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Friday, November 7, 2008

The Utility of What Is Not

We put thirty spokes together and call it a wheel;
But it is on the space where there is nothing that
the utility of the wheel depends.
We turn clay to make a vessel;
But it is on the space where there is nothing that
the utility of the vessel depends.
We pierce doors and windows to make a house;
and it is on these spaces where there is nothing that
the utility of the house depends.
Therefore, just as we take advantage of what is, we should
recognize the utility of what is not
Lao Tse b. 604 BC

Let's consider a concept commonly known as negative space.

First of all, I object strongly to this label because there's nothing negative about it. As far as I know, the label negative space surfaced during the abstractionists' era when images vanished and the painting of space was the major concern. As defined at that time, positive space is space occupied by shapes; negative space is the space between and around the shapes.

But in terms of the function of space that surrounds our images, I prefer defining space to negative space.
Above is an Albrecht Durer painting on the left and a Pat Weaver on the right. Below each I have converted the images or the positive shapes into white and the space around the images to black.

If we look at just the black shapes, it becomes evident how important they are to forming what we see within the light shapes. Look back at the painting of the hare and focus just on the defining space. Notice how it encompasses the subject, serving as the utility through which we read the subject itself.

Now look at the portrait by Pat Weaver. The same thing is true. The way she has constructed the space around the subject gives strength to the subject.

In the above painting by Richard Schmid, the space of the sky and frontal field are the defining space for the buildings and trees. The size variations created with the tree line create an interesting and entertaining definition of both buildings and trees.

Now, with apologies to Mr. Schmid, I have changed that space in the following illustration.
Now the defining space has lost its strength. Losing that size variation has weakened left us with a mundane sky shape and a weakened painting.

As artists, we tend to spend too much energy on the subject and not enough on the space that defines the subject. Here's an assignment to make you more aware of defining spaces:

Each day, do at least one drawing of just the defining space of a subject, leaving the subjects space blank. That's right--don't draw the subject at all, but rather the space around the subject. Doing this exercise on a regular schedule will transform the strength of your defining spaces.

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