What is Negative Space?


This is my shower curtain.

It was the first thing I bought when we moved into our new home a few months ago and I love it more than a human should love an inanimate object. In fact, I may have been heard mumbling on a particularly hard day recently that my shower curtain was my favorite family member....which should tell you both some things about my family and my love for this piece of bathroom decor.

Knowing this, it may not come as a huge surprise that I was gazing at its beauty as I lathered up one morning. This particular day, however, I noticed something that I had never noticed before. In between the designs stitched into the curtain was another pattern. My eyes shifted and I suddenly noticed the zig-zagged lines snaking in between the diamonds, performing a show of their very own that I had never before recognized.

Seeing this, a term from art class years ago popped into my consciousness:

negative space


In case it's been a while since you took Art Appreciation, here's a bit of a review. Below you'll see a classic example of negative space in art. At first glance, you probably see a black vase (the positive space/subject of the composition), but if you shift your perspective you'll see that the white on the sides, the negative space, creates not only the sides of the vase, but also two faces that are nose to nose.


This concept of being there but not seen, of being a necessary part of the design and yet wholly unappreciated resonates with me and so I dug deeper into the definitions behind the term.

Some things that I found:

  • Negative space is the space around and between the subject of an image.
  • Negative spaces are actual shapes that share edges with the positive shape.
  • Just as important as the object itself, negative space helps to define the boundaries of the positive space and brings balance to a composition.
  • Musicians describe periods of silence within a musical piece as negative space.
  • Seeing negative spaces involves learning to see in a new and abstract way.
  • Negative space is understood by relatively few people, but with a bit of practice, it can help you look at photos (LIFE!!!!!)  in a new way.

Each of these descriptions of this concept matched perfectly with the work I want to do here, on this site.

In my mind, there are three ways that “negative space” applies.

1.  Related to talking about the hard stuff:

  • Positive Space/Subject:
    • the things that everyone immediately sees about us
    • the things that we readily share and put out there
    • the things others think of when they think of us
  • Negative Space:
    • Everything else
    • The hard stuff we don’t talk about, show, share
      • just as important as the other stuff
      • makes up the composition of who we are
      • often unseen, unnoticed, unappreciated
      • attention needs to be called to it for it to be seen

2.  Related to caregiving:

  • Positive Space/Subject:
    • The patient
      • the focus of:
        • doctors
        • appointments
        • family
        • friends
        • daily tasks and plans
        • etc., etc., etc.
  • Negative Space:
    • The caregiver
      • Caregiver is constantly around the patient
      • Caregiver shares the edges of the experience with the patient
      • Caregiver does all the things to bring balance to life for the patient
      • Caregiver’s role is “understood by relatively few people”
      • Caregiver is often not seen, noticed, recognized and yet is vital to the big picture
      • Understanding the caregiver’s role can help you understand the whole scenario more clearly

3.  Related to this site:

  • "Negative"
    • Some will consider what is done and said here “negative,” which may scare them, turn them off, cause them to shift their perspective of me, etc.
    • My hope is that we can reframe the word negative, using it as it is used in the term “negative space” as vital yet unseen, as opposed to bad.
  • "Space"
    • I want this to be a space where hard things can be said, seen, read, recognized, held.
    • I want this to be a space where people can come and breathe and say, “Yes. That.”
    • I want this to be a space where people can see their stories reflected and/or can better understand the stories of people they love.
    • I want this space to provide the tools and inspiration to create other spaces in daily life for hard but important language and conversation.

Now that the term “negative space” is in my consciousness, I see examples of it everywhere, both in the typical use of the term and also in this newfound function. I find myself looking more closely at everyday objects, moments, and interactions, intentionally shifting my perspective to look for the negative space and to think about the role it plays.

Now that I see it, it can’t be unseen. 

I invite you to shift your perspective as well, to:

  • look for the negative space in your everyday experiences,
  • listen for the word “negative” and to think about how it can be reframed,
  • think about what you may have been missing by focusing on the subject of the composition and not all that surrounds it,
  • ponder what parts of your self you may be concealing and why,
  • and to join me in this safe, thought-provoking, comfort-zone challenging negative space.