1.27.2023

Negative Space (Why It's Such a Big Deal)


If you do an online image search for "negative space drawings" you will find a tremendous number of examples that range from traditional academic exercises to very creative design solutions.  Variations of negative space exercises exist at all levels of drawing classes (whether or not it is explicitly labeled as such).  So, what is "negative space" and why is it such a big deal?

Negative Space is a term used in art to describe the space around or between an object or multiple objects.  You can think of the object itself as the "positive" form that you can typically touch (like a houseplant).  The "negative space" is all of the space around the object that you cannot touch (like the spaces around and between the leaves).


In this example the positive form is a clipping from a fig tree.  There is a lot of detail that you may focus on if you were drawing, painting or simply observing this subject.  There are overlapping leaves creating lighter and darker values and different shades of green.  There are subtle details like the veins along the surface or the textures of the branches.


When I blackout the positive shapes, we loose the previous detail.  The focus is still on the subject, but the emphasis is now on the unified shape created.  It is like a silhouette with flattened shapes.  This is an example of simplifying the figure-ground relationship.  Our figure-ground perception allows us to group visual information as foreground and background.

Creating an inverse of the black and white places more emphasis on the negative space.  These dark shapes visually carry more weight which make us pay more attention to them.  In the previous example, the negative shapes were white which allowed our brain to dismiss these negative shapes as "nothing" in order to focus on what our brain perceived as "something".

The most recognizable example the figure-ground relationship was developed by the Danish psychologist Edgar Rubin. When shown the first version (left) our tendency is to notice the two profiles in silhouette because they carry the visual weight.  When the image is inverted (right) what was the negative space now has the visual weight and we can more easily see the vase in between the faces.  The figure-ground relationship is flipped.  The vase becomes the "figure" and the profiles become the background.


Why Is Negative Space a Big Deal?


Accuracy

Negative space is equally as important as the positive space.  You cannot draw an object accurately if the negative space is inaccurate.  If you develop your ability to focus on the negative space, you can use those negative shapes to more accurately draw the positive shapes.  The focus becomes less about what the subject is and more about the relationship between the shapes.  Viewing the negative space as simple shapes also makes them easier to draw.

Composition

Consider how to balance the design elements between the positive and the negative shapes (or the figure-ground).  How you place and/or crop your subject can create interesting negative shapes with the boundary of your artwork.  You can choose to comfortably balance the relationship between the positive and negative shapes or choose to emphasize a greater amount of positive or negative space to support a mood or narrative.  There are also opportunities to play with the figure-ground relationship that create surprising illusions (like Rubin's vase).  There are many examples of drawings, paintings and graphic design that use the positive/negative figure-ground relationship to great effect.  Search figure-ground illusions for some incredible examples.

Editing

Do not underestimate the power of editing.  Selecting what information to leave out is just as important as deciding what should be included.  Our natural tendency is to focus on the positive subject and ignore the space around it because our brain filters out the space as being less important or "nothing".  There are so many interesting details in a subject (light and shadows, colors, textures, etc.) that it can be difficult to focus on the negative space.  However, there is an opportunity to reduce detail in your subject and emphasize the interesting shapes and variations within the negative space.  Creating artwork with dynamic negative space opens up so many many incredible possibilities.  If you have been ignoring or neglecting the negative space, you are missing a huge opportunity.


Emphasizing Negative Space

In this example, you can see that I began my painting by blocking in colors in a range of mid-values (nothing too light or dark).  I also layered pigments and built up some textures.  Once the surface was dry, I sketched in some of the important shapes of the tree and the figure with paint.  There is very little detail in the primary or secondary subjects.

Spring Renewal -early painting stage, artist Lisa Larrabee

I created the strongest value and color contrast when I painted the negative spaces around the tree.  Nothing within the subject was painted equal to the light value of the sky.  I added very little information to the tree.  Mostly the landscape was painted around it.  I developed the figure to a degree, but I also left out much information.

Spring Renewal, oil on panel, artist Lisa Larrabee

People have often commented on the "pink flowers in the hair".  This is an example of the figure-ground relationship playing tricks in your mind.  Without the figure, the light pink daubs of paint read as the sky showing in between the gaps in the foliage of the tree.  They are negative shapes that are part of the background.  However, if you focus on the figure, the paint daubs connect with the subject and become interpreted as flowers in the hair.

Art Challenge
  • Choose a  subject that has interesting negative shapes.  Look for examples with closed shapes (negative space surrounded by positive form).  
  • Organic shapes (like plants) are more forgiving.  Structured inorganic shapes (like a pair of scissors or a chair) will help you more easily identify mistakes.
  • Do NOT sketch in guidelines of your subject. Try to hold the positive form in your mind, but do not draw it.
  • Draw the outline of a negative shape. "Jump over" the positive form to the next negative shape.  I like to begin with a closed shape (like the examples in orange).

There are many variations to try.  I have students begin by toning paper (either with vine charcoal or graphite).  This is very forgiving because you can blend away mistakes into the tone and try again when needed. Once all of the negative space is drawn, you can either erase the tone from your subject (which emphasizes the negative space), or you can erase the negative space which will reveal your positive subject. 

