaking, the things that are left out, and the spaces between elements of a composition are equally as important as the elements, objects, and figures that are placed into a composition. Negative space coordinates the positive elements with one and other. In other words, it is the negative space in a composition that provides definition and harmony.

To understand the importance of negative space it is important to understand how persons perceive the scenes they view on a two-dimensional picture plane. To begin with, it is impossible for the mind to comprehend both negative and positive elements in the same instant. This physiological limitation creates a conflict in a viewer’s perception that can be visually stimulating and entertaining. Yet for some viewers it can be somewhat annoying. One perceives only the positive or only the negative. This is a fundamental concept of visual literacy.

Two shape interpretations, but in either example only the vase or the faces can
be perceived in a given instant. A demonstration of figure ground, i.e. object
and space by Danish psychologist Edgar Rubin.


Two-dimensional compositions are more or less divisions of space. Space is the area around and within an object, form, or shape. Space in front of or behind an object does not exist on a picture plane. It can only be implied. Space, whether it is within an object or around it, can be either positive or negative.

An example of implied form and space through compositional
illusion. Artist: Norman Duenas.

Space within and around form used to define figures.
Artist: Eric Goodwin.


Forms and shapes are either positive or negative. This applies to both objects and the space that exists around them. In a conventional two-dimensional composition, objects constitute positive forms, while the environment they exist in makes up negative space. This rudimentary principle is based on sight and perception. Therefore effective use of negative space is essential to a two-dimensional composition. It is far easier for viewers to be attracted to see positive elements within a composition than it is for them to see negative ones. However it is the juxtaposition or coexistence of the positive and negative form to space that creates order. Artists such as M. C. Escher created many interesting works exploring this concept of juxtaposition.

A supreme example of negative and positive juxtaposition. Path of Life.
Artist: M.C. Escher.

Criminal and hero juxtaposed. Artist: Simom C. Page.

Negative positive male and female justaposed.
Artist: Malika Farve.


Perspective in two-dimensional art is an approximation to represent an image spatially, or as the eye would see it in reality if it existed, i.e., it is the technique used to represent three-dimensional images on a two-dimensional picture plane. Objects that are closer to the viewer are larger and as their distance from the viewer increases they become smaller. They may also be foreshortened and display a reduction of chroma and contrast. Any tangential relationships within a composition tend to counteract spatial depth. There is a significant difference when regarding perspective between what is seen in reality and what appears on a picture plane. In the real world, there is no such thing as negative space. Things are either closer or more distant, but every space is occupied. On a picture plane, by necessity, a form of editing and translation must occur to impart perspective. The use of negative space plays an important part in achieving an acceptable composition.

Perspective is used to create an impression of scenic space while using tangential
relationships for spacial contrast. Artist: Mads Berg.

A composition with multiple perspectives. Artist: Tamer Poyraz Demiralp.


Everything in a two dimensional composition is implied. In other words, it is not real but merely a recording of something that exists in another state -- be it in reality or the imagination of the artist. In order to be visible, forms and elements take up two-dimensional space. And in a narrative or representational work, in an attempt to convince a viewer to believe and understand what is being represented, all aspects of a composition are implied.

Though the use of positive form and negative space, it is a mental
challenge for a viewer to ignore the implied face. Artist unknown.

Stylizied elements are composed to imply narrative content.
Artist: Adam Francey.


Although viewers seek to ascribe meaning to a visual composition, they don’t necessarily go about it by carefully examining what they are looking at. This forms the basis for the illusory nature of two-dimensional art. Viewers believe in first impressions. The visual elements they see in a work of art are given “the benefit of the doubt” that they represent tangible things by a viewer. Therefore, an artist through remarkable elaboration, unique stylization, or extreme simplification of form can suggest an object or a concept. This can be done using positive elements or negative ones. Although it is acceptable for a viewer to rely on first impressions, an artist must look beyond them.

Two types of dog. Artist: Nick Kumbari.

Six animals are represented here. Artist: Carolyn Remy.

Positive form as both negative and positive. Through association a viewer 
puts the scene together. Artist: Frank Miller. Scene from Sin City. 

Negative form as both positive and negative. Artist: Frank Miller.

Scene from Sin City. 

Association of shapes to familiar subjects. Artist: Napoleon Kwatila Bongaman.

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