Lesson 4 – Space and the “Basic Unit”

If you use Instagram post your drawings and tag them with #plpDrawingClass. It will be fun to see everyone’s work!

I am following through “The New Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain” by Betty Edwards with the kids. The materials provided here are taken directly from the book and are the actual exercises and selected highlights. I highly recommend reading the book if you are interested in learning to draw.



In Lesson 3 we used our picture frame and created a “modified contour drawing”. The purpose of the contour drawings is to train your eye to perceive edges (and to trick your brain to switch to the Right Hemisphere for that work). This week’s lesson will be about space – positive and negative.

All of the following material was taken from “The New Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain” by Betty Edwards


Remember the 5 perceptual skills of drawing are:

  1. Edges (line of contour drawing)
  2. Spaces (negative spaces)
  3. Relationships (proportion and perspective)
  4. Lights and shadows (shading)
  5. The gestalt (the “thingness” of the thing)


From “The New Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain”:

What are negative spaces and positive forms?

Two terms traditionally used in art are “negative spaces” and “positive forms.” In the drawings of the bighorn sheep, for example, the sheep is the positive form and the sky behind and ground below the animal are the negative spaces. The word “negative” in negative spaces is a bit unfortunate because it carries, well, a negative connotation. I have researched in vain for a better term, so we’ll stick with this one. The terms negative spaces and positive forms have the advantage of being easy to remember and they are, after all, commonly used in the whole field of art and design. The main point is that negative spaces are just as important as the positive forms. For the person just learning to draw, they are perhaps more important!

Why is learning to see and draw negative spaces so important?


When a person just beginning in drawing tries to draw a chair, that person knows too much, in an L-mode sense, about chairs. For example, seats have to be big enough to hold a person; all four chair legs are usually all the same length; chair legs sit on a flat surface, and so forth. This knowledge does not help, and in fact can greatly hinder, drawing a chair. The reason is that, when seen from different angles, the visual information may not conform to

what we know. Visually—that is, as seen on the plane—a chair seat may appear as a narrow strip, not nearly wide enough to sit on. The legs may appear to be all of different lengths. The curve of the back of a chair may appear to be entirely different from what we know it to be (Figure 7-1).


What are we to do? An answer: Don’t draw the chair at all! Instead, draw the spaces of the chair.













Choosing a Basic Unit

On looking at a finished drawing, students just beginning to draw often wonder how the artist decided where to start. This is one of the most serious problems that plague students. They ask, “After I’ve decided what to draw, how do I know where to start?” or “What happens if I start too large or too small?” Using a Basic Unit to start a drawing answers both these questions, and ensures that you will end with the composition you so carefully chose before you started a drawing.


The Basic Unit is a “starting shape” or “starting unit” that you choose from within the scene you are looking at through the

Viewfinder (the sailboat on the water). You need to choose a Basic Unit of medium size—neither very small nor very large, relative to the format. In this instance, you could choose the straight edge of the sail. A Basic Unit can be a whole shape (the shape of a window or the shape of a negative space) or it can be just a single edge from point to point (the top edge of a window, for example). The choice depends only on what is easiest to see and easiest to use as your Basic Unit of proportion.


Once chosen, all other proportions are determined relative to your Basic Unit.


Exercise 1:
Your Negative Space drawing of a chair

What you’ll need:

• Your Viewfinder with the larger opening

• Your Picture Plane

• Your felt-tip marker

• Your masking tape

• Several sheets of drawing paper

• Your drawing board

• Your pencils, sharpened

• Your eraser

• Your graphite stick and several dry paper towels or paper


• About an hour of interrupted time—more, if possible, but at

least an hour


Getting set up to draw


You’ll be taking some preliminary steps, so please read all of the

instructions before you start. The following are the preliminary

steps for every drawing and take only a few minutes, once you

have learned the process.

• choosing a format and drawing it on your paper

• toning your paper (if you choose to work on a toned ground)

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