Meaning in Negative Space

Stories Told by Water: McKenzie, charcoal, pastel & mica on paper, 30 x 22 1/2 in., 2021 Leah Wilson

Perception has a bias for objects. Objects contain information about the world and our surroundings: they can be obstacles – you need to know where they are to avoid them when walking across a room. Objects can be tools; they can be intriguing, beautiful and fascinating; they can be threatening. They frequently demand attention. We see objects for good reasons.

Metanoia Catalyst at Night, (Image by Sunny Selby)

Metanoia Catalyst (detail), beeswax, bio-based resin, roots, 6 x 6 x 6 ft. in., 2018, Leah Wilson & Kate Ali (image by Sunny Selby)

Learning to See

When I teach drawing, I find that students struggle with switching their focus to see negative space. They are absorbed with figuring out how to draw the objects. When a student is learning how to draw, more than learning how to represent an object accurately on paper, they are learning how to see more fully.

What is an object without all of the space around it, within it, and through it? Can an object be seen without the space? Can we understand something more complexly by switching focus on the spaces that the objects define?

Listening to the Forest, Detail, Douglas-Fir Mid Bole, Leah Wilson 19 of 27

Listening to the Forest (detail), acrylic & bio-based resin on birch, 2020, Leah Wilson

Object & Space

I don’t remember specifically learning how to see negative space. It was built into my undergraduate education with its emphasis on learning how to observe. Now I can fluidly switch attention back and forth between object and space. I’m aware of it when I am drawing, but most of the time I am probably not conscious of the way that I perceive objects and space.

Beautiful Trash, Installation at Downtown Initiative for the Visual Arts, Leah Wilson

Beautiful Trash, Installation at Downtown Initiative for the Visual Arts, Eugene, OR, Leah Wilson

Whitewater kayaking honed this ability in the ever moving and changing river environment. When there is an object that should be avoided like a big nasty hydraulic or rock sieve, it’s best to note that it is there, but focus on the space that offers a path around it. Looking at the nasty object activates its power of attraction. It’s more likely that you will find yourself exactly where you don’t want to be when you are focusing on the object rather than on the space around it.

Consider a Tree #6, paper, 8 x 8 in (framed 15 x 15 in.), 2019, Leah Wilson

Consider a Tree #6, paper, 8 x 8 in (framed 15 x 15 in.), 2019, Leah Wilson

Anomalies

If objects are what seem significant, what is the value of switching focus to the space that surrounds and infuses – the negative space? Information is found in the objects. There is much more space than there is object, so the object is really an anomaly. Even in dense objects such as bones and trees, looking under a microscope to focus on the molecular level will reveal that the material that makes the bone or the wood is the anomaly within the space. There is so much more space than material object.

If space is the common, ordinary state, it makes sense that we would not see it anymore. It’s like the ubiquitous white noise in the house. Are you aware of the hum of the refrigerator? Mostly no, not until it changes volume, or frequency, or rhythm, or if you consciously focus your attention on the sound. The hum is the ordinary static that means that the refrigerator is in a regular, constant pattern that doesn’t need attention. The change is a signifying event that draws attention.

Recompose, gouache on hand-cut watercolor paper, 16 in. x 69 in., Leah Wilson

Recompose, gouache on hand-cut watercolor paper, 16 in. x 69 in., 2016, Leah Wilson

It’s a handy ability, the ability to tune out regular static, noise or space. Otherwise our poor brains would be on overdrive all of the time and we would not be able to distinguish the signals that point toward something that may need attention. That would be an exhausting and debilitating state to be in.

However, if the ability to switch focus to the static and the negative space isn’t practiced, then how is it known what significance the anomaly has? What does it mean? The space, the static, holds the meaning. The objects and anomalies hold the information. What would be known if the meaning and the information carry the same weight with perception? They are, after all, inseparable and interrelated.

Sustaining More Life in its Death, gouache on paper; 9 5/8 in. x 9 11/16 in., 2015, Leah Wilson

Sustaining More Life in its Death, gouache on paper; 9 5/8 in. x 9 11/16 in., 2015, Leah Wilson

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