How to work with negative space

Hello dear Messians! Vanessa here, I am thrilled to welcome you to the Season of Contrasts. I am feeling very inspired by this theme. When I was thinking of how to approach contrast, my train of thought lead me to create one of my favourite art journal spreads ever. Want to play along? Ok, let’s go. I started by thinking about light and dark and how we either need the absence or presence of one to notice the other. This lead me to thinking about negative space and how we can use it to add an extra layer of expression. The light/dark contrast made me think of good/bad side of each of us which in turn reminded me of Swan Lake. I used the Swan Lake ballet storybook in the Season of Introspection last year and I loved Black Swan (the movie and the manga it was based on). Anyway, these thoughts helped me pull out a certain type of imagery for my spread.

The ballet images are self-explanatory, but the male figure reclining also looks like he is dancing so it really called to me. I pulled out a few supplies, including some new ones I am exploring, to use on my spread. I always try and gather supplies so that I don’t get overwhelmed when I’ve started the pages and block my flow by looking for something. The first step was to cover my A3 Moleskine pages with white gesso. Then I pulled out an Adirondak Alcohol Ink bottle.

These inks are alcohol based so they dry very quickly. I love seeing them pool on the gesso. They have a concentrated color.

I added a few drops of this onto my spread. I knew that I would probably end up covering the edges of the pages so I focused on keeping the ink drops in the centre of the double page spread. While the gesso and ink were drying, I picked my two images and laid them on my journal to figure out where I would eventually glue them down.

I really liked the movement from the photo on the right so I decided there needed more movement on my page. I pulled out my graphite stick for this.

I love using this medium because it is water soluble, creamy and great for mark making. Because I knew approximately where I’d add my images, I made marks that expressed the idea of dancing all over my spread.

I also used a deep indigo Inktense crayon to add some color. Then I used a small spray bottle to wet all the marks I had made.

I love watching how adding water changes the marks. It makes them more intense in some places and diluted in others. Contrasts already!

Once this was dry, it was time to add my images. I always use matte medium to glue down the images in my journals. Because it seals them in, I can re-wet without worrying that the water will affect the images.

Seems like the gesso wasn’t completely dry and the matte medium pulled up some of it unto the photo. I love that! I am definitely someone who leaves room for chance and mistakes in their journal.

I wanted to add some line work on the page.

This where I like to get lost in the creation of the spread. This is where you focus your attention on a small part of it, but it impacts the spread as a whole. This is where the magic happens.

I kept in mind the idea of contrasts and black and white expresses that perfectly. I wanted the lines to add details but not to be too intricate. Now, the central part of my spread was done and I wanted a darker shadow encircling it. My other new obsession is spray paint. I knew I wanted to use some.

These spray paints are great because they are not too big and they have a reduced smell. In thinking about using spray paint, I realized I didn’t want the paint to go everywhere and impact my spread. So how can I control something that is difficult to control? By using cardboard to protect the areas that I don’t want covered up. By making a mask, I can create the negative space where my spread will be.

So, in keeping with my Swan Lake theme, I cut a swan out of cardboard with my exacto knife.

I moved my journal and supplies outside to spray paint them. I placed my swan, making sure it was covering the area I wanted to protect, the negative space. I took a deep breath and went for it, starting with the silver spray paint and then the black.

Bonus: the mask looks lovely once you’ve used it!

I turned the mask the other way and placed it on the left side. I did two silhouettes here: the top one first and then the lower one. Always try to keep in mind what the mask is hiding and what is in the negative space.

I started to outline the top left swan once the paint was dry but didn’t like what it was doing so I stopped there. I am absolutely so happy with this. I fall in love with the details, like the wing on the left side next to the ballerina.

The upward movement of the swan coupled with the marks that dance around the reclining figure are calling to me.

You don’t have to use spray paint (or even a mask),  you can use any medium as long as you stay conscious of the negative space. Gelli printing is another great way to create this type of spread with layers and negative space. Now go and make something that brings you joy!

Action Steps


Find a theme related to the idea of contrasts and pull out images that support it


Prepare your background and think of image placement 


Cut a mask that creates a negative space where you can express your theme or paint around the area keeping the negative space free


Vanessa is an archaeologist and an artist. She oscillates between these two poles of her personality and explores the many iterations of her reality in her art journal. She loves to share her art and process with others.


  1. Katie Smith

    I love your spray painted swans, V!

  2. Laura Rahuba

    this is f—ing AWESOME! great job, Vanessa!

  3. EmK Wright

    Those swans are truly phenomenal!! There is no question as to why this is one of your new favorites!!

  4. Sasha Zinevych

    I am terrified of spray paints! You make them look so easy! Love that swan so much <3

    • Vanessa Oliver-lloyd

      there have been some accidents! You really need to let go of perfection when using spray paint!

  5. Misty Granade

    Love. Love. Love that mask!!

  6. Melody Willoughby

    Spray paint. May have to try it. I love the spread, the masking and the lines of movement. It really made a big difference. You know I love your work.

  7. Clare Davis Etheridge

    The effect created by the spray paint is really lovely! I am very inspired by your prompts this week and am going to find some collage materials now!

    • Vanessa Oliver-lloyd

      i’m looking for ward to see what you create Clare. I’m always so happy when people are inspired by the prompts

  8. Eleanor McComb

    Every time I see you use spray paint I want to try it. I have never used it in a journal – only on canvas and larger things – I need to pick some up!! (I already blame get messy for my black gesso and you specifically for my matte medium obsession… gotta make some money to bank roll all my new materials!! hahaha!!)

    • Vanessa Oliver-lloyd

      sorry not sorry! To be fair, the size of this Moleskine makes it almost like a canvas….

  9. Charlotte Erichsen

    Such an awesome spread! The spray paint looks so great. I am a huge fan of graffiti, but was always afraid to spray (because of the smell).
    The young man just died and the soul swan came to carry his soul away.

    • Vanessa Oliver-lloyd

      oh, how lovely. Yes, the small is hard. I found some water based spray paint which has much less smell!

  10. Riet

    Ahhh, so much love for this, V! I can’t even begin to express how amazing this is!

  11. Ashley Rodgers

    You never cease to amaze me, V! I love everything about this.

  12. Romana

    So effective, love the thought and the and how this looks!

  13. Sarah Maddox

    Great ideas, great swan mask

  14. Alicia Schultz

    I’ve got to try this! I have a can of spray paint waiting to be used!