In Western art, negative space is the unused empty space which is around or between those objects that make up an image. Sometimes this negative space has been consciously formed by the artist and has meaning within the image. Western art negative space is understood mainly in relation to the objects in the image, which are referred to as positive space. While negative space can have a particular meaning, more often it is used to define the shapes and edges of the objects. Usually negative space takes up much less area than positive space and is secondary in importance in the composition.
In East Asian painting, the meaning and function of the unpainted areas are quite different. The open spaces are not considered empty, gaining connotation only from their relationship to the major created forms. Instead, the unpainted open areas have a weight, substance and significance of their own. They are central to the composition of the painting, giving shape to the whole. There is awareness that this open space provides a context for the subject matter to tell its story.
Often there is a great deal of open space which serves as a counterpoint to the forms presented in the image. This open space allows for balance, for breathing room where the painted strokes truly can be seen. The open space is full of possibilities. It is purposeful, conveying important qualities central to appreciating the painting’s intent.
A sumi-ink painter consciously creates open space by using painted strokes. Such space is specifically planned, shaped and molded; never accidental, left over or squeezed in. To call it negative space belies the positive strength and significance of its story-telling possibilities. Often times the open space is what draws the eye, allowing for additional layers of nuance to be added to what has been painted.
In East Asian painting, the not-painted is as much of an object as the painted. For example, snow on a tree-branch or a hut’s roof is the white area which remains after the air has been shaped by pale silver shading. Flowing water is the open area between the painted sides of the riverbank. A waterfall is the unpainted area framed by the painted rocky sides of the mountain. Mist is what is left when the rocks and mountains have been painted. Lake water is what has not been painted as land.
When a bird on a branch is placed in the top third of the paper, the open area underneath is experienced as land and the bird is ready to take off in flight. When the bird on a branch is placed at the bottom third of the paper, the area above is sky and the bird is experienced as having flown in to land on the branch.
Sometimes the meaning of the open space is ambiguous; potential meanings are infinite and are left to the viewer to fill in the blanks. In brush painting, open space is experiential space, the meaning is supplied by the viewer’s imagination.