A positive shape, also known as, the figure, is the foreground shape or the main subject in a design, or the dominant shape in a figure-ground relationship.
A negative shape, also known as, the ground, is a clearly defined area around a positive shape or form. This is a shape created around the dominant object.
Even in writing, the positive shape would be considered the letters themselves, and the negative shape or ground would be the white paper the letters are written on.
In the image below, the black bear is the positive shape. The white surrounding the bear is the negative shape. The bear is the figure. The white is the ground.
In this portrait of Vincent van Gogh, van Gogh is the positive shape or figure. The area surrounding van Gogh is the negative shape or ground.
In this painting by Georgia O'Keeffe, the horse skull and white rose are the positive shape or figure. The black background is the negative shape or ground.
In this pigment print on a sugar sack by Letitia Huckaby, the girl with the umbrella standing on the ground is the positive shape or figure. The shape around the girl is the negative shape or ground.
Figure ground reversal is when this relationship becomes unclear. The background can become the foreground. The positive shape becomes the negative shape. The figure becomes the ground.
This figure ground reversal can be seen in this movie poster for Batman. At first the black shape of Batman seems to be the positive shape, but then the yellow shape reveals the Penguin, and the yellow then becomes the positive shape and the black becomes the negative shape.
Artist M.C. Escher was a master of figure ground reversal as seen here. Initially the black shape of the bird is the positive shape, and the white shape surrounding the bird is the negative shape. Then the white shape changes and becomes a fish, creating a positive shape, and the black surrounding the fish becomes a negative shape.
Here is another good use of figure ground reversal used in this poster for the movie Brave. Merida's hair becomes the negative shape around the black bear.
Here is one last example of figure ground reversal. The hand becomes the negative shape around the implied positive shape of a light bulb.
For our art project, we will also play with figure ground reversal using black and white shapes.
Time: This took three, forty-five minute classes to complete including one day to lecture and demonstrate.
Materials: 18 x 24 inch black paper, white paper, ruler, scissors, glue stick, pencil, plastic sandwich bag, sketch book or sketch paper
First, sketch out three different designs in your sketchbook. Then, choose your favorite to recreate with black and white paper.
Use a ruler to draw a 9 inch square on a white piece of paper. This square should be measured carefully and accurately, uneven sides or inaccurate angles will skew the exercise. Measure twice, cut once.
Next, lightly draw your designs on the white square from the outside edges into the center of the square. Think of the designs as shapes. You must cut from all 4 sides. Do not cut off the corners and do not go past the center of the paper with any designs.
Then, begin cutting shapes from the sides of the square. Immediately put all shapes into your plastic bag. Do not throw anything away.
Next, take the center of your paper square that remains after cutting out the shapes from the outside perimeter. Glue this down in the middle of your large 18 x 24 inch paper with the sides of the square parallel with the edges of the black paper, in other words, as straight as possible.
Then, place all the cut shapes back into the square like a puzzle. So, these shapes should make the square whole again.
Next, flip the shapes as if they are on a hinge attached to the perimeter of the square. Glue down the shapes. In other words, flip it out; so, that it mirrors the cut out space, and then glue it down onto the 18 × 24 inch paper.
You could also use different contrasting colors for this project, or even create a collage with magazine images. Feel free to take this project and make it your own. Feel free to tag or share your projects with me. I'd love to see what you make.
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