Archive for December 15th, 2010

Daniel Chester French, (1870-1931) came out of the Beaux Arts decades which came out of the Renaissance which came from the ancient Greeks.  We love all that:  contrapposto, balance, measured grace, serenity, idealization of the feminine form.  You’ll find this lovely figure in the sculpture court in the Rice Building at the Chicago Art Institute.

For my drawing class, we have a model who knows her art history and often presents us with poses that embody all those well-loved characteristics I just enumerated.  Students are pleased when they have the chance to make a drawing that hooks into our western tradition of the beautiful.  That is, before modernism threw out the concept of beauty.  If you’ve had a chance to read some earlier posts here  dealing with the concepts from modernism that I keep introducing in class (you may be reading “pushing” here instead of “introducing”)  I need to remind you that I like to work both ends of the continuum. I really do share my students’ love of drawing “well,”  that is, in the classical mode.  Here’s one drawing I did recently from our model in class as I sat between two students who watched the drawing develop.  (Charcoal pencil, about fifteen  minutes.)   It’s very satisfying to slip into the 16th century and the 1890’s to draw in this idealized mode.

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Negative space is a tricky concept because it’s so obvious.  If you’re drawing a vase on a table, the vase is called the positive space (or the figure) and the space around it is called the negative space (or the ground).  The reason is simple:  we look at the vase because it’s a thing that holds our attention and we can name it;  everything else, the space around it, is unnamed, and we don’t look at it.  So, what’s tricky about this?  And why does it take some people years, like twenty, to get this?

The tricky part of negative space is that the vase in reality is not the same as the vase in the image you make.  I hear you say, so?  Let me try again.  We look at the real vase on the real table one way and the vase drawn in graphite on paper in another way.  Right, you say, I got that, so what else is new?  Ok, here’s another try.  The real vase on the table has a function in your life (for example, you use it), while the vase in the drawing serves no purpose, doesn’t do any work for you.  Hmmmmm, you say, we may be getting warm here. You’re still listening, so I’ll say one more thing before you get up and leave.  Here it is:  the vase in the drawing is part of a composition that is bounded by the edge of the paper and every square inch of that paper is important, not just  the three or four square inches that are taken up by the vase.  You curl your lip.  Duh, is that supposed to be deep or something?   You get up to leave.  Yes, I say after you with a fading voice, it is…deep…actually.

That’s today’s attempt to verbalize the tricky concept of negative space. Applause, thank you, thank you.   Failed again.  It’s still tricky.

One of my drawing students, Karen G., has been working with negative space in all her still lifes and with rich effects for almost a year.  As you look at these drawings you can see that they are not about pots and canisters and old buckets.  These mundane objects are certainly there and granted a certain privilege in the middle of the composition.  But your eye doesn’t get fixated on them. Instead your attention moves over the whole page.  Every square inch is alive.

Even in this drawing of loops we see the use of negative space in the way the artist/student creates tension between the two rows.  The negative space itself has a lively shape.  This was the result of inventiveness and the artist’s  sense of “the whole picture.” The physical object she worked from was a pretty dismal line of loops that had been cut from the edge of a trampoline cover or somesuch thing.  We’re not talking about some noble display of Greek amphoras here.  To make an image of these loops she had to see rhythm and form.  Not only form-meaning-positive-space,  but also form-meaning-negative-space.  This is tricky and a really big deal.

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