Back around the turn of the 20th century, household gadgets, from sewing machines to new fangled vacuum cleaners, were decorated with floral or other motifs. In those days, people thought things looked better when they were covered with busyness. Sewing machines themselves were sometimes made in the form of dolphins, angels or even snakes. The wide ranging art critic Sir Herbert Read (1893–1968) wrote, “The necessity of ornament is psychological. There exists in man a certain feeling which has been called horror vacui, an incapacity to tolerate an empty space. This feeling is strongest in certain savage races, and in decadent periods of civilization.”
While sophisticated Asian art tends toward the spacious, and minimalism is not yet out of fashion in the West, Western art reveals a general trend for decoration. While we may indeed be living in decadent times, my argument is we’re just being Aristotelian. “Nature abhors a vacuum.”
Fact is, a blank space may be the much needed rest period that comes before the action. It may also be the part of the work that sends the viewer yawning. A bit idiosyncratic and certainly not for everyone, I make actors of my blank spots, especially the interminable ones. Spaces can often be gradated, blended, softened, hardened or at least formed into a strong negative area. Spaces also need nearby busyness to be effective in their spaciousness, just as sophisticated neutral tones and grays are needed for the surprise and excitement of nearby colour.
A significant space in many landscapes is the sky. While plain skies have their value, a more active and complex sky can bring drama to otherwise ordinary work. “The sky,” said John Constable, “is the principal actor in your painting.”
In sculpture, the surrounding space becomes as significant as the figure. “You leave space for the body,” said Henry Moore, “imagining the other part even though it isn’t there.”
To my eye, paintings and other art take their strength from a calculated dance in which the various elements come together, interact, and move apart. No matter what the subject matter or motif, abstract style or realistic, negative and positive spaces contrive to juxtapose in a way that engages the viewer’s eye. Like a lot of art concepts, this isn’t the only way to go, but it’s a valuable one.
PS: “A painter is a choreographer of space.” (Barnett Newman)
Esoterica: A painter who understood the value of space was Henri Matisse. Subject matter was often second to the organization of flats. “The whole arrangement of my picture is expressive,” said Matisse. “The place occupied by the figures or objects, the empty spaces around them, the proportions, everything plays a part.” Attention to space gave Matisse’s permission to play with colour. Some of the most interesting and spatial of Matisse’s works were his figure studies.
Space and gravity
by Mary Klein, Minneapolis Area, MN, USA
Space is essential to my work because I paint pictures about gravity. Oftentimes, I’ll paint the space first and use the edges of it to convey the weight and volume of my subject. More often than not, this is nearly enough to bring the subject to life. Painting the space, and spending most of my time doing so, makes painting the subject a breeze.
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by Ngobo Ungebe, Nigeria
Paucity is a most vital concept. As a writer, I believe readers are more able to enjoy meaning when they are told less. They can fill in the blanks with their imaginations. Writing becomes boring when cluttered with too many words. The idea is to use a lot of nouns and avoid adjectives so people can visualize things for themselves. The same, surely, applies to painting.
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What to do without mountains
by Marinus Verhagen, Dongen, Netherlands
Again, I read your twice-weekly letter with pleasure and interest. Two remarks:
1. In calligraphy, the importance of the space between letters is emphasized, as well.
2. A few months ago you wrote about the beauty of the mountains. Then I asked myself the question: How do Dutch landscape painters ever get by in our country without mountains? The answer is clear: They have to paint the sky. (I like to see how the subjects in your letter meet each other.)
(RG note) Thanks, Marinus. Many years ago we were driving a Mini around your country and we came to what is euphemistically known as the “Dutch Alps.” The Vaalserberg is apparently 323 metres above sea level but it made us feel right at home.
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by Paul Taylor, Rochester, NY, USA
In teaching my workshops, I echo the words of my mentor Tony Couch. He says, “The stroke doesn’t have to be accurate, but it must be sure.” This he gets from the Oriental Style of Brush Painting. If we paint with confident strokes from one point to the next, the accuracy will follow. I illustrate this to my students by facing them and making quick, sure motions (in the air) with a beginning and an end. I influence them to make these strokes up, down, side to side and obliquely. Sometimes these strokes are made quickly from one point to the next to create a variation of hard to rough textured edge. The brush doesn’t leave the paper instantly, but lingers for a moment. I use hi tech lingo like “Bap,” “Bam” or “Boom” to accentuate my stroke. Or I’ll say, “Hit it”, Bam, There!”
