Via Negativa, Part 1

Negative Space

Any middling artistic skill I have owes itself directly to Betty Edwards’ book, Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, a classic text in the field of visual artistry.

Edwards masterfully presented various exercises to overcome my doubts about my ability to draw, such as copying a piece of line art by turning it upside down and drawing each line with no regard for how it will look.

30 years later, I still have the yellowed piece of paper of what I consider the best drawing I’ve ever done, a reminder of what I am capable of given time and effort.

Another brilliant, counter-intuitive drawing exercise the book taught involved a chair.

The task was to NOT draw the chair, to forget completely about the chair, but to draw the black spaces around the chair, the negative space.

It is difficult to draw the chair by focusing on the chair itself because we come to the drawing with mental imagery of what a chair is already in our heads.

And that imagery is good enough to represent a chair, but insufficient to draw this specific chair in the picture.

Our brains want to draw a good-enough-to-know-it’s-a-chair chair and to move on, even though what we just drew looks nothing like the chair we wanted to draw.

This is one reason most people can’t draw well, we can sketch out a stick figure of a chair so we fail to see the actual chair.

Edwards’ genius suggestion is to not try to draw the positive space that is the chair at all, to completely avoid focusing on the chair.

The exercise is to draw everything that is NOT the chair, so instead of trying to the chair legs, you focus on the space between the legs and draw out that shape.

You continue to draw every space that is NOT the chair until you’ve drawn everything around the chair.

Each piece of negative space you draw means nothing to your brain, they appear as odd shapes, which helps your brain to see the contours between the space and the chair.

When you are finished outlining the negative spaces, the chair magically appears because the chair is defined by the space around it.

This same exercise can quickly be applied to the human body to improve your Systema, and you don’t even have to be able to draw.

Get a partner and have him stand with is legs spread and arms out.

Now, look at him and mentally draw an outline of his body.

That’s the positive space, where is body ends.

This time, shift your focus to the spaces around his body.

Look at the spaces between his head and his outstretched arms.

Next focus not the space under his arms, next to his torso and continuing down next to his legs.

Then, focus on the shape and space between his legs.

You have now explored all the space around his body, spaces you could move into without resistance.

NEXT: Negative Space in Practice

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