Negative Space

Photo Credit: Facundo Gastiazoro

Negative Space

👤Matt J. Simmons 🕔May 04, 2018

Look up from this page for a second. What do you see? Rattle off a quick list—a person perhaps,  your toes curled in the spring grass, that shelf of books as yet unread, soft steam rising from a cup of coffee.

Okay, that’s what’s there. Now look at what’s not there—negative space, the space between. Here’s what I see: all the shapes formed by the gaps between the branches of the trees outside. Ragged triangles and imperfect quadrangles. As these spaces cascade backwards into the distance, getting smaller and tighter, my eyes approach an obscure horizon and finally settle on stripes of colour—the blue and white of sky and cloud.

Empty space gives solidity its oomph. Without the absence of something, its presence is meaningless.

The idea of paying attention to negative space is one taught to aspiring artists, architects, and other engineers of aesthetics. In Japanese, the idea is represented by the word ma (間), which roughly translates to the interval between things—space. Its meanings are many and used in thousands of iterations, from describing the silence between notes in music to something as simple as double-spacing a document. It’s one of those words that would make the English language much richer if it had an equivalent. One of the key concepts that inform many of its uses is that negative space is as important to the essence of a thing as the actual substance itself.

Because space matters. In urban environments—streets, sidewalks, plazas, parking lots—negative space is everywhere. And not just in the sense of absence. Much of the concrete landscape is utilitarian, practical, ugly. Skateboarders look at things differently. A metal post planted in a sidewalk to prevent vehicle access is just something to walk around for most. To a skateboarder it’s a feature, something to play with.

It’s all about perspective. And that positive way of taking back an otherwise negative, or empty space is something we can all learn from. Looking at the world through the eyes of a skateboarder or urban biker is fun. Everything becomes an opportunity. Nothing is wasted or without purpose.

Look up and you’ll see negative space really isn’t negative at all.

— Matt J. Simmons