Have you ever seen a painting that looks lonely? Maybe the piece is crowded with people, but the room still seems like it would echo. Or maybe the warmly lit windows of a painted house look small compared to the surrounding darkness. Artists use many different techniques to instill a mood in a piece of art, and one of them is the use of negative space.
While a positive shape may be the primary subject of a painting, the negative space around it can dictate the relationship of the subject with its surroundings – changing the meaning and impact of the painting entirely.
"Automat" by Edward Hopper
“Automat” by Edward Hopper is a great example of negative space setting the mood of an artwork. It depicts a woman sitting at a small round table alone at an automat. She’s well-dressed, with a bright yellow hat and green coat, musing down at her coffee. The interior of the automat is warmly (if artificially) lit. While this isn’t the most exciting scene, it might not have been a very melancholy one given those details. After all, the outfit’s bright colors; the friendly curved shapes of the table, chair back and yellow hat; and the bright bowl of fruit over the woman’s left shoulder all seem to lend a bit of cheeriness to the painting.
But the mood of all these positive objects takes a turn when we look at the negative space in the window behind the woman. The black night outside the automat stretches across most of the background of the piece, oppressive in its darkness compared to the warm, bright colors inside the automat. The reflections of the round ceiling lights on the window stretch into that blackness, interrupting it, but eventually taper off, seemingly swallowed by the negative space. The dark emptiness of the window that surrounds the woman, seeming to gather and deepen around her, changes the mood of the piece from merely quiet to depressive and isolated. No one else is out there in that night, and the woman looking at her coffee seems to know it – and not want to look up.
Hopper’s paintings are well known for their depiction of urban loneliness, especially his piece “Nighthawks.” Are there any other pieces you can think of where negative space sets the mood?