When Negative is Positive

Negative space is in your life, whether you know it or not. Is that a negative thing? It depends on whether you use it, or it uses you. Negative can be positive. To explore what I mean, let's think like artists.

In the visual arts, “negative space” is sometimes thought of as the background in a painting, or the empty air within and around a sculpture, but it can also be the foreground, or a blank area within the subject itself. It is any portion of the work that stands back or does not immediately call attention to itself, in order to define the primary subject in some way. Although casual observers of art rarely give negative space much thought, one of the first things one learns in art school is how vital it is to the success of the work. You can easily see why by looking at the painting, “Joseph Accused of Potiphar’s Wife” by Rembrandt, pictured here:

Negative space is hard at work in several areas of this image, but the most obvious example is the looming darkness in the upper half. See how Rembrandt uses it to sharply define the central figure’s much lighter head in silhouetted contrast, making it immediately clear that Joseph is the focus of these events. Notice also how that mass of vague darkness seems to press down upon him with a heavy weight, the utter lack of detail lending a psychological sense of impending doom. Then over on the right, see how Rembrandt partially absorbs Potiphar into the blackness of that negative space by painting him in darker tones, as if to tell us he is part of the impending doom. Note how Potiphar seems unaware of this looming darkness, how it seems to draw him in.

But also consider how Rembrandt uses negative space within the central details of the scene, on the bed, which he has washed with the lightest tones of the entire painting. There is only slightly more visual information here than in the looming darkness above, yet the effect is completely different. Thinking of the meaning of this scene, the action taking place, consider what that lack of detail implies, the emptiness of it in that particular place on the painting. Notice also how that stark clean whiteness defines Joseph’s hand, which points to it. Consider the implications of the way this white negative space acts upon that gesture, in comparison to the way the black negative space acts upon Joseph’s foe, how one character both acknowledges and is defined against the negative space, while the other ignores it and is absorbed. Finally, consider what Rembrandt might be trying to tell us with the fact that Joseph is defined by both the darkness around his head, and the brightness around his hand.

Holy: adjective. To be sanctified; set apart.

All of us experience the unknown, the unexplained and unexplainable, and every life includes moments, spaces and experiences that seem to have no understandable form or detail. Negative space for some might be a person. For others, it might be a job. Some might find it in their loneliness or boredom, others in the endless demands of many people or the frantic pace of life. A problem that appears to have no solution, a loss, an illness, an addiction, an inescapable commitment: the ways it comes upon us are as countless as the people in the world. Some of us fade into it, becoming more and more a part of it. Others stand out much more clearly because of it.

How do you encounter the “negative space” in your life?

Do you try to focus only on the central subjects, ignoring the negative space, pretending it is not there? Do you let it loom above you like a heavy weight, acting on you in ways you have not noticed? Are you fading into it?

Or do you gesture toward it somehow? Do you let the formlessness accentuate the details of your life? Be it dark around your head or bright around your hand, do you give it adequate attention, and in so doing, find your proper definition in this life?

Every true artist knows negative space must not be avoided or ignored. It is not a waste of canvas. On the contrary, negative space is absolutely essential to the work. How can the subject be set apart unless there is something to be set apart from? It must be acknowledged and considered well. It must be used, or it will use you.

But Joseph said to them, "Don't be afraid. Am I in the place of God? You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives. So then, don't be afraid. I will provide for you and your children." And he reassured them and spoke kindly to them. (Genesis 50:19-21)

Posted byAthol Dickson at 9:24 AM  


BJ said... September 29, 2007 at 1:50 PM  

This concept of negative space is fascinating, Athol. I've heard of it, read about it, and tried to grasp the significance of it for writers. Your explanations and illustrations, both here and on Chilibris, help much in clarifying the subject.


Rachel Hauck said... September 30, 2007 at 4:23 PM  

Wonderful post, Athol. Timely for me since my next book is about an artist.

Rachel :)

gb said... October 6, 2007 at 9:50 PM  


This is a refereshing exercise. Thank you.

For quite sometime I have utilized another "negative based" principle when attempting to understand various spiritual concepts and ideas. In order to help me better comprehend or define something, I try to imagine what it would be like for that thing not to exist. I'm not sure if I can briefly describe what I mean right here, but Ill try.

Looking at life in the absence of something (whether it be positive or negative in nature) such as love, art, violence, color, etc. creates a vacuum, a negative space in the shape of that missing element. The shape of that vacuum helps me define or redefine what that "thing" actually consists of. Imagining life in the absence of it reveals my existance without that concept or its characteristics. The difference between that new mental image and my image of life with that thing present, equals what that "thing" consists of; helps me better understand the values of that thing.

This exercise is easy to implement. Imagining experiencing life with the negative space created by the absence of anything you choose will define what that thing consists of or means to you, in a way that is far different than a dictionary definition.


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