GDPE diagrams negative space 18

Often overlooked due to its frequent role as an absence of things is the element of space. But space is much more than an absence. It is properly defined as the area inside, outside, all around, above, and/or below the formal objects – or figures – in a composition. It can also be described as the ground behind one or more figures... and this is where it gets interesting.

Figure/Ground Relationships

 figure groundR figure groung@2x 100

In the above image, there are three square compositions, each containing an uppercase R (set in Didot). Each one demonstrates one of three kinds of figure/ground relationships: 

  • Stable: In the leftmost composition, it's pretty clear that there is a black R hovering on top of white ground, and can be described as having a stable figure/ground relationship. 
  • Reversible: In the middle composition, however, there is some tension as to what is figure and what is ground, even though we know it's just a closer cropping on a black R. This figure/ground relationship is said to be reversible because whether white or black is figure or ground can go either way.   
  • Ambiguous: in the rightmost composition, it's really never clear which in the figure and which is the ground. Both white and black have strong arguments for being the figure. Of course we can guess it's just another close cropping of the R, the relationship becomes ambiguous.

Figure/Ground Exercises

figure groundblack figures bw 100figure groundwhite figures bw 100

In the two images above, it's not clear which is the figure and which is the ground. It's also not clear where to look. As a result, and despite the dynamic movement of the diagonals shapes, the content flow throughout each image is fairly static. However, what if we changed that up a bit by adding some color to reveal what is the actual figure in each image:

figure groundblack figures color key 100figure groundwhite figures color key 100

By simply coloring two figures in each of the original images, I have achieved some content flow. The colors, in this case, identify which shapes are the figures (black on top, white on bottom), but they also provide strong focal points that create hierarchy. But there's still more we can do: the bottom image is still a little ambiguous: the colors could just be strips of color within black figures, hovering over a white background; or it could be white and colored strips hovering over a black background (which is actually how it was created). To fix this ambiguity, let's get rid of a few white figures and let the black dominate as the ground:

figure groundcleaned up white and colored shapes 100

Much better: now there is a healthy amount of negative space (black background), a dominant focal point (the magenta figure), a secondary focal point (the blue figure), and uneven spacing. All of these things help achieve successful content flow.

Here are more interesting uses of negative space and figure/ground reversals that I have found from the dank nether-regions of the web:

Depth and Space

Wait, we're not done yet... One important aspect of space is depth, and it refers to the appearance of a third axis – generally called the Z-axis in digital media – that originates from the viewer's point in space, out in to infinity along the viewer’s line of sight. Print, digital media, and film are all two dimensional, and therefore depth is merely an illusion. The onus to successfully represent depth rests squarely on the artist, designer, or filmmaker. Since at least the Renaissance, artists of all kinds have been struggling with this very challenge and, thankfully, we can reap the benefits. 

Below are just a few strategies for how artists and designers achieve the illusion of depth in 2D space:

Strategy 01: Representing Depth with Diminishing Scale, Diagonals, and Linear perspective

A painting of the Florence Baptistry, not by Brunelleschi, but perhaps close enough?

Linear perspective is perhaps the oldest strategy for representing the Z axis, and its discovery is credited to Filippo Brunelleschi, with his application of linear perspective in his painting of the Florentine Baptistry. As the story goes (according to Antonio Manetti), Brunelleschi painted an exact portrait of the Florentine Baptistry from the door of the Florence Cathedral (which he designed, and was currently in the process of constructing). The painting was so exact, he claimed, that one could superimpose his painting over the baptistry itself and they would match perfectly. He even purportedly designed an elaborate mirror system to do just this. 

A diagram of Filippo Brunelleschi's purported experiment

That said, Brunelleschi’s actual perspective paintings (which no longer exist...if they ever did) were not properly the first, as that credit belongs to one Ambrogio Lorenzetti, with his Presentation at the Temple, painted nearly a century prior in 1342. 

ambrogio lorenzetti 21 presentation in the temple
Ambrogio Lorenzetti, Presentation at the Temple (1342)

Indeed, a century later, architect Sebastiano Serlio would claim that linear perspective was well-known to the ancient world, and that 1st century Roman architect and general Marco Polio Vitruvius referred to it as scenographia. 

From Marco Pollo Vitrubius Ten Books on Architecture, by Gotardus da Ponte, 1521 

Despite this, it’s still not clear what exactly Brunelleschi intended with his pronouncement, other than to prove he ‘discovered’ something at a time where ‘discovering’ was all the rage. Here is how science historian David Wootton compares Brunelleschi and Lorenzetti:

It is evident that both paintings avoided the obvious method of demonstrating depth in a two-dimensional image, which is to show orthogonals, parallel lines running at right angles to the picture plane and converging on a vanishing point. The most straightforward example is a tiled floor.i Instead, both pictures must have used two-point perspective, where lines which are neither parallel to the picture plane nor at right angles to it converge on distance points to the left and right of the picture plane itself. If Brunelleschi wanted to experiment with depth of field, why not use a vanishing-point perspective, which would have been straightforward, and indeed familiar to him? Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s Annunciation of 1344, for example, uses a tiled floor and converging parallels to create a sense of depth of field. Lorenzetti had not mastered all the complexities of perspective construction – see how the back of Mary’s chair is higher than the front, and how the angel’s left foot is no further back than his right knee. But he did know how to make a tiled floor recede into the distance. If Brunelleschi was simply trying to create an impression of depth, he could have simply shown an interior with a tiled floor.

