Negative space exercises: How capable are young children of learning the concept

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Negative space is not the easiest of concepts for little children. Many adults have had their issues with it so it’s not surprising that it can be a hard concept to grasp. The 2 pictures here, the one above and the one below are great examples of what negative space means. The space between the 2 faces above and the space between the 2 cliffs below are what is referred to as negative space.

When you see a tree with its branches splayed out across a blue sky the branches,  the leaves, and the tree trunk is the positive space and that is the way most of us attempt to draw. (and why so many of us fail because we think the only way to draw is by drawing the positive space)


Negative space is a big concept in art. Negative space exercises are a good way to teach negative space.

Betty Edwards the author of Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain     spends lots of time talking about negative space. The negative space is what you see between the branches of the tree above. Negative space is the space between our efforts in drawing and  painting.

The problem is that we are not used to seeing that way and we need to spend a good deal of time looking at the  object until the negative spaces jump into focus as shapes themselves.

In her book Ms. Edwards discusses the phenomenon of how when adults learn to SEE negative space and draw a picture concentrating on those shapes that they see as negative space then their drawing skills take a monumental leap.

In one of Mary Ann F. Kohl’s wonderful books on art for children, to   to help young children understand what negative space  is ,I found a great activity you can do with children on negative space.

This activity may make some children a bit queasy as they may not  like  painting on a whole paper with holes, but it will start teaching even young children the concept of negative space.

Basically, all that you do is take a piece of newsprint or any paper that your child was going to paint on. Either you or the child depending on their age) can cut a hole or any shape  in the paper and have them paint on the paper USING the hole as part of the picture.

This does take a bit of imagination and creativity and if you use the words negative space when discussing their picture, they will really start to understand it as part of the painting or drawing process.

This activity should not be done until the children have had enough time painting on whole sheets of paper before painting on a paper with a hole.

I then tried a couple of my own negative space experiment with some children ages 6-8.

I had them put a string on a small piece of tag board and  paint around the string. I told them they were only painting negative space. Some of the first drew a line around and then painted making it easier for them.


I then gave them a similar activity by putting some quarter on a  paper and had them do the same thing.

Below is a copy from the book Drawing With Children that has some exercises showing the children the negative and the positive spaces.

I then had the kids try to draw only the negative space in this  stool

I tried to have them turn it  upside    down as that is what is recommended in both Betty Edward books and the Monart book

Above were two  children’s attempts.(one was quite good actually)

They gave up pretty quickly and I am not sure how fast I would do negative space exercises again with kids this young.

I think I would wait until this children have some level of proficiency before introducing negative space.

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