About space

Dear Artist, 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.

“The Lute”
oil painting, 1943
by Henri Matisse

Best regards, Robert 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.   Henri Matisse

“Odalisque with Magnolia”
oil painting 1925


“Decorative Figure on an Ornamental Background”
oil painting 1923


“Nude’s Back”
oil painting 1918


oil painting 55.5 x 74.5 cm 1926


oil painting 61 x 74 cm 1923


“Sleeping Nude on a Red Background”
oil painting 1916

            Space and gravity by Mary Klein, Minneapolis Area, MN, USA  

oil painting
by Mary Klein

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.       There is 1 comment for Space and gravity by Mary Klein
From: Chris Everest — May 07, 2013

Love it … room to think ! …and combines the Brit’s love of Tea with their tendency to emotionally isolate themselves ! Wow

  Paucity 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. There is 1 comment for Paucity by Ngobo Ungebe
From: Russ Hogger — May 06, 2013


  What to do without mountains by Marinus Verhagen, Dongen, Netherlands  

“A canal near Dordrecht”
oil painting
by Jan Hendrik Weissenbruch

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. There are 2 comments for What to do without mountains by Marinus Verhagen
From: Michael McDevitt — May 06, 2013

What a beautiful sky it is! I just finished introducing my Intro Draw students to clouds. Your piece would be an inspiration to them. The palette is cool, too.

From: John Frost — May 07, 2013

that’s why the Dutch are so good at skies

  About strokes by Paul Taylor, Rochester, NY, USA  

“Canadian sunset”
original painting
by Paul Taylor

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!” There is 1 comment for About strokes by Paul Taylor
From: Jim Oberst — May 07, 2013

Great sky, Paul. Quite different from Tony’s style.

  Less is more by David Lussier, Woodstock, CT, USA  

“Warm Autumn”
oil painting
by David Lussier

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. There are 3 comments for Less is more by David Lussier
From: Darrell Baschak — May 07, 2013

What a wonderful painting this is, so well thought out and executed. Especially love the treatment of the house!

From: Francie — May 07, 2013

I love your painting especially the play light and warm and cool! Beautiful.

From: Patsy, Northern Ireland — May 11, 2013

It’s early on a sunny but chilly autumn morning, with the sun shining through mist, and you’ve been out there painting for a while. And that’s your wife is standing in the bay window, watching you, thinking, “Rather him than me. It’s cold out there!”. Gorgeous. And so peaceful.

  Silence and the meditative mind by Mark A. Brennan, Whitehill, NS, Canada  

“Snow Sqall, Cariboo Island”
oil painting
by Mark A. Brennan

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  

“Blue Skies, Nothing but Blue Skies, Do I See”
original painting
by Rose Moon

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  

“Cars I’ll never own #8”
watercolour painting
by Kris Preslan

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  

acrylic painting, 20 x 24 inches
by Tatjana Mirkov-Popovicki

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! There is 1 comment for Editing stuff out by Tatjana Mirkov-Popovicki
From: Rose — May 07, 2013

Love the painting….Looking forward to reading the book. Thank you…

  Balance of color, calm, chaos by Rick Rotante, Tujunga, CA, USA  

oil painting
by Rick Rotante

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.    

Archived Comments

Enjoy the past comments below for About space

From: Marvin Humphrey — May 02, 2013
From: Raymond Mosier — May 03, 2013

Last night I saw a brilliant example of use of space in art at a “concert” by first and second graders. Their art work was projected above the performers and one piece was about the child and her pet. The sky was a thin blue strip at the top and a thin green strip at the bottom. The child and her dog or cat drawing was small figures on the green strip at the far left. 7/8th of the piece was blank. I thought it was brilliant.

From: J. Bruce Wilcox — May 04, 2013

Oh look- naked women painted by a man! How original. Where oh where are the naked men painted by women- or for that matter- men. I think what’s most interesting here is Matisse’s painting the decoration of his time- so to speak- all the Victorian backgrounds. And thank god for our more modern aesthete where this kind of decoration isn’t forced on everybody. I use pattern-on-pattern-on-pattern in my work. My backgrounds are grey and tan and clean and simple.