– David Wootton, “The Invention of Science: A New History of the Scientific Revolution.”  

Regardless, in much the same way the Columbus didn’t really 'discover' anything new upon landing in the Western Hemisphere, yet still became the 'Discoverer of the New World,’ so too did Brunelleschi become the 'discoverer' of perspective, as his process for creating this exact image would become the gold standard for forced, geometric perspective in Western art.

Strategy 02: Representing depth via value or atmospheric perspective

In addition to scale naturally diminishing as distance increases, so too does the visibility of objects. This is certainly due to a property possessed by all radiant energy (and gravity, as it happens), i.e. it naturally diminishes in luminance over distance – a fact which corresponds to the inverse square law.

A diagrammatic description of the Inverse square law (source)

But luminance is not the only property of light that is diminished over distance, as atmospheric conditions, such as smog, humidity, and just straight up air particles all absorb different wavelengths (read: colors) of light.

Therefore, as reflected light travels through our relatively thick atmosphere, both color and  brightness  appear to leach from – or modify within – the object we’re seeing. Many artists throughout history have been aware of this phenomenon, with argueably the most influential of responses coming from the Impressionists. But we can easily find an understanding of this in the work of Romantic period artists Joseph WM Turner and Eugène Delacroix half a century prior.  Look below at Turner’s lush Ancient Rome…(1839) or Delacroix's busy The Death of Sardanapalus (1827). How many layers of depth can you identify, and what techniques did they use to achieve the illusion of depth?* 

Joseph Mallord William Turner, "Ancient Rome; Agrippina Landing with the Ashes of Germanicus" (1839)
Eugene Delacroix, "The Death of Sardanapalus" (1827)
*Bonus points for identifying other ways Delacroix was a master of crearting the illusion of depth. Hint: look at the spaces in between figures... [this] may help.
But an artist who certainly broke interesting ground in his attempts to represent this phenomenon in his prints and etchings was Jacques Callot (1592 – 1635). In addition to perfecting other etching processes, he also substantially advanced the technique of 'stopping out' the acid etching process, producing areas of different etched depths, thereby resulting in areas of different amounts of ink on the same printing plate.  
Callot skillfully chose to 'stop out' those parts of the image that were to appear more distant, with closer foreground areas etched more deeply. When the etched plate was thereupon inked and pressed upon paper, ‘closer’ areas imprinted more darkly than  lighter, more ‘distant’ areas. For an example of this, check out the cheerful image below – produced in Callot's final year – and see if you can spot how many layers of depth there are:
Jaques Callot, "The Temptation of St Anthony" (1635)

Today we use a similar techniques to achieve the impression or illusion of depth in all types of media, thanks to innovators like Callot.


Strategy 03: Vertical placement

This one’s easy: our brains tend to perceive compositional elements closer to the top of the picture plane as being more distant, in addition to being higher in elevation, whereas those elements closer to the bottom appear to be closer. The ukiyo-e period of feudal Japan produced a high-water mark in vertically oriented landscape art, where we can see this technique used forcefully to create the illusion of depth.  Hiroshige's Kanōzan Mountain…, in particular, is a great example.


Andō Utagawa Hiroshige, "Kanōzan Mountain, Kazusa Province" (1858)

Make a quick note of the color distribution in Hiroshige's piece above. Notice how the perceived background of the image – the horizon line – is bathed in warm to cool gradient, whereas the foreground is progressively cooler as it appears to approach the viewer? This is distribution of warm and cool colors is actually a little counterintuitive, as you'll see in the fourth and final strategy below.   

Strategy 04: Suggesting Depth Through Color 

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly in regards to 2-dimensional media, we perceive warm colors as advancing towards us, where’s cool colors recede. This technique is used widely though art history, design, digital media, and filmmaking. In fact, pushing and pulling scene objects with color is one of the few tricks cinematographers have to make a 2D scene appear to have depth, which is why they chose their lighting colors very carefully.

Below is a landscape by German Expressionist Ernst Kirchner who, you can see, employs this cool/warm depth trick with aplomb, forcing an illusion of depth:


Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, landscape


Northern Expressionist Emil Nolde also uses this color trick in his work. See his two works below:


Emil Nolde, "Free Spirit," 1906

 Pieter Brueghel the Younger's The Crucifixion


This pushing and pulling of perceived distance via warm and cool colors has an important place in photography and cinematography as well. Turn on any film or TV episode and you will likely find this at work in various ways. Just for the sake of discussion, I have placed below various scenes from Lucrecia Martel’s 2017 super-excellent film Zama. This Argentinian film features intentionally overpacked scenes, with multiple layers of depth, to create an almost surreal, painterly atmosphere.