What’s Not is What Is

My parents were pretty certain that I was born with a crayon in my hand. Once I drew a chalk still life on a door; it was well rendered, but not well received. At 11, I began studying with a local artist and continued into college where the informal concepts I was using to draw and paint were placed into a formal discipline involving principles of composition, light and color.

Negative space is one such idea. While composing a painting, you have three elements to begin with: the frame or outside edge, the positive space which is the thing you’re painting or drawing and then the negative space around it. Here’s an example:


One your brain gets past the funny shapes, you can see the chair within the negative spaces that have been drawn. Most artists will tell you for something that’s “not there,” negative space is terribly important—both in the balance of the forms, but also in the rendering of your subject. It seems that you can fool the eye a bit when you concentrate, as in the chair drawing here, on what’s not chair. We are familiar with chairs. They are, in fact, difficult to draw because of that familiarity. Same goes with anything you’re well acquainted with. Your mind takes over and says, “Here, let me draw that chair for you. I know chairs.” You might get something like this:


By instead putting your attention to the negatives spaces, your left-brain now says “Fine! I don’t know what that is. Do it yourself!” and you can focus now on what’s in front of you. (To really get into that whole left/right conundrum, look at this exercise taken from Betty Edwards’ book Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. When you actually sit with pencil and paper and do the many exercises in the book, the results are amazing.) By depicting what isn’t, you arrive at what is.

Drawings and paintings aren’t the only demonstration of negative spaces. Music is sometimes punctuated with silences to make what follows more profound. Many of the Oriental arts of home decoration simply use space to emphasize the flower or waterfall or whathaveyou. In written “showing and telling,” writers often omit details on purpose or leave the undescribed for the reader’s imagination to fill in.

A sincere friend who was attempting to read through the Bible finally gave up in horror. In her mind, God is Love and there just wasn’t an awful lot of that going on, especially in the Old Testament. She couldn’t understand all the pillaging, battles and bloodshed. I’m just wondering whether the Bible has quite a lot of negative space experiences that are actually where God wasn’t in order to describe him/her more immediately and authentically—the way you can better convey the form of the chair with all those funny shapes.


One thought on “What’s Not is What Is

  1. I partly worked through Betty Edwards’ book years ago and can attest that ths approach does make ANYone a better artist, as my notebook of sketches can attest to. I loved some of those exercises. And you wouldn’t usually mistake me for an artist.

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