You can also draw your negative shapes in pencil and then color them in when finished.  Have some fun adding color or whimsical patterns.  In school (at KCAI), I did numerous negative space studies using India ink and a brush. I couldn't go back to fix most mistakes, but the results were very graphic and bold.

Be prepared for your drawing to get off track because you aren't sketching in any guidelines.  That's expected.  Make the corrections and keep going. 

If you find it too difficult to draw only the negative space without any of the positive, give yourself  very light guidelines so you don't get lost.  Don't get discouraged.  The more time you spend concentrating on the negative space, the more your brain will get used to "seeing" it rather than ignoring it.  With practice, you will develop better drawing accuracy and make more interesting design and composition choices that incorporate the positive and negative shapes more intentionally.
Best of Luck!

~ Lisa


For more examples using negative space in painting, check out my previous posts:

Painting Negative Space: Part I

Painting Negative Space: Part II

Painting Negative Space: Part III

1.24.2023

Facial Features: Cross-Contour Mouth Sketch

 If you want to improve your drawing and painting, take time to focus on your subject from an academic perspective.  Although it is essential to play and experiment, it is also important to dedicate time for disciplined study to learn more about your subject.  In this example, I focused on the mouth.  However, this type of practice will help you better understand the form of any subject.



I worked from a photograph for this study.  I added cross-contour lines to better understand the dimensional form of the mouth.  Cross-contour lines are lines that follow the surface of the form.  (In contrast, contour lines follow the edge or boundary of the form like an outline). Cross-contour lines often do not physically exist, although they can.  For example, a striped object literally has lines on it that follow the surface of the form.  Also, a shadow cast across an object can reveal the contours of the surface of that object.  In order to convincingly create cross-contour lines, I had to consciously analyze the structure of the mouth and visualize the flat photograph as a 3-dimensional object.



Typically, I prefer to block in simple value shapes and build up my drawing or painting by refining shapes and values from general to specific.  (I have several posts that demonstrate that process including this Mouth Study).  However, sometimes we don't get the information that we need from a photo, or we have a limited time with a subject from life.  Whenever I get stuck and something doesn't look right, I analyze the structure of the object to see where my shapes do not align with the structure of the form.  

Light and shadow shapes are often more forgiving.  Cross-contour lines are not so kind.  When the lines do not convincingly follow the surface of the form, they just do not look right.  That is what makes cross-contour drawing such a great exercise.  You can't fake it, so you really have to understand the form.  Developing this knowledge of your subject will help you create more convincing form whether you are rendering your subject realistically or more expressively.  

I sincerely recommend you give it a try.  Expect to make mistakes.  Erase the lines that didn't work the way you expected and try again.  It is more about learning and understanding the form than the finished drawing.

~ Lisa


1.17.2023

Expressive Mark Making

 Not everything we make needs to become something.  I cannot stress enough the importance of experimentation and play without an end result in mind.

This is a demo where I modeled a variety of different types of mark-making using graphite and charcoal.

There is absolutely no wrong way to do this.  Give yourself a nice large sheet of paper and explore how much variety you can create using drawing tools that you already have.  Turn pieces on their side.  Twist the pencil or piece of charcoal or graphite between your fingers. Vary the amount of pressure. Smear the marks with the side of your hand.  Draw with a blending stump.  Make marks with your fingers.  Use erasers to create marks.  Change directions or explore a rhythm that feels new or awkward.  Create flowing marks, then make your hand shake/tremor as you draw.  You get the idea.

Consider the variety of marks that your regular ol' drawing tools are capable of that you hadn't explored before.  

It's like buying new art materials, except you didn't need to.  You are just beginning to explore their potential.

Once you have created a whole bunch of different marks, think about their different qualities.  How do they feel?  What mood do they communicate?  Choose a feeling and try to draw a neutral subject that communicates that feeling using different types of marks.  

I like to have students begin with "angry" drawings and "peaceful" drawings because of their clear contrast.  This is my angry drawing verses my peaceful drawing.



Both were based on a neutral subject (a still-life with leafy branches), but I had the option to alter or edit out whatever I wanted to best communicate the feeling.  In the "angry" version, I included the pot, in the "peaceful" version, I edited it out on my second attempt because I liked the simplicity and I didn't want the pot to weigh it down.

It is important to recognize that the feeling or mood is not dependent upon the subject.  In fact, choosing to make artistic decisions that feel contrary to what we typically associate with the subject can create a compelling image that allows the viewer to build a story.  It invites interesting questions:  "Why did the painting feel happy at first when the person depicted looks miserable?" or "Why does a bouquet of flowers feel so lonely?"

It is equally important to recognize when your artistic choices align with or contradict your intention.  Do these marks (or values, or shapes, or colors) conflict with or support my feeling?  This is a much bigger discussion, but you can begin by exploring what kind of marks you can make and how those marks feel when you begin to put them together.  Take a chance and see what happens.

~ Lisa

1.04.2023

Why Make Studies?


