Positive-Negative Patterns, Figure-Ground Reversal, and Counterchange

Call it whatever you like, but this is a fascinating subject. The terms “positive-negative patterns,” “patterns with figure-ground reversal,” and “counterchange patterns” are often synonymous, but they can also shed light on the same pattern at different angles and go to the heart of what makes patterns with color reversals so interesting and attractive.

Counterchange patterns

Before we start, let’s be clear on one thing. Traditionally, counterchange patterns are introduced with the help of black and white pictures, which is certainly proper because nothing conveys the gist of color inversion better; or the concept of yin and yang; or positive and negative. We’ll follow the tradition and give only a few examples in full color, mainly to drive home the fact that color reversals work splendidly with any number of colors so your counterchange color palette can be as elaborate as you wish.

Back to the subject, “counterchange” usually refers to color reversals in the most generic sense. For instance, we could say that the number of standard pattern types grows dramatically from 17 to 46 if one permits color reversals, alongside rotations, reflections, and other symmetry operations, when generating a pattern from a motif. In that context the neutral term “counterchange patterns” is ideal. And, yes, starting from version 6, SymmetryWorks creates both the standard 17 pattern types and the 46 counterchange pattern types at a click.

Counterchange patterns from H.J. Woods re-created with SymmetryWorks
Three of the 46 black and white counterchange patterns from H.J. Woods re-created and recolored with SymmetryWorks. Inset: How do you make that chevron pattern? Draw a colored rhomboid, choose Mirror as the main symmetry and Mirror and glide as the color symmetry, and click Make in the SymmetryWorks panel. Then rotate the control path 90 degrees and tweak it to be as shown. Want to see a tutorial? Vote in comments.

To create a counterchange, you reverse colors in neighboring parts of the pattern according to some law. In SymmetryWorks, you open the Pandora’s box of color reversals by selecting the Alternate Colors checkbox in the Color Symmetries pane and then simply browse the available color symmetries and pick the one you like best.

Color symmetries pane
Possible choices for color symmetry.
Counterchange patterns with different color symmetries
Counterchange patterns automatically created with SymmetryWorks. The bottom row shows variations of the same pattern created by trying different color symmetries.

If you are into the technical details, an unlucky one out of the 17 primary symmetry types does not have any secondary symmetry choices at all; others allow one, two, three, or five variations. That’s how the number of pattern types grows from 17 to 46. After a color reversal, the symmetry type will often change, and the overall repeat size will always increase, but the larger pattern will still have one of the 17 primary types. We call the symmetry of the recolored pattern the “color symmetry” or “secondary symmetry.”

And because SymmetryWorks provides all the necessary buttons for you, you are spared the technicalities and are free to  just go ahead and the possible variations on the fly—as we did in the picture above. We think you’ll agree that even a mechanically produced  counterchange, without any enhancements we touch upon next, is already a potent tool that readily brings about balanced designs that are often more interesting than the same designs without the color inversion.


However, the beauty of counterchange patterns does not end with robotic color reversals. Underneath the casual attractiveness lies the interaction between the subject of the pattern (the positive space) and the surrounding area (the negative space). The concept of notan (from the Japanese 濃淡 roughly translated as “light and shade”, “strength and weakness”, “strong and fleeting”, “complexity”…) emphasizes the interplay between the positive and negative spaces. One cannot exist without the other. But the negative space is more than a container of the motif, more than an aid. It’s a partner. It has its own identity and its own utility. It can dominate the design, play equal part, or disappear almost entirely. And a tension between motif and its surroundings creates harmony in a notan design.

Notan pattern design studies
Notan pattern design studies with SymmetryWorks.

Students of notan often practice by painting with black ink or cutting pieces out of black construction paper, flipping them across the edge, and gluing them on a white drawing paper. With any good modern software, such as Adobe Illustrator or Photoshop, you can free your fingers from the scissors, but virtual cutting and pasting and flipping still remains tedious, as “My Take on Notan” on the Color On Cloth blog amply recounts. With SymmetryWorks, you can free yourself from the cutting-pasting-flipping routine altogether and, as an extra bonus, explore a wider range of symmetries and immediately see the interplay between positive and negative shapes multiplied by repetition through pattern.

Notan studies (symmetry)
Notan studies in different symmetries.
Notan repetition in a pattern
A notan unit and its repetition in pattern.

Positive-negative patterns

When, in addition, the negative space acquires a recognizable shape, that is, becomes a subject in its own right, a successful positive-negative pattern emerges.

Positive-negative patterns
Positive-negative patterns created with SymmetryWorks.

…And then the pattern becomes doubly intriguing when both the positive and the negative shapes turn out to be exactly the same.

Positive-negative patterns (inverted-shapes)
Inverted-shape positive-negative patterns created with SymmetryWorks.

As another side note, an ingeniously simple motif Positive-negative patterns (braids motif), re-invented by the pattern foundry and popularized by the Print & Pattern blog, turns out to be a tremendous source of fun to play with. Browsing through a few primary symmetries and then choosing among the available secondary symmetries (and sometimes also shifting and/or rotating the control path), makes such a stream of interesting patterns that you can spend many happy hours playing—we have! Feel free to download the basic setup and try it with SymmetryWorks yourself. But be forewarned: looking for positive-negative patterns can quickly become an obsession so be careful out there!

Positive-negative patterns (varying symmetries)
A stream of positive-negative patterns created by playing with symmetries. In the lower-right corner, the basic pattern without color reversal.

Figure-ground reversal

Positive-negative patterns and patterns with a figure-ground reversal are closely related, or may be even one and the same, and by employing a well-known trick of surrounding a part of the pattern with one of the pattern colors (which of course leaves the remaining part surrounded by the other color), you can make the figure-ground reversal jump at you at once. The trick is also useful in engineered designs, where the border gives you a natural way to highlight the reversal.

Patterns with figure-ground reversal
Patterns with figure-ground reversal created with SymmetryWorks.

Was this short trip to the black and white world useful? Care to share other counterchange tricks? Leave a comment below. Also leave a comment if you wish to experiment with these designs further—we’ll email some files to get you started. Or click Ask a question and contact us directly.

Last updated: September 3, 2017

September 3, 2017

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