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Less is more
by David Lussier, Woodstock, CT, USA
As a true believer in the ‘less is more’ approach to painting, I agree that the brushstroke is important and conveys the message, so to speak. Fewer brushstrokes make a bigger statement since they breathe life and energy into the work. Interestingly enough, I find that it’s the desire to have fun during the painting process that opens up the mind to producing interesting brushwork. I’d rather look twice and paint once and do it all a little faster than feels comfortable than labor over it too extensively. Good brushwork is as much about feeling as it is thought process. I believe that if I try to get the big shapes to all work together using the biggest brushes possible, then the painting is 90 percent complete. Details will take care of themselves and actually present themselves as the obvious if I’ve taken care of the ‘big picture.’ The amount of brushwork that goes on from there should be just enough to convey what I am trying to say in the painting and in a sensible way so that the viewer feels satisfied. Since I am the creator of the painting and the first real ‘viewer,’ when I feel satisfied, I put the brushes down and hope that someone else will feel satisfied too.
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Silence and the meditative mind
by Mark A. Brennan, Whitehill, NS, Canada
I ‘bumped’ into Buddhism a few years ago and, although not a practicing Buddhist, I have come to truly appreciate having some control over a wandering mind, to stay in the present when working at my art. For me this silence is like a form of meditation, private thought and concentration. My mind tends to clear of all distraction and only then can I unlock the creative inside of me. When in this mindset I seem to be at my most creative, my work appears looser, more free and tells a story of a person without artistic inhibition. When others are around I tighten up, use smaller brushes, smaller strokes and less paint. I think ‘blocking the mouth’ is actually freeing the mind. If we can learn the discipline of keeping clutter from the mind, to really be able to focus and stay present, there is no limit to our potential, for all things appear perfect. Long distance runners call this ‘being in the zone.’
Nothing but blue skies
by Rose Moon, Sedona, Arizona, USA
I went ’round and ’round about the blue sky in a painting I did for a “Guns and Children” show. Clouds or no Clouds? I finally decided, with feedback from my critique group, to leave it just blue. I ended up calling the painting “Blue Skies, Nothing but Blue Skies, Do I See.” It was the perfect title to address the denial around lack of gun control in America. I’m thinking about doing more paintings with this kind of empty space as a design feature.
Busy painting attracts viewers
by Kris Preslan, Lake Oswego, OR, USA
I just came home from the Prado having been in Madrid. My mind went straight to Hieronymous Bosch when you talked in your letter about space for the eye to rest. Bosch’s work reminds me of Richard Scarry on steroids. YET… there were more people surrounding his work than that of most of the other artists. Go figure!
Editing stuff out
by Tatjana Mirkov-Popovicki, Port Moody, BC, Canada
I am rarely in a situation where I don’t have enough content in a painting. I always have to edit stuff out. Same with my writing. I put down all my thoughts and then go over them and try to remove what’s not necessary. I’ve never ruined a piece by editing out (as I did many times doing opposite). Stephen King’s little book, On Writing, was very valuable to me, applied to writing and painting. Editing can be tough since I, by nature, overflow with ideas and have tendency to crowd my creations. The more elements there are, the more energy it takes to render and place them well — I keep telling myself this but, the trouble is, sometimes I don’t listen!
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Balance of color, calm, chaos
by Rick Rotante, Tujunga, CA, USA
Space is an essential part of a work just as much as color, value, harmony and form. Some artists don’t see nothingness as something. I believe in the yin/yang concept. Balance. Where there is color there needs to be white, where there is chaos there needs to be calm. Too much space and the balance is off. No space and the same effect happens. Viewers of art are not consciously aware of this idea but will turn away from a work with either too much space or too little space and never know why they didn’t like the work.
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes Ron Gang, Kibbutz Urim, Israel, who sent this quote: “He who knows does not speak. He who speaks does not know.” (Lao-Tzu)
And also Tom Relth of Casablanca, Morocco, who wrote, “Space is the place.”
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