Artists often create studies before beginning their artwork.  A study can be a detailed drawing or painting that allows the artist to observe a subject thoroughly and learn more about it. Studies can also be quick, simple images that let the artist work through a variety of options before committing.  
Each type of study could be it's own post, but the following list is a summary:

  • Composition Studies focus on how different elements are placed within the boundaries of the artwork.  There are many guidelines that can help you make strong compositions such as using the rule of thirds, a pyramid/triangle composition, "S" composition, circular path, etc.
  • Value Studies help to plan a value map within your composition. This is an opportunity to group similar values to create larger unified shapes and create contrast in areas of interest. You can also establish a mood by exploring whether your artwork will have a high key (light value range), low key (dark value range) or whether it will will include a full range from dark to light.
  • Color Studies should be based off of your value study.  Experiment with a variety of color choices to see how they impact the overall feeling of your piece.  Consider whether to use a limited or full color palette.  You can also use color studies to create emphasis through color.
  • Detailed Studies are often more about observation and accuracy.  The purpose is to spend time with your subject and get to know the structure and form.  Studies may be done from different perspectives either to consider which angle is preferred or simply to better understand the subject as a whole.
  • Style/Technique Studies can be used to explore which techniques you want to use or what options you have to stylize, exaggerate form, introduce textures or patterns, etc. 

If studies are so helpful, why are so many developing artists resistant to doing them?  One reason I hear the most, is that they just don't want to spend the time.  They are excited to get started and they don't want to loose their initial energy and momentum.  There are many artists that jump right into their artwork and allow the challenges to be resolved through the process.  However, this has its risks!  Taking time at the start to explore your options through studies allows you to contrast what works and (just as importantly) what does not.  It creates opportunities to resolve problems before they come up in your artwork.  This can save you from wasting time trying to resolve a problem on a larger piece that could have been addressed in a quick study.  Studies also give you the freedom to explore ideas that you hadn't considered when you first started that may be more interesting than your initial plan.  

Quick Study Demo

Let's look at some simple composition/value studies and the thought process I used when making changes from one to the next.  

I took this photo hiking with my family.  I thought the old, abandoned miners cabin was quirky and full of interesting angles.  

It is important to identify what it is that drew you to your subject.  Maybe it was the shape, the lighting, the textures or the mood.  When you are clear about what you found interesting, you can consciously use that information to guide you through the many choices that will present themselves.

These studies are small and quick (about 3-4").  I used pencil to mass in simple value shapes and a sharpie add the bold contrasting shapes.


The first version on the left looks like the cabin is an isolated dark shape stuck to the side of the composition.  I darkened the value of the foreground to create a more integrated larger shape. The change creates a more interesting division diagonally.  The lighter top shape is mirrored by the darker bottom shape.  Still, the overall design is pretty boring.  Most importantly, it does not communicate what I found interesting about the subject.


With the second study I chose to zoom in on the doorway.  This allowed me to play up some of the funky angles of the cabin and give a glimpse into the angles inside that I found interesting.  

As I was sketching this study, I paid more attention to the stacked logs.  I realized that there was an opportunity to play up the repeated pattern of the circles while also emphasizing how the building was falling apart.  

There were still problems to address, but I felt that I was getting closer to something interesting.  


In the third study, I cropped out some of the heavy dark roof and adjusted the values so the interior was more visible. When creating your studies, it is important to include the boundary that you are designing within.  It is also important to leave extra space around the border.  This serves two functions.  First, it creates a visual separation between each study so that the compositions don't run together.  Second, it gives you room to extend the boundaries should you choose to.


Study #3 has three versions.  I wanted to lengthen the door and exaggerate the shape, so I extended the boundary at the bottom of the image.  However, I felt the door was too centered.  I also really enjoyed the irregular edge of the corrugated roof that had been cropped out of the picture.  By extending the boundary on the left side I enhanced the diagonal pattern of circles and created a more interesting negative shape that echoes the triangular roof shapes.

Creating studies is all about exploring your options and problem solving.  Each study I did gave me new information.  I analyzed the study to identify what I felt was working and what wasn't working and then created another version based on my analysis.  The studies were quick and messy, but they gave me all the information that I needed to create an image that captured what I found most interesting about the subject -the quirky, irregular angles both inside and outside the cabin.  

If I had skipped this process and jumped right into a finished piece, it would have been mediocre at best.  All the techniques in the world cannot save a weak composition.  Most importantly, it would not have communicated what I found so exciting about this old cabin.  Take a little time to explore your options with some quick studies.  You may be surprised where they lead you.  

Art Challenge
  • Choose your subject.  Ask yourself what it is that drew you to it. Be specific.  It will help in your decision-making.
  • Select from the list of studies (composition, value, color, detailed observation, or style/technique).
  • Explore your options.  See how each decision you make affects the outcome.
  • Choose the option that best communicates what you found most interesting about your subject.

Exploring your options through quick studies allows you to try things you wouldn't usually try.   Some will work, and some won't.  Learn from your successes and failures to determine what you want the piece to become.  You can't fully know the potential for a piece without spending some time considering the many choices available to you.

~ Lisa