negative space

In ancient times when humans looked at spaces with lots of action their eyes tracked the whole space. Looking for any danger. It is an ancient instinct. Now we still have that instinct when we walk into a crowded space.

In the art and design world it is known as negative space. A space where our eyes don’t have to take a lot of time to digest looking for that saber tooth lion under the sofa.

It is also known as minimalism. Minimalism has taken a lot of criticism from people who would sell you more. Just like some of Jackson Pollack’s later paintings contains fractals that the mind finds relaxing negative space in a home, photo or garden design has mental benefits.

The use of negative space is a key element of artistic composition. The Japanese word “ma” is sometimes used for this concept, for example in garden design.
Ma (間) (lit., “gap”, “space”, “pause” is the term for a specific Japanese concept of negative space.

In traditional Japanese arts and culture, ma refers to the artistic interpretation of an empty space, often holding as much importance as the rest of an artwork and focusing the viewer on the intention of negative space in an art piece.
Though commonly used to refer to literal, visible negative space, ma may also refer to the perception of a space, gap or interval, without necessarily requiring a physical compositional element. This results in the concept of ma being less reliant on the existence of a gap, and more closely related to the perception of a gap. The existence of ma in an artwork has been interpreted as “an emptiness full of possibilities, like a promise yet to be fulfilled”, and has been described as “the silence between the notes which make the music”.

Examples of ma appear in Tao Te Ching:

Thirty spokes meet in the hub,
though the space between them is the essence of the wheel.
Pots are formed from clay, though the space inside them is the essence of the pot.
Walls with windows and doors form the house,
though the space within them is the essence of the house

Ma appears in many areas of Japanese arts and culture. For example, the tokonoma alcove in a traditional Japanese room is a space or a stage used to display important objects, such as a painting scroll, an important art object, or a flower arrangement. In ikebana, the space around the flowers is considered to be equally as important as the flowers and plants themselves, with harmony and balance between the two considered the ideal.

In karate, “ma” refers to the distance between two fighters. Knowing the safe distance between oneself and an opponent based on their reach is considered “understanding ma”.

In his 2001 book, The Art of Looking Sideways, graphic designer Alan Fletcher discussed the importance that perceived negative space could hold in art:
Space is substance. Cézanne painted and modelled space. Giacometti sculpted by “taking the fat off space”. Mallarmé conceived poems with absences as well as words. Ralph Richardson asserted that acting lay in pauses… Isaac Stern described music as “that little bit between each note – silences which give the form”… The Japanese have a word (ma) for this interval which gives shape to the whole. In the West we have neither word nor term. A serious omission.

Author Derrick de Kerckhove described ma as “the complex network of relationships between people and objects”.

Wu wei Chinese: 無為; pinyin: wúwéi is a concept literally meaning “inexertion”, “inaction”, or “effortless action”.

Wu wei emerged in the Spring and Autumn period, and from Confucianism, to become an important concept in Chinese statecraft and Taoism and was most commonly used to refer to an ideal form of government, including the behavior of the emperor. Describing a state of un-conflicting personal harmony, free-flowing spontaneity and savoir-faire, it generally also more properly denotes a state of spirit or mind, and in Confucianism accords with conventional morality. Sinologist Jean François Billeter describes it as a “state of perfect knowledge of the reality of the situation, perfect efficaciousness and the realization of a perfect economy of energy”, which in practice Edward Slingerland qualifies as a “set of (‘transformed’) dispositions (including physical bearing) … conforming with the normative order”.

Negative Space in Photography

Hopefully it’s already become obvious to you how you might apply the principles of negative space to your own design work. Right now, though, you might be wondering precisely what negative space in photography is, and, perhaps more importantly, what’s it got to do with you as a designer.

Negative space in photography doesn’t differ markedly from negative space in other mediums. To be sure, the same principle applies of giving equal consideration to the “background” as to the main subject.

Yet unlike designers, photographers don’t start with a blank page. Instead, negative space in photography is more likely to take the form of the sky, a wall, a sidewalk, a lawn, a forest, a lake – or indeed any other large expanse of relatively uniform color or texture that a photographer might encounter in the world.

A photographer who is attuned to using negative space in their compositions will easily be able to invert “positive” and “negative” areas of a scene in their mind before taking a picture. For example, rather than photographing an aircraft against the sky, a photographer might see a plane-shaped hole in a blue rectangle. Working in this way can lead to some very strong, graphic compositions.

But why is it important that you as a graphic designer understand how negative space works in photography? Well, aside from the fact that today we are all photographers to a certain degree, most designers also use photography in their work. And photography that makes creative use of negative space can be a real asset to a design project; providing plenty of room to place typography and other graphic elements over the images, without the risk of things becoming cluttered.

This can be particularly valuable for web designers, who may be briefed to include lots of photographic imagery in a project, but not want to compromise aesthetics by overloading the page. In short, when sourcing images or commissioning a photographer for a design project, be sure to give equal consideration to negative space in photography as you would to other design elements.

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