I recently became fascinated with an artwork that was all about negative space — that is the space surrounding and in between the central figure. Initially the viewer’s attention is captured by the presenting figure, the so called positive space. However, by slightly changing your attention towards the negative space, you quickly see something entirely different. This made me think of how we so often approach questions in life more generally.


Sometimes, the way in which a problem appears can make you fixate on the surface presentation. On the immediate happenings and doings. And, at times that’s necessary, for example in a metaphorical (or actual!) fire-fight. However, there is usually much more going on. Much more behind the symptoms that show up.

And, a bit like negative space in art, you have to look at what is around and in between the immediately visible. To look at the different interconnected strands, some of which might have roots in the past or connections to the unknown future. It is then often the negative space that becomes a fertile place of exploration and insight. And, this requires you to be open to the possibility that the surface problem might just be a distraction!

Looking into negative space

I recently worked with someone who self-assessed himself to be an underachiever as judged by the standards HE set for himself. While he was initially fixated on achieving even more than he had already, something else emerged. We discovered that he had a very difficult childhood. Nothing he did was ever good enough for his parents. And, he was now relating to himself exactly the same way that his parents related to him and his achievements as a child. It was never enough.

His realisation turned the question on its head. It was no longer about how high he was aiming, but rather about his fundamental relationship with achievement.

Final words

Sometimes, your focus can get absorbed in what is visible, what you have consciously or unconsciously fixed your attention on. And, often even a very slight change in perspective can create new insights. But, that requires a willingness to look beyond, to look deeper. So, the next time you are feeling stuck, ask yourself: Am I giving enough attention to negative space?

Find out more about Harsha’s work