The Silhouette: Positive and Negative Shape

Learning to see a simple contour is a fundamental element of drawing. The ability to see three-dimensional shapes two-dimensionally is done by not only looking at the shape of the object’s contour, but also by seeing the space around it as form. Many times, The emptiness between things is as important as the things themselves.

Our ability to recognize someone from a block away (when all we can actually see is the silhouette) is an example of the power of shape in communication. Positive and negative shapes are just complimentary parts of a silhouette. We call the space around something “negative space”, but in terms of drawing on a flat surface, nothing is really negative.

Silhouette 1
Silhouette 1

In the drawing above (left), the fence was actually created by the tones behind it. On the right, in the watercolor of the boys on the rock, the wave behind the boys is an example of both a positive and negative shape. I used the white of the paper (the wave) to silhouette the boys and then used the dark of the water behind that to draw the wave’s contours.

With practice you can develop facility in using the negative and positive shapes in your drawings; however, first, you need to spend time analyzing the shapes themselves.

The natural tendency is to understate and average things out. I have found out that if I purposely try to exaggerate, I will actually get closer to what the subject really is. The key to seeing shapes is to compare one shape to another. Avoid ambiguous statements. If something is almost straight, make it straight; if one shape is slightly larger than another, make it clearly larger.

Silhouette 2
Silhouette 2

Even though the simple figures on the page above have very little detail, you still get a clear idea of the figure. A slouching woman in a chair, an unusual hairdo, a man with a goatee and a girl with a ball cap are each individual and distinct. In the simple watercolor, the subtle gesture of my wife on the beach, as well as the glare of the sun reflecting off of the water, are both clear shapes without detail.

Silhouette 3
Silhouette 3

The drawing of the palm trees above uses shapes and negative space a little differently. First, notice how I have simplified the shapes as the trees recede into the background. The shapes of the shadows are used both as positive and negative space. In the tree in the foreground I have used the shadow to outline the leaves in front. Now notice how I let the atmosphere come between the first and second tree so that we have a clear silhouette of the shadow side of the first tree. I could have drawn the leaves in the light of the second tree clearly, instead of leaving them white; yet I have drawn the shadow in a similar way as in the first. In the third background tree, the light and dark are simple shapes, both being positive in this context.

In the drawing below, the contours of the figures were added to a very loose drawing, thus giving them more shape. The drawing itself was done in the same way as we discussed in earlier chapters, registering one point to the next.

Silhouette 4
Silhouette 4

By Glenn Vilppu

This article first appeared in Animation World Magazine, October 17, 2001.

This was taken from the ninth in a series articles about sketching on location. The articles are based on my Sketching on Location Manual. The manual was developed as a series of lessons that I use on my guided sketching tours of Europe and as material in my regular drawing classes. As such the lessons can be part of a regular course or used by individual students as a practical learning guide. If you have not seen the previous lessons starting in the June 2000 issue of Animation World Magazine, it is recommended that you do. The lessons are progressive and expand on basic ideas. It is suggested that you start from the beginning for a better understanding of my approach. If you really want to start at the beginning open with the lessons based on the Vilppu Drawing Manual.

Glenn Vilppu teaches life drawing at the American Animation Institute, the Masters program of the UCLA Animation Dept., Walt Disney Feature Animation, Warner Bros. Feature Animation, Dreamworks and Rhythm & Hues Studios. Vilppu has also worked in the Animation industry for 18 years as a layout, storyboard and presentation artist, most of this time was spent working at Disney. His drawing manual and video tapes are being used worldwide as course materials for animation students. Glenn Vilppu has, in effect, either through teaching them directly or teaching their teachers, trained an entire generation of professional animators.

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