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Posts Tagged ‘negative space’

13JohnWatercolor2I do watercolors from time to time, but not enough to be considered a watercolor-IST.  But I love looking at them and studying their technique.  For me, watercolors fall into two categories: 1) the fussy, goody-goody, neat-huh, look-at-me-I’m-coloring-in-the-lines types and 2) the real thing.

A real watercolor makes me sigh.  For many reasons, but today I want to focus on just one reason.  Namely, a real watercolor lets the white of the paper do half the work.  This is difficult to pull off.  It requires that you study your subject—hard—before you dunk your soft sable brush into that pot of clean water.  One of the tricks of this medium is that in order to make this unforgiving medium look spontaneous and airy, you have to carefully plan your steps ahead of time. In other words, before you start with the brush, you know in what sequence you’re going to apply the colors.  And you know where you will apply nothing at all.  You plan the omissions where the white of the paper will shine through and make your watercolor look like…the real thing.

So you’re in my “Impressions of Landscape” class and you’re set up in the little pavilion on the other side of 13JohnMacsaiMansionPhjpgthe parking lot.  You see the old mansion, the cars and an overwhelming thicket of shrubs and tree trunks.  Good grief, how can this become a “spontaneous and airy” watercolor?  John Macsai obviously was not overwhelmed. He knew what to omit, what to edit out.  To let the tree trunks “breathe” he turned them into dashed lines, which is actually how they look when you notice that all sorts of foliage interrupts their upward sweep.  Easier said than done.

Notice the restraint in the use of complementary color: greens, blues and sepia.  Restraint, both in omission and use of color, is rooted in a love for this medium.  It’s not everybody’s choice but in a real watercolorist’s hands, it makes me sigh.

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12BowBottlelDrapeGaby1

When we work from a still life, I always remind the class that there’s a lot of stuff there and you can choose to draw the whole pile or you can zoom in and draw a select,  small passage.  In this case, a student just went for the tilted dark bottle and a bit of adjacent drapery.  How on earth do you make an interesting drawing out of such a clunky object?  Ah, but it’s not about the object it’s about how you draw it.  We had been talking about the problem of the contour, the topic in the last post on Leonardo and sfumato.  It’s not a problem, really, it’s just that you can set yourself the goal of drawing that old bottle without outlining it in a consistent line.  You can practice interrupting the line.  That simple.  At first, you may think this is awkward or arbitrary, but then you discover that since light 12BowBottlelDrapeSetupcomes from above, the upper part of the bottle will be lighter and if you lighten the contour there or leave the line out altogether, the bottle will look quite lively. Notice also, that part of the bottle is defined by the shadow in the drapery behind it, i.e something that is not-bottle and is not a contour of anything.

Once the bottle and its attendant drapery swatch were drawn, Gaby faced all that white “negative” space. What the still life set-up offered wasn’t all that dynamic, so she invented.  Are you allowed to do that?  Oh, yessss!   She invented bricks, curved ones.  The rectilinearity of the brickwork anchors the tilted bottle in a credible universe. The fact that the bricks are curved adds texture and an echo of the roundness of the bottle.

The result is a painterly drawing.  We’ve used the word “painterly” before in these posts (12.22.10 and 3.12.11), but it will get more coverage, soon, and this time in connection with drawing.

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Never leave home without it:  your pocket Sony or your iPhone, not because you’re expecting a call but because it can take pictures.  I don’t mean pictures as documentation of facts, or because you’re planning a photography exhibit, but as an exercise in seeing. Pure and simple.

When you’re winding through your neighborhood on your power walk, you’ll notice the clever things people do with their entrances and shrubs and you’re reminded of how your own domicile will never make it into Architectural Digest. Your eye is outer-directed.

Now try an alley. Notice that you have the place to yourself and your seeing becomes more intense, more internal. When you veer off into an alley, you’ve turned off your “certified beauty” sensor. Your eye searches for shapes and juxtapositions.  Mmmm, garbage cans. But you don’t see garbage or think garbage, you just see the shapes and the negative spaces.  Click.

What you zoom in on teaches you something about how you see.  When I review my photos, I notice a repeated composition. What to do with that?  Puzzle over it, go deeper, work with it.

My ankle-weighted walking shots are composed in a sweating hurry. Some of them invite cropping in Photoshop, that fabulous tool for nuanced seeing.  Crop that shot!  Crop it again and again until you see form with only a sigh of memory of the garbage can.  Ahhh!

And then you can flip it and notice that it’s better that way.  Ah-hah.————————————————————-

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If you go back to post August 3, 2012 you’ll see the still life that Gaby was working from for this drawing.  There was a second wooden mannequin, this one reclining with all fours  reaching up, and also some plastic fruits, a pear and an apple.

This marvelous drawing emerged only after much struggle and daring invention.  The pear and apple, being in the foreground, were originally quite worked out with shadows and highlights. As the artist/student got more into the work, these objects lost their importance even though they were in the foreground.  Their literalness had to give way to the workings of the composition as a whole. They still read as foreground, the pear especially by virtue of its continuous, uninterrupted contour.  But the pear is now both foreground and a vacant space and that’s a wonderful paradox.

