Two Negatives


Something I’ve been doing recently, if sporadically, is teaching myself to draw, using Betty Edward’s book Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain.

One of the interesting artistic concepts the book highlights is negative space: the space that surrounds or is enclosed by whatever subject(s) you are drawing. The three thin cones and a fatter wedge that form if you spread out your fingers in preparation to draw your hand.

Edwards observes that developing a knack for seeing the beauty of negative spaces is often a treasured revelation to her drawing students. Good composition in drawing – you know it when you see it, even if you don’t know precisely how it is achieved – is a matter of arranging both positive subjects and negative spaces into a compelling overall arrangement. And focusing on drawing the negative spaces, rather than the positive subjects they puncture and enfold, is an outside-in way of learning to draw more accurately, because the negative spaces which have no name or preconceived identity fool the brain out of imposing the shorthand symbol-system it has ready prepared for subjects about which we already know all there is to know. Five pointed sticks attached to a roundish blob will surely do.

Intriguingly, Edwards observes that her own North American culture struggles to attend to negative space because it is so much oriented to positive subject-matter (or object-matter if you demur). Other cultures, she notes – without specifying which ones – have a sense not of ‘the problem’ (object), but of ‘working within the space of a problem’ (object plus its negative spaces).

Something else I have been doing recently is taking stock, surfing a wave of feeling drawn to look back at what I’ve been up to. Across this blog (begun, I now notice, with the common flood of regular enthusiasm that then dwindles to a yet persistent trickle), I’ve been interested in navigating change without a map, in dissensus and discrimination, in what enough is. And often enough in things that might be termed the negative spaces of my culture: the depths of winter, the inchoate unknowns of the psyche submerged in the dark lake, the death cycles of abandoned buildings, the terra incognita of ordinary life. Things not ordinarily perceived and so hard to see, yet somehow essential to the composition of the whole.

Enough to want to deter myself from seeing a pattern emerging, that might then tempt me to follow it. For another negative that has taken root for me is negative capability: the capacity Keats identified for accepting uncertainty, living with mystery instead of seeking to resolve it.

Well, I admire the well-wrought urn of this idea; I’m not sure that I actually live inside it yet, curled in the nameless negative space that its shaped clay embraces. Mostly I get as far as noticing the long lists of facts and reasons that I’m inclined conjure up to explain things, and that the lists vary, and that things change according to whatever’s on those lists.


One thought on “Two Negatives

  1. I remember that book, indeed was had a class during my Art Foundation that was all about this technique, drawing a large pile of wooden chairs with legs everywhere and negative spaces abounding. It’s a good method.As to living with uncertainty …… I believe that we have to accept that if we are to live at all …..

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