Innovation, Risk, Surprise, Uncertainty

Positively Negative Spaces

Negative space 1

Illustration: Sharpie pen with black ink by Black Elephant Blog author

To continue on the theme of basic concepts in art–as I am learning about in my basic drawing class–we come now to the concept of “negative space.”    This doesn’t sound too good until you learn that the “negative” in the phrase simply refers to the space around and between the subjects of an image, as also explained here in Wikipedia.  For those who have made it through graduate school and perhaps even an entire career without coming across this concept, this idea is quite exciting…and positive.  (However, “positive space” is something different.  The world of art has its own language, like every other endeavor, with words like “tooth,” “value,” and “wash” meaning quite different things to artists.)

Negative space sometimes means drawing with space to produce a silhouette of the subject.  To produce this effect, we students used a homemade viewfinder (two L-shaped strips of cardboard taped together to form a small rectangle) and chose the composition we’d like to create with negative space.  Note that objects overlapping each other in real life viewing simply become part of the same silhouette, as in the image above.

What is remarkable about this exercise in seeing and thinking is that it focuses on the context in order to define the subject. Just as in Drawing the Light, sharpening our attention to what is around and affecting the subject is important. Just one slip of the pen and we’ve completely changed the look of the subject, and possibly even ruined it altogether.  Context really matters! 🙂

Illustration:  Watercolor, gouache, ink, pencil, and white charcoal by Black Elephant Blog author, representing the 1916 watercolor by Charles Demuth at the Philadelphia Museum of Art

Illustration: Watercolor, gouache, ink, pencil, and white charcoal by Black Elephant Blog author, after the 1916 watercolor “Green Dancer” by Charles Demuth at the Philadelphia Museum of Art

Seasoned artists often give their images a multidimensional appearance and sometimes even an impression of movement by using light, shadows, and contours.  Every teacher  I’ve had so far in this new venture has said it is important to draw what surrounds the subject at the same time as we focus on drawing the subject. In other words it is a rookie mistake to focus single-mindedly on drawing a subject without considering the context.  This simple advice is stunningly important with so many applications in life, and not just to art.

How can we understand the seemingly sudden emergence of new threats, challenges, or risks without widening the “viewfinder” to see what might be the context around them?  Could one “slip” or failure in the “negative space” to anticipate a requirement have consequences for subjects, or “positive space,” in real life? Alternatively, is there more positive “negative space” shaping that can be done to influence the subject?  The list of relevant applications for the negative space idea seems simply endless…  What would happen if we played with the concept of “negative space,” and  reframed the key issues of the day through our “viewfinders?”  Without context, mistaken analysis, lost opportunities, and unforeseen surprises are inevitable.  Particularly for those instances in real life where the consequences of failing to see repercussions could be worse than a ruined piece of paper, learning to think and see differently about “negative space” seems valuable.

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