Thursday, July 29, 2010

Beating the Positive to Death!

I had lunch the other day with several friends who are also students of art. The topic of negative and positive space came up. Their general agreement was that their focus gets caught up on the positive and that they often forget about negative shapes. My comment to that was, " of my frustrations as a teacher is seeing students ignore the negative while beating the positive to death". Well, this made everyone laugh and they all agreed that this had to be the subject of my next post.

"The Road to Somewhere", 18x14", oil on canvas
by Sharon Griffes Tarr, copyright 2009

First, let's assume that everyone, at least intellectually, understands the difference between negative and positive shapes in art, ie: the horse, the tree, the building, etc. vs. the negative space that surrounds these shapes. Due to the way we have been trained to see since childhood, we humans naturally focus on positive shapes. This is our nature. This is also where unskilled painters get into trouble. Because they see only the positive they will continue to erase, redraw (repaint), erase, redraw (repaint), erase, redraw (repaint), or incorporate fussy fussy, dibby dabbing, and mindless pencil marks or brush work to correct a positive shape until it is beaten into submission. Unless reminded they will never look at the negative as a moderating or correcting tool.

There are certain truths in art that are, unto themselves, self evident. This is one of them... if a negative shape is not correct, the positive shape next to it will also be wrong. It cannot be otherwise. So, for seasoned artists, when a positive seems wrong the first thing they do is look at the negative space(s) and correct the shape.

James Reynolds is an American icon of western art following in the footsteps of Remington and Russell. Formerly a Hollywood screen illustrator and later fine artist extraordinaire, Reynolds passed away this past year. What I find interesting about his beautiful oils are the small passages throughout his paintings that show slightly altered color shapes and brush strokes in negative passages that clearly demonstrate his attention to correcting and enhancing positive shapes. His style of work makes it easy to find these alterations. His positive shapes remain clean, crisp and fluidly beautiful by comparison because they are not beaten to death. His adjustments are most often made in the negative. His negative shapes are as interesting as his positive shapes. Reynolds work is well worth studying, if no other reason, for this one aspect alone, simply because his brushwork is so readable. However, I would hope anyone taking the time to study his work would also recognize his phenomenal command of draftsmanship, sense of color and composition. He was clearly a master of his craft and should be studied seriously.

In "Road to Somewhere", above, I spent as much time if not more creating interesting negatives. My positive shapes are the small hills on both sides of the road and the road itself. All the remaining shapes including the fields, roadside grasses and sky are subordinate or negative. However, note how interesting each of these shapes are. They are quite clearly, part of the whole and what creates the "finished" quality and unity in the painting. Without them, this painting would have very little impact. The are effectively important to the overall look of this work.

So, the next time you find yourself struggling with your subject, take a moment and look at the negative space around it. You just might improve that tree or building by creating a better negative.


Christine said...

i love this reminder and will go look at some of the pieces i've set aside to be tackled when i can get a fresh eye on them:-)

when i finish a painting i'm happy with or take an interesting photo, the negative space holds it together in such interesting ways, i think working abstractly has helped me design of the whole space more consistently??

sound like your having a full summer schedule!

it will be nice to connect later this month if we both slow down enough :-)

~ christine

Beth Niquette said...

I have never heard of this concept before. I have a question to you--how do you define what a negative space is? The concept of negative and positive space is a little confusing to me.

I am very interested to know about this concept. When you have time, could you write about this in more detail?

I would SO appreciate this. I have had NO art training except for an art class in high school, and one pen and ink class a few years ago.

I have so much yet to learn.