Negative Space and Negativity

Negative space, in art, is the space around and between the subject(s) of an image. Negative space may be most evident when the space around a subject, and not the subject itself, forms an interesting or artistically relevant shape, and such space is occasionally used to artistic effect as the “real” subject of an image. – Wikipedia

Our minds tend to focus on and put as the center of attention what we consider to be the most important part of an encounter or scene. Eyes are drawn to the person or the sunset, while other things like the grass are put into the background as less important. The subject is where the excitement is, isn’t it? The background becomes negative space that gives the subject context and form. The background is often ignored.

This emphasis is a matter of perspective.

In cognitive psychology, flipping an image in one’s mind so that the background (negative space) becomes the center of attention is called figure-ground reversal. A classic example of a “multistable” image that lends itself to figure-ground reversal is the Rubin vase (below) in which the black areas surrounding the white vase form shapes that can be viewed as the silhouettes of two faces. The viewer is asked: is it a vase or is it two faces? Both are correct and the answer is a matter of the viewer’s perception.

Which is the figure and which is the background? Where should our attention lie? Which is perceived more strongly by the viewer? Which is the object and which is the negative space?

The same could be asked of a person.

What is the vase of you, the core of you to which you would like to draw attention, and what is the faces of you, the negative space that competes for that attention? Taken a step farther, when do negative competing images of you overshadow you and put you into the background?

Negativity is like negative space. When I speak of negativity, I don’t mean dealing with a truly difficult real life situation such as an illness or personal loss. I think of negativity more as seeking drama. Scandalous news. Tragic events that one is unable to help. Ruminating over dark ideas. Gossip. Negativity can be addictive and grow to the point where that’s all of a person that is perceived. Do you see a person or their anger, their dwelling in the sadness of the world, their desire to dance with scandal? Do you see the person or the negativity?

A person balances on a fulcrum of figure-ground reversal. Negativity can become the center of attention while the person is overshadowed and goes into the background. The see-saw is yours to control.

What do you want others to perceive about you – the negative space around you or the whole person?

Where should our attention lie when we look at you? Which is the object and which is the negative space?

It’s all happening at once, the good and the bad, the sad and the joyful. Perspective causes the figure-ground reversal, the switch between half-empty and half-full.

And what do you perceive in the world – the object or the dark ground? Do you see vases or faces?

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8 thoughts on “Negative Space and Negativity

  1. Driving home tonight, I was listening to Jennifer Berman’s advice show on XM. She presented the idea that a person could be represented by a circle inside of a circle. The inner circle represents true self, while the outer circle represents what you present to the world. The bigger the outer circle is relative to the inner circle, the greater the disconnect and the higher the likelihood of issues with addiction and other negative behaviors. Your post presents another way of looking at the possible disconnect between behavior and self. Perspective and presentation change how the world seems.

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    1. How interesting, Beth. The outer circle is added like a buffer against the world and makes it harder to access our true self. We don’t want to be that way and so difficulties arise. Love it.

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  2. On certain days I see the vase and on the others the faces. It is not possible to be untouched by negativity or negative space. It is a part of us and our surroundings that enhances our experience while we at this incredible journey called life. With the negative space it would be difficult to make a distinction. It is better to accept it as a part of us and try to see that it doesn’t over shadow the ‘vase’.

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    1. Excellent…yes, negative space gives us all context, and so helps to define us. We are a product of so many things, including our surroundings. It’s impossible to deny negativity but it’s a matter of the primary focus….what we see in the world, what we see in ourselves, what we project to others.

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  3. Beautiful post, Katrina. I think of that metaphor of negative space often when dealing with loss, that if not for the sorrow or the missing spaces there would be nothing to carve out the self, and we would all just be blank sheets of paper. I wish it wasn’t such a constant struggle to see the vases for the faces, but that is the human condition and what gives it its beauty. It reminds me of that Leonard Cohen lyric: ‘There is a crack in everything / that’s how the light gets in.’

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    1. Roshan, you quote my favorite Leonard Cohen lyric back to me so of course I must agree with everything you said. I like your metaphor about the negative space representing loss. Loss is a part of what defines us.
      I think it’s not so much a matter of ignoring personal challenges or personal loss. I think of it as trying not to ruminate on these things beyond what is necessary to move through them and heal to the extent that we can, and not seeking drama for its own sake. Thanks.

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