Foolproof Positive-Negative Designs: Free Lesson Plan Download

Grade Level: 3-5 Art Education Lesson Plan

Art Elements: Space

Art Skills: Cutting

Making Connections: Design

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Click to Download Free Lesson Plan

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I’ve always had a love – hate relationship with positive / negative space lessons. First, I become unmotivated to teach them because they don’t involve some type of art history or culture, second, the student products have not been stellar for me in past years.

This year, I tried a new lesson with 4th grade and added a few tricks, making both the students (and myself) much happier with the result.

You probably get the basics: Students are given two papers, one large colored and one smaller black square. They cut out a shape, and flip it to create a design.

What Works:

  1. Have students glue down the small pieces as they work around the square, but leave the center piece to be glued down until the very end. No loose pieces to be lost and it helps kids work more systematically.
  2. Make a little guideline on the corners of the template so they know where to line up the center square each time they cut out a new shape.
  3. Demonstrate a technique (ie: Cutting a wavy shape) and then have them try it. Do this for a few of the shapes before you let them go on their own. This one technique upped the quality of this project and also inspired confidence in students while still maintaining freedom and creativity. (Notice no two look the same).
  4. Encourage large and small shapes and to fill the entire black square with designs.
This lesson took about 2-3,  45 minute class periods and they really look great on display!
Hope these tips help you to become more POSITIVE about Positive- Negative space!

This great Art Ed lesson plan is 100% FREE to download! Use it in your classroom and share with your colleagues. For more free lessons like this one, visit our Lessons Page and download them all!

7 years ago


  • Glenda

    Not a criticism…but why did it take 2 classes?  Was it because they had to cut and glue?  Have you ever tried with another shape in the middle?  I am wondering how you make use of the middle? Hmmm

    • Jessica

      I spend quite a bit of time introducing the concept of Positive negative space, checking for craftsmanship and having students take their time. I also incorporate formative assessment into the lesson which takes a little time.

    • By the time I introduce the lesson and concept, demonstrate and do a formative assessment, it easily takes 2-3 classes. I really encourage students to take their time, too.

  • southiefolk

    Jessica, I usually do the project with my fifth graders.  We use black on white paper and it takes about 2 classes.  I have them lightly trace the black square for placement.  To insure the mirror image gluing I ask them to replace the cut shape into the square, put a dot of glue on the cut out and flip it out to glue it.  After the square is “exploded” as we like to say they spin their paper to find interesting images, a walking man carrying a suitcase, a dancer, etc and then can add black marker or gel pen to finish their artwork! Another finishing we have tried is to use black markers and mirror the outside shape of the image with repeated lines and designs. The kids love how images appear and how their art takes on a life of it’s own.

  • marieelcin

    I’ve even done this with 2nd graders. We practiced starting a line at an edge, entering the middle space and then coming back to the SAME SIDE, and we did several practice sketches before trying it out on the paper. We also were able to talk about geometric and organic shapes with this project. You can do some with mirror symmetry, but you can also do rotational symmetry. We cut out all the pieces, glued the middle shape down, fit the puzzle pieces back into the center and flipped them out “like opening a door”.

  • marieelcin

    It’s also a great lesson for screenprinting- Use a piece of contact paper, do the cutouts, and affix them onto the middle of the screen- create a blocked border and then print!

  • This can also culturally be connected to “Notan Designs” of Japan, which is essentially what they are.

    • Thanks for the cultural connection, I’ll be adding that to my lesson for next year!!

  • Nicki

    I have done the exact same thing for several years now and it really helps them to understand the concept and use of space. The concept of balance in space is known as Notan and it helps if they can refer back to their paintings or art work with this balance in mind.  There is a great little video out there that shows Impressionist paintings and their balance of light and tone using the Notan theory.

    • Thanks for the idea and tip,bunny how kids have a natural ability to balance their work.

  • I love this lesson!  Japanese Notan designs are a favorite with my students because the results are always so striking.  I’ve found a key to success with these is to strive for an equal balance of light and dark in that center section.  I love the black on the bright color background!

  • Christine

    This lesson is great for younger elementary. I have altered it slightly for my 5th graders by using six complimentary colored 2 inch squares arranged checkerboard style on a 4X12 inch sheet of paper. ie. A student chooses purple squares they get a yellow background sheet. They only cut from one side of the square and flip to the right or left. They can cut a shape within a shape or two shapes from that one side but be sure to avoid cutting into the corners. We talk about optical illusions (vases and faces) and the work of MC Esher because of his amazing use of positive and negative space (Sky and Water). One of our project goals is to fool the viewer so that he/she can not tell which was our background sheet and which is the added on paper. My students have gotten really creative with their shapes and have even used themes for their shapes. Heres two links to my artsonia gallery of this project…
    I hope someone finds these helpful. Thanks Jessica!

  • Christine
    • Cathy

      I like this different way of presenting the Notan lesson….your other artwork on Artsonia is great too! Nice!

  • Cathy

    I loved using the Notan lesson with my students. I actually introduced this lesson with my Kindergarten and 6th grade students. With the Kinders, their difficulty presented itself with the positive shapes opposite the negative space cutout. What helped to make this easier was to have them work with very simple shapes (triangles, squares, circles), and only 1 or 2 shapes per side. Our standards require cutting and pasting for Kinders and this lesson is a great one for that. Plus it gives them the opportunity to explore the “positive/negative” aspect. 

    With the 6th graders I introduced the Japanese culture and history of Notan. I feel that introducing this helped with understanding the project more. I had great results with this. My kids were very engaged. 

    I think this project is spectacular as well with the contrast of black on brightly colored paper. It is also fun to try with different colors, so students can work with complementary colors, etc. Joining them together to create one large artwork is really cool and one I might do to hang in the art room. 


  • Jfrisco

    I also did this with my 4th graders this past year and they turned out beautiful!

  • Melissa Woodland

    I know some are wary, but I have done this with High School intro art classes (yes, some in 12th grade). In the older grades I push for a theme. Use only organic shapes, using “double cuts.”  Because the older kids can use exacto knives you can push more with design. Here’s a link to gallery from last year.

  • Clara Crosby

    FYI- This is the only lesson on the page that won’t print as a single page pdf. Thanks for all the lessons!! -Clara

    • Fixing it right now! Thanks so much. Gotta love technology!

  • Helen Snyder

    love it am stealing this one!

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