Robert Indiana, Love, 1928; Michelangelo, Sistine Chapel detail, The Creation of Adam, 1508-1512;Henry Moore, Reclining figure, 1957-58; Edgar Degas, The Star Dancer on Point, c 1878-80; Edward Hopper, Two Rooms by the Sea, 1951; Ben Shahn, Still Music, 1848  

Negative space

I was once told: If you can create an interesting winter garden, your summer garden will be easy. I feel the same way about the space between the forms within any work of art and the edges on a flat image. Make them interesting!

The only time to put a form in the middle of the space is if your image is about stagnation or stability. The only time to have solid edges in a sculpture is to say: “this is monumental!” as in Robert Indiana’s “L-O-V-E” sculpture. No need to go around the form; this is it. Love the powerful!

Think: The negative space between the hands of G_D and Adam in Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel. It is the space between the hands that makes the image come alive.

Think: The holes in a Henry Moore sculpture. The holes connect the front to the back! Except there is no front or back; Moore uses the holes and angles to make your eyes travel around the forms.

Think: The dancers of Degas. They are flying into the visual plane and off it, always entering on and off the edges. As the form collides into the edge, it activates the edge. Diagonals are further supporting the action.

So how does one make the negative space interesting? One answer is to vary the negative space, big and small, around the forms. Perhaps work in opposition: big forms with minimal space between them, small forms floating in larger spaces. Or do like Edward Hopper, give the viewer a peek around the corner, but not a conclusive view. The negative spaces can create a pattern; Ben Shahn gives us good examples in his music stands and chair images.

The challenge with edges on a flat image is to keep it active, but not so much that your viewers’ eyes leave the picture plane for something else. One needs to find a way to make the viewers’ eyes address the edge and then return back into the image. An old fashioned pin ball machine is a good metaphor; let the eye balls bounce off of the edges and then fling back into the space.

An edge on a sculpture creates a different problem. How does the viewer jump the edge to see the other side, or the inside of a form? There must be a tease, to move the viewer around the piece. If one considers architecture as an example of sculpture, one of my favorite buildings is the Tacoma Art Museum designed by Antoine Predock. Every gallery has a cutout “peek-a-boo” into the next exhibition space. The architect is not a drama queen, one hardly notices as he pulls you though the spaces.

Solve the holes, solve the edges and you are well onto solving the piece!

—Marjorie Masel
Copyright ©2011