Negative Spaces


We draw the empty spaces of a chair

2 teaching hours


  • Chair (with interesting empty spaces)
  • Paper, pencil (semi-soft)
  • A Picture plane can be used (in this case the student must be taught how to use it).


This lesson is conceived by Betty Edwards who developed a drawing method that seeks to activate the right side of the brain as a strategy to improve our observation skills.
The exercise consists of drawing the negative space of an object. That is, instead of concentrating on the positive space, as we normally do, we focus our attention on the empty space inside and around the object we are drawing. In this way we pay attention to the shape we are seeing and deactivate the language dominant region of our brain. We stop drawing mental symbols and start observing the shapes as they look and not as we think they look.
This is an exercise to unlearn the mental categories that our language imposes. We also develop perceptual strategies to increase our power of observation.

Language and representation

According to Edwards, through language, from childhood we adopt a system of symbols that influences our perception.

 “From childhood onward, we have learned to see things in terms of words: We name things, and we know facts about them. The dominant left verbal system doesn’t want too much information about things it perceives—just enough to recognize and to categorize. In ordinary life, we screen out a large proportion of incoming perceptions, a necessary process to enable us to focus our thinking and one that works very well for us most of the time. But drawing requires that you look at something for a long time, perceiving lots of details and how they fit together to form wholes, registering as much information as possible—ideally, everything.” ((Edwards 2017, S.122)

When we sit down to draw and observe, a cognitive battle of perception begins. Let’s look at the example Edwards presents in his book:

The images above “show an interesting graphic record of a student’s mental struggle and its resolution in two drawings of a cart and projector. The first drawing (on the left), the student had great difficulty reconciling his stored knowledge of what the objects were “supposed to look like” with what he actually saw. Notice the signs of mental struggle throughout the drawing, along with signs of surrender to verbal knowledge: the legs of the cart are all the same length, and the same symbol is used for all the wheels, even though they are in different positions.

When the student shifted to drawing only the shapes of the negative spaces, he was far more successful (on the right). The visual information apparently came through clearly; the drawing looks confident and as though it was done with ease. And, in fact, it was done with ease, because using negative spaces enables one to escape the mental crunch that occurs when perceptions don’t match conceptions.” (Edwards 2017, S.161)



15 min. Why is learning to see and draw negative spaces important? Here are 3 important aspects, highlighted by Betty Edwards (Edwards 2017, S.165), of focusing our gaze on negative spaces:

1.1 negative spaces make drawing difficult things easy.  Learning to switch between positive and negative space is a great help to solve difficult areas of our drawing.

Example from the book “Drawing on the Right side of the Brain” by Betty Edwards

In our drawings we always have complicated areas that are not so easy to solve. In these cases it is good to use the technique of concentrating on the empty space. In the example above, we see an implementation of this technique.

1.2 A tool to improve our ability to observe
As we already commented above, it helps us to free ourselves from the system of symbols imposed by language. One of the reasons why we sometimes get lost when we try to represent something, is because we stop observing and we end up drawing the mental symbol and not what we have in front of our eyes.

1.3 It helps us to create better compositions
Another great utility of taking into account the negative space is when creating good compositions and layouts. Keeping in mind that empty space is as important as full space can make a difference in our compositions.
We tend to focus too much on the concrete, positive or visible and forget that negative space is just as important to a well done composition. It is a holistic view that takes into account the whole.

2. Drawing empty spaces

15 min. Warm up. We concentrate on the empty spaces of some interesting drawing on paper. In my case I have chosen a drawing of a Buddha.

We use the same principle focusing on the black surfaces

45 min. We put the chair in the center and we start drawing. The idea is to look for an object that has interesting negative spaces. A chair is perfect for this exercise because from any angle, it has several empty spaces that help to orient our lines on the paper.

3. Pause (10 min)

15 min. We put all the drawings on the wall and start with the feedback round.

The first thing to do is to ask the students what they thought of the experience.
For many it is the first time they have concentrated on observing negative spaces. That is why there are comments of amazement.

In these exercise we do something we are not used to, and that is where the adventure begins. It’s like a “switching” in the brain, for example, when we try to write with the hand we don’t normally write with, or when we write in the opposite direction, from right to left. Something that is familiar to us suddenly becomes strange. This “shift” is a creative technique that can help us look at problems differently.

below, some exercises made by students aged 17-18 years old:

Here are more exercises done with 14 year old students. Possibly if I had asked them to draw the positive space, the proportions of the bench would be drawn a little more distorted.