Ever wonder how artists draw the really hard part of pictures, like the legs and the horns on this big horn sheep?


They do it by NOT drawing the the legs and the horns. They draw the negative spaces.

Drawing negatives spaces shuts off the L-Mode left hand side of your brain (the one used for language) and instead kicks in the R-Mode right hand side (the one for drawing).


But your left brain lacks the words to describe the negative spaces it is drawing, the right side simple draws what it sees (or doesn’t see).


So by focusing on the spaces, and ignoring the hard parts, you can take a complicated, tough picture, and get the hard parts right by drawing the spaces.

This is one technique artists use to get the hard parts right.

Other notes from Betty’s Book:

  • professional artists put as much attention and detail into these negative spaces as they do the objects they are drawing
  • the forms take care of themselves when you focus on the negative space
  • beginner artists struggle with drawing because they put all their attention and focus on the object they are drawing, and none to the space around it

Negative spaces have three important functions:

  1. Negative spaces make difficult drawing tasks easy.
  2. Emphasis on negative space unifies your drawing and strengthens your composition. Emphasis on negative spaces automatically creates unity, and, conversely, ignoring negative spaces inevitably di-unifies an artwork.
  3. Most important, learning to pay attention to negative spaces will enrich and expand your perceptual abilities. You will find yourself intrigued by seeing negative space all around you.

Exercise: drawing a chair

Here we are going to draw a chair. Only we are not going to draw it at all! Instead, we are going to draw the easy parts, the negative spaces.

So here is the chair I have chosen to draw.


And here is my attempt at capturing the negative spaces.


Hmmm. No so good. This was harder than I thought!

Now admittedly, I am not following Betty’s instructions to a tee. For one I don’t have a plane viewer to simulate the taking a picture and then copying what you see. But also, I really felt the pain of spacing and composition (getting everything spaced right).

Betty refers to this challenge as finding your ‘basis unit’, and this is something all beginners struggle with.

You see whenever you start drawing a picture, you need somewhere to start. More than that, the size at which you draw that first thing, sets the stage for the rest of the picture.

If you draw the legs of the chair too big, your picture will spill beyond your borders. Too small, and everything else will seem out of whack.

To remedy this, Betty has some exercises that basically build kind of grid system, or cross hairs, so you can draw everything else relative to it’s position in your view. That’s why I have that ‘+’ sign in the middle of my picture. It helps me space everything relative to that.

Doing this exercise also made me appreciate how much is going on whenever I traced pictures (something I used to do a lot as a kid).

When you take a cartoon, comic books strip, or picture and trace it, all the spacing is handled for you. You don’t need to worry about the size of the head vs the size of the body. It is all handled because it’s a picture!

That’s how photography started. It was artists who had planer viewers they used to look at scenes through for perspective, and then photography came along and did all that for us.

Anyways, fascinating topic. Not my greatest drawing, but I can appreciated the power of negative spacing, and will try to leverage it, along with contour lines, in future drawings.

More drawing posts:
Modified Contour Drawing Exercise
Drawing on the right side of the brain
Three exercises to get you going
Vases and faces
Drawing upside down
Use contour drawing to see things differently

Betty’s excellent book Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain.