The Science and Culture of Art - Maui the Kitemaker

Lesson 7 - Positive and Negative Space; Kapa Dying and Printing: It isn't always Black and White


Students learn about positive and negative space in art. Using the techniques of leaf sun prints, students will see that which is positive and which is negative isn’t always straightforward.


Students will then learn about the Hawaiian bamboo stamps or “’ohe kapala” that were used to print kapa. The stamps created patterns that resulted in positive and negative space in a unique way. Students will also learn about making dyes from plants and other natural items.



Positive space is the subject of a piece of art and negative is the area around it. This notion needs examining in terms of subject vs. background and dark vs. light. In traditional Hawaiian arts, there is not always a clear distinction between subject or background.


Students will use the natural dyes and faux ‘ohe kapala to print and dye their kapa.



On positive and negative space (the following definitions are taken from; click on each highlighted word for the link)

Positive space - Space in an artwork that is positive — filled with something, such as lines, designs, color, or shapes. The opposite of negative space.


Orange shapes occupy positive spaces in this image, while negative spaces between the orange shapes form triangles, or a six-pointed star.

Violet shapes occupy positive spaces, but a negative space between them forms a square.

Green shapes occupy largely positive spaces, but negative spaces within and between them might be seen to form a cube.

Negative Space - Empty space in an artwork, a void.

That's the usual definition.

To some people, the term "negative" suggests unpleasant things; sometimes when we say "negative" we mean "bad."

Both "space" and "emptiness" suggest a lack, a shortage of something. This is unfortunate. The concept of negative space is one that deserves to be highly prized. In Japanese art tradition, what we call negative space is called ma. Relevant in every Japanese art form, from sumi-e to ikebana, ma is considered a particularly valuable sort of space, not seen as negative or empty.


Henry Moore (English, 1898-1986), sculpture, bronze, Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, Canada. See English art.

Dame Barbara Hepworth (English, 1903-1975), Two Figures (Menhirs), 1964, slate, 82.5 x 63.8 x 32.0 cm, Tate Gallery, London. See feminism and feminist art and menhir.

Schomer Lichtner (American, 1905-2006), Butterfly, 1975, serigraph. The shape of a white butterfly is in a negative space. Look between areas of black fur. Living in Wisconsin, Lichtner was renowned for paintings of ballerinas and dairy cows and his regionalist murals. See acrylic paints and New Deal art.

Space and shape, two of the elements of design, work together to form a finished work of art. There are two kinds of space: positive and negative. Positive spaces are those occupied by the main subjects of the work. The negative spaces are the areas around and behind the positive spaces. Negative space can also be referred to as the background.

It is no mystery that the shapes of positive spaces are determined by the shapes of the main subjects of the work. However, negative spaces have shapes as well. If one removes the subjects from a work, the negative spaces are left with a blank in the shapes of the parts removed. Therefore, the shapes of the negative spaces are determined by the shapes of the positive spaces.

Sun Print Paper: (

How does it work?

The nature print paper is coated with light-sensitive chemicals, which react to light waves and particles when exposed to light. When you place objects on the paper, they block the light and turn white while the paper around them remains blue. Water stops the process and fixes your images on the paper.

What does it teach?

Learn about the nature of sunlight and how light-sensitive chemicals work. From here, launch a discussion about how color photos are developed, as each layer of chemicals on the film reacts to photons of different color.