The background—the white and  the black—is pure invention. Notice that both non-referential surfaces have textures, to give them visual interest and make them, paradoxically, come forward.

The composition with its dramatically worked out values establishes layers: foreground, middleground, background and then far background. We’ve looked at foreground and background.  Now, what is that in the middle?  It seems to radiate from some point behind the pear-vacancy.  These three rays are  what the drawing seems to be about, for the simple reason that they invite identification more than any other element in the drawing.

Everyone in the class loved this drawing.  Everyone knew, of course, what Gaby had been looking at.  But the drawing is clearly not about identifiable objects.  It uses the pear and the wooden figure as a point of departure.  The drawing becomes a work of the imagination, a DRAWING.

Somebody said, it looks like an insect’s legs.  Well, yes, that will come up in your mind, but try clinging to that interpretation.  The drawing takes you far beyond that.

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I don’t want to be predictable, but if you’ve been following these posts, you know that whenever I get to talking about dynamics, tension and counterpoint in an image, the Lift-Right flip cannot be far behind.

Look at this. I flipped Linné’s original drawing, horizontally.   Isn’t this a funny image!

How can that be?! Same factual information.  Yet in the original (see previous post) the lone leaf sticking out of the margin looks mysterious and important.  Here in the flip, doesn’t it look ridiculous, clunky and contrived?  The bare stems in the original were energetic and full of promise, but here in the flip, they go nowhere, they seem to die on the page.  The peak in the horizon line is tired here, where in the original it feels up-beat.

I don’t theorize about this in class or give specific instructions. But we often play with cropping, i.e. placing strips of white paper over a finished drawing to see what happens.  That’s an important seeing exercise because it focuses on “what makes an image.”  These marvelous compositions in my students’ work come about because I encourage them to practice seeing  how elements on the drawing page relate to one another and the edge and the negative space they create, rather than just what they depict.

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Once again, I talked about the so-called negative space.  I had set up a still life consisting of a white plastic chair, tilted on a little prop, against a red back ground. The assignment was to draw the chair (the so-called positive space) by not drawing it at all, but instead by drawing the non-chair spaces that make it possible for us to see the chair (the so-called negative space).  This works best when the object depicted is symmetrical,  readily identifiable and seen from a weird angle.  One student faced the chair from a symmetrical view and that drawing didn’t work.  But one new student, Alejandra, was positioned so that her view of the chair was askew.  Perfect.  She worked on 18 x 24 paper with pencil.  The page is riveting.  You just want to look at this apparition.  You see the chair by seeing everything that is non-chair.  The brain tingles.  Such a simple exercise, so easy to conceptualize, and yet so hard to “get.”  This is how art works.

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The still life with the doll was set up again the next class.  This time I suggested an entirely different use of the visual complexity they were presented.  Instead of really drawing what was there, just pick up a line here and there and quickly put that down on paper.  Use a marker, specifically the marker made by Utrecht, which has a wonderful brush nib.

To work in this manner (let’s call it noodling)  you’ll want to work fast and fill one sheet after another.  “Fill” turns out not to be the right word at all, because this kind of mark making, I think, is most effective if there are few lines.  As the students were doing their own drawings,  I sat down and did fourteen drawings, one after the other, 8½ x 11 each, in just a few minutes.   The first few pages were not good because they had too many lines.  Restraint turns out to be difficult:  you get into the play of the lines and you’re tempted to just pile them on.  The trick is to draw impulsively and immediately respond to the kind of negative space the line creates.  After eight drawings, I finally produced four that were “right.”   When they were all spread out in sequence everybody could see why the last four worked and the earlier eight didn’t.  No explanation was necessary.  This is strong stuff.

The next step was to tear a snippet of color paper from a pile of collage material (magazine pages) I had spread out.  A scrap of red, say, the size of your thumbnail, can then be moved around on the page. Some placements are obviously “bad” and some are immediately and intuitively perceived as “right.”  What makes a spot right, has to do with the expectations that the line drawing has set up, the tensions and the shape of the negative space.  But what’s amazing is the unanimous agreement of where that bit of red should go.  Really, strong stuff.

Only one student took my suggestion and worked in this manner. This noodling with lines is considered to be hard.  How can this be hard, you may ask, if you can do any old squiggle that doesn’t have to represent anything.  I don’t have a post-length answer.  But I’d like you to try this:  just pick up a marker and squiggle a line on a piece of paper.  Maybe a dozen more pieces of paper.  See what happens.  Then see if you can relate a tiny bit of color to that line. See what happens.  This is not hard like lifting cinder blocks is hard.  It’s hard in the way dancing is hard if you’re nervous about looking foolish.  We’ll get back to this topic again in a future post.

(Now, here are the rejects.  Click for larger image.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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All contents copyright (C) 2010 Katherine Hilden. All rights reserved.

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