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Figure/Ground Relationship

Figure-ground Relationship (also called positive and negative space) is used two and three diminsional design. In its basic sense, it refers to a cognitive ability to separate elements based upon contrast, that is, dark and light, black and white, contrasting colors and "there" and "not there". In figure/ground relationships the absence or void is as important as the filled-in or occupied areas in the composition.

More often, we simply talk about positive and negative space. An artwork has areas where something IS and areas where something ISN'T. The boundery or edge between those spaces creates a shape and that shape creates the art. In art the blank, empty areas have as much weight and importance as the areas with something in them. In silouettes, for instance, the background defines the space that you see as a positive area. In artwork that emphasizes figure/ground relationship the shapes and lines that outline and define the background are important compositional elements and lead you around the artwork and to the focal point.

Here are some examples of artwork that emphasize positive/negative (figure/ground) relationships of their use of space and shape.

In this first group, notice that they all have the same theme (sky with birds) and how each artwork has it's own point of few. The sky is defined by a shape. The shape can be the trees or the arch or the shape of the bird. Which artwork do you think would score as a 3, 4, or 5? Which of the three artworks show the idea of figure ground relationship well, but doesn't go past showing the principle (a score of 3), which artwork shows the principle of figure/ground very well, but doesn't show much personal expression (a score of 4) and which shows the principle very well, has high quality and a great deal of personal expression (a 5)?



This second group shows how graphic artists use positive and negative space in commercial applications. Notice how the background space defines and tells us what the colored or "picture" space is. Our eyes automatically fill in the missing information (like the missing parts of the letters or the missing arm of the girl or details in the polo player) based on the shapes of the negative space.



Positive and negative shapes don't have to be solid. Look at this very nice drawing of a bike. The postive areas that are dark are contrasted with the negative areas that are white. In other areas they effect is reversed. Positive and negative areas can be shaded or textured or of any color. The idea is that there is a contrast between the two areas that is sharp enough that we see the shapes they make.



Here are three stools, all done in charcoal and all done with emphasis on positive and negative shapes. Grade these with a 3, 4 or 5 AP grade. Which shows the best use of design principles, confidence in execution, and personal expression?



Lastly, here are three lovely artworks that show how positive and negative shapes can be used in representational and more abstract work. Notice how the pose of the women and the placement of her feet and hands define the box she is in. As well as being beautifully drawn, this painting has an emotional aspect that pushes it to the highest level. Hiding her face makes her a symbol of a feeling, not a specific person. It also helps us understand that she is trapped and unhappy. The box she is in is literal as well as emotional and is a feeling we all can relate to. Notice that we don't need to see the edges of the artwork to know where they are.

The second drawing of this group has a subtle, textured background that contributes to the movement of the grasses and flowers. Notice how the artist has used thick and thin lines to create a sense of movement even though THERE IS NOTHING TO SEE. We just see the background, our imagination fills in the rest.

This last peice has some wonderful textures and reflections in it. We don't even notice the postive and negative shapes that much, but if you examine it, you'll see that they are very much a part of this design. Look at how the white jagged corner balances all of the dark jagged areas and that the black areas have the same jagged bits in them. While the peice can be seen as almost three different drawings they hang together as one because of the repeated jagged postive and negative shapes.


         Alice Taylor, Instructor .:. school email.:. 254-336-0800 .:. © 2010. ver2