Negative spaces have value in art, life and theology

Negative space

When I retired from teaching, I decided to try to learn to draw.

I bought Betty Edwards’ highly recommended “Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain.”

One of the ways to free the right brain from left brain control, writes Edwards, is to practice drawing negative spaces — the spaces that surround the objects you want to bring artfully to life.

I had assumed that art rendered the fullness of things, not the emptiness around them.

My greatest art (and maybe learning) experience occurred when I was around seven, sitting at the kitchen table and gazing at the illustration on the closing pages of Watty Piper’s “The Little Engine that Could.” Here we see that famous little train making it into town as dawn lights up the sky.

Like most kids, I had to draw the sky as a straight blue line far above the ground below, but in the illustration, the sky came all the way down to the ground.

I ran outside to check, and lo, it was true!

A lesson in art

Having assumed that truth and beauty lay in fullness, I clearly needed a lesson in the value of negative spaces.

painstakingly followed Edwards’ instructions to draw all the spaces around the legs, arms, rungs, seat and back of an old chair. I was surprised that I succeeded in rendering something that looked like an actual chair.

Edwards predicts that after completing her chair drawing exercise, “you will begin to see negative spaces everywhere.”

This was indeed the case for me.

I saw how negative spaces in works of art, road signs and in nature were necessary to the realization of our appreciation of what we saw. How, for example, can one appreciate the shape of a vine maple leaf without the space around it?

A lesson in life

The same may be said for our life.

How can we value the flow of our experience without gaps, pauses, absences, lapses and losses?

These deepen our perception, our appreciation. Yes the negative spaces in our life may bring us sorrow, but by putting memory and love to work, they also bring us understanding and joy.

I don’t agree with Irish playwright Samuel Beckett’s assertion that “nothing is more real than nothing” (quoted in Edwards’ book).

But I do see the value in what we might assume to be nothing. Dark skies are full of stars, and dark matter matters. Black holes, I gather, are wombs of creation as well as tombs of destruction.

The quiet

The negative space I value most in life is silence.

We are so surrounded by loud, constant sound that we might at first find near silence unsettling, but it can really open us up to new dimensions of reality. I count as blessed those moments when I can hear nothing but maybe some of nature’s low murmurs.

Many religious traditions value silence as a space where a supreme power might be experienced.

“I will come to you in the silence,” promises God at the outset of David Hass’ hymn, “You Are Mine,” sung in both Catholic and Protestant churches.

Some religious folk might agree with Beckett that nothing is the ultimate reality.

I love the joke about the Daoist monk who struggles to find something to give a fellow monk for his birthday. “How do you give someone something who already has nothing?” he ponders.

In the theology of these folk, the “theo” (god) is absent.

This is not the case, of course, for those who align themselves with Abrahamic theological traditions.

In these, God/Allah is ever present. Still, some devotees of these traditions hold that their deity can best be experienced if they make themselves negative spaces so that they can be unified with the All.

Creating unity

In “Drawing of the Right Side of the Brain,” Edwards says that emphasizing negative spaces when drawing “automatically creates unity.”

She speculates that our appreciation of art that emphasizes negative spaces bespeaks “our human longing to be unified with our world … perhaps because in reality we are one with the world around us.”

I have, alas, not progressed in my attempts to draw beyond roughing out that chair through its negative spaces.

Edwards’ advice has, however, helped me understand something important about what we yearn for in art, life and theology.

  • Walter Hesford is a former professor of English at the University of Idaho. He currently coordinates an interfaith discussion group and is a member of the Latah County Human Rights Task Force and Emmanuel Lutheran Church in Moscow.
  • Republished with permission of Religion Unplugged
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