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Sketching on Location: The Silhouette -- Positive and Negative Shape

Renowned drawing instructor Glenn Vilppu continues with his ninth "sketching on location" teaching installment. This month we learn about creating a silhouette and the importance of positive and negative shapes.

This is the ninth in a new series of bi-monthly 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. In the last chapter we worked on "The Quick Sketch." 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.

Moving On...

In the last lesson we discussed the quick sketch. The main purpose was capturing the moment of both individual figures and groups of figures focusing on a logical step by step approach of first capturing a gesture and then describing the volume and shape of the subject.

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. In the drawing above, the fence was drawn by the tones behind it. Learning to see a simple contour is a fundamental element of drawing. Chapter one and two essentially were directed at learning to see the contour of forms. 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. The emptiness between things many times is as important as the things themselves.

All drawings in this article are by and © Glenn Vilppu.

All drawings in this article are by and © Glenn Vilppu.

The watercolor sketch on the above left was painted directly with minimal preliminary drawing, and totally with both positive and negative shapes in mind.

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 to silhouette the boys and then used the dark of the water behind it to draw its 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.

Look at the simple contours of these figures on the right. The difficulty in drawing them was making the shapes clear. 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.

Even though the simple figures on this page 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 to the right, 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.

The drawing below was done completely with shape in mind, and the addition of tone was used to give a difference between shapes and textures such as foliage. The tone in the foreground not only becomes a shape as we discussed in an earlier chapter, but it also is a simple means for giving depth.


The drawing of the palm trees on the right 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.

Look at the examples on the following pages and notice how I have used shape.


Glenn Vilppu first wrote for Animation World Magazine in the June 1997 issue, "Never Underestimate the Power of Life Drawing." His drawing manuals and video tapes may be purchased in the Animation World Store.

Glenn Vilppu teaches figure drawing at the American Animation Institute, the Masters program of the UCLA Animation Dept., Walt Disney Feature Animation and Warner Bros. Feature Animation, and has been sent to teach artists at Disney TV studios in Japan, Canada and the Philippines. Vilppu has also worked in the animation industry for 18 years as a layout, storyboard and presentation artist. His drawing manual and video tapes are being used worldwide as course materials for animation students.