Missing Nothing (Negative Space)
When is enough, enough? And when is more, simply too much? It can be hard to resist the urge to fill up every nook and cranny of your illustration, but when done right, the decision to incorporate negative space can lead to a stronger final image.
For a fun tutorial in the power of negative space, take a stroll through Jon Agee’s The Wall in the Middle of the Book. The eye-catching cover introduces us right off the bat to the main characters – a young knight, the omnipresent red brick wall, and a hulking ogre, whose meaty paw plunges over the massive wall toward our tiny, oblivious narrator. Once inside the book, our little knight proceeds to school us on how things work in this warmly colorful, playful world. There’s the wall, jutting pillar-like up the gutter of each two-page spread. The knight’s side of the wall is safe, the ogre’s side is not. That’s all we need to know, he assures us. Or is it?
Agee’s lively characters read like cutouts against the airy, white background. He plays with sizes and shapes, contrasting big and small, fullness and emptiness, and employing negative space to amp up the difference. Textures add flavor and help clarify the images. Agee’s narrative teases our expectations of where the story is going, and then he flips everything with a fresh, modern humor and sensibility.
Patricia Polacco uses negative space to silhouette her characters and important objects in Thunder Cake, a warm tribute to her Russian grandmother. Polacco’s loving attention to details and surface patterns turns a childhood memory into a folktale from the Old World. The interiors of her rural Michigan farmhouse are redolent with Russian iconography, fabrics and deep colors. Her positive shapes are fluid and rolling, linking together in a way that beguiles the eye across each spread.
Intentional areas of white contrast with mixed media, from watercolor to crayon to graphite. As the weather worsens in one scene, a vibrant, cool blue windowsill pops against the white wall, framing a stormy expanse outside. The reader knows exactly where to look and understands the relationship between the action taking place inside the cozy farmhouse and skies far beyond.
In The Hundred-Year Barn, Newbery Medal winner Patricia MacLachlan likewise found inspiration from her German grandparents and their efforts to make a home on the North Dakota prairie after landing at Ellis Island. In this story that spans generations, illustrator Kenard Pak centers his images around and within a simple red barn. The building of such structures was a milestone for frontier families on the vast landscapes of early America. Spend time going from spread to spread and see how effectively negative space can help carry a narrative.
Pak deploys watercolor, gouache, pencil, ink and digital media to create images of enormous power and beauty, much of which is negative space. He is very selective when using color and value and texture to define form. His gentle scenes of the American heartland evoke the work of Andrew Wyeth and folk artist Grant Wood.
Kevin Henkes’ Waiting offers another masterful example of how negative space can focus and strengthen an illustration project. His story introduces a windowsill of toys and knickknacks who immediately charm us with their patient hopefulness. With heavy, consistent outlining, brown ink, watercolor and colored pencils, Henkes brings his appealing characters to life. We peer over their shoulders while they gaze out the windowpane. They know something is about to happen, and we do, too.
Crisp white pages frame the window, where all the color, yearning and whimsy takes place. Henkes alternates panel vignettes with closeups, and gradually fills his windowsill set with things for kids to notice. While his characters’ faces have minimalistic details, we feel strong empathy with the toys, whose strong gestures animate their every emotion and reaction. In the final pages of the story, a mysterious guest who has a surprise of her own joins the crew of toys. Soon, all is revealed, and as we suspected, it was worth the wait.