Figure/ground relationships are similar to positive/negative relationships but allow for more involved variations in which multiple layers of relationships can occur. For example, the above left print, ■ Yoshiwara/Fuji Marsh by Utagawa Hiroshige (1855. Chicago Institute of Art), depicts a landscape in which the clouds that cluster at the base of Mt. Fuji take are roughly the same shape and pattern as are the tufts of marshlands in the foreground water. As a result, a pattern of positive/negative shapes gets distributed amongst both the foreground and the background. As each “figure” leaves behind a “ground”, the reasoning behind the paired terms figure/ground begins to make sense.
Figure/ground, positive/negative – and even form/space – have each evolved from the Japanese sensibility of notan. Notan has no literal translation in English but, according to 19th century educator, painter and researcher, Arthur Wesley Dow in his book Composition, should be understood to mean, “darks and lights in harmonic relations“. Through this sensibility, harmony and beauty is achievable through the selection and arrangement of dark and light spaces – and not just extreme dark (black) and extreme light (white), but in an infinite variety of combinations. The Hiroshige example directly above is an example where neither the foreground, middle ground, or the background dominate one over the other. The same could be argued for the January 59 image next to it and the Wayne Hunt Been Dancing composition to its right. If the latter’s orange radial shape were any larger, it would dominate the entire work.
Negative space can take on it’s own pacing and integrity. The ■ January 59 image has three layers of objects – (1) all three gray photos; (2) a white 59; and (3) a black JANUARY – in which each of these three layers create their own dynamic layout of negative shapes. Similarly, ■ Wayne Hunt’s assemblage, Been Dancing, creates multiple arcs of figure and ground throughout the composition.