From: Fiona Guy — May 04, 2013

My late father would have loved to have known that there was a name for my mother’s obsessive desire to hang something on every blank wall and fill every shelf with “decoratives”.

From: Len Wolfe — May 04, 2013

Matisse, at his best, and he was not always, worked out the spaces around to interact with his subjects. What he lacked in the ability to paint, he made up for in decorative design. Many artists since have done it better.

From: Mario Galvan — May 04, 2013
From: Casey Craig — May 04, 2013
From: Edna V.Hildebrandt -Toronto,Ontario — May 04, 2013

Space gives the eyes a transition from object to object to appreciate what is unfolding. An artist who knows how to coordinate the use of colors and where to apply them and give emphasis on the main focus makes the work more pleasing .The eyes can easily move to the other parts of the painting and appreciate the relationship of one part to the other.

From: Jacques Jurome — May 04, 2013

There may have been a “horror vacui” in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, but more recently art has served to be a place of rest, contemplation and sanctuary in an otherwise frantic world. Perhaps the overpopulated Asians have always known about this. Also, the idea of getting “more for your money” in art may be a western concept.

From: Mike Barr — May 04, 2013

I found the examples of Matisse in the click-back to be visually cluttered with no space! Very hard on the eye.

From: Irene Chaikin — May 05, 2013

My paintings are all about technique and space and fun in my “What if I were to.do what??”……..series. It’s also about color composition, and some of addition of design motifs in gold as frames.

From: Alexandra Fajfer — May 05, 2013

I enjoy reading your stories, advice, tips and the thoughts you share with complete strangers. Reading your letters is like being in your studio. I feel like I’m taking classes. I often look at your paintings posted on the Internet and absorb tremendous beauty of the landscapes in BC, the manifestation of mountains and the spectrum of colours depending on the time of a day or year you capture with perfection. I visited BC only once, still the beauty of it is in my heart and I see all of it in your paintings.” Mississauga Ontario, Canada

From: Ludwig Lucas — May 05, 2013

Space is grace, but add too much of it and it implies laziness on the part of the artist.

From: Rick Rotante — May 05, 2013

Matisse is not a good example of judicious use of space. The emperor is not wearing any clothes and I see it. He is using patterns in every square inch of space available. When I think of space I think of “empty” space as opposed to “filled” space. Matisse has an unusual idea of “the empty space around the figures” sic. . Matisse not only fills his canvases with images he reinforces it with an overabundance or color. Space to me is a lack of invention or intrusion by the artist. Air, a place to breath; an absence of artistic intervention. Emptiness can also refer to a calming color in a sea of brilliance.

From: Anon — May 06, 2013

Bruce, I once took my portfolio, full of naked men paintings (I am a woman) to a workshop for a crit. It caused a dead silence and a very awkward pause, and the instructor turned it into a joke. In this part of the world women painting naked men are not very popular in the mainstream. It’s a niche that I decided not to pursue although I loved painting them.

From: Arnold Jasper — May 06, 2013
From: Harris Hedley — May 06, 2013

This site is a hoot! Not just for the valuable info but for the wonderful characters that inhabit it.

From: Anon — May 06, 2013

The reason why male nudes cause such a controversy is clear, but I’ve never heard it voiced. A male has genitals on view where as female genitals are mostly hidden. If all of a sudden female nudes were painted with genitals on view there would be an almighty outcry!

From: Barbara Issahary — May 06, 2013

Many years ago I went to a lecture on The Zen of Painting. The lecturer emphasized the importance of creating a ritual in the studio. She said that a painter should use this ritual in order to get into ‘the zone’. Ever since, I have tried to adopt this method of work in the studio. Unfortunately, since I am a very disorganized person, I have never succeeded in making it into a routine. I haven’t given up hope yet! Barbara

From: Brian Crawford Young — May 07, 2013

I agree that the Matisse paintings shown seem to be ‘busy’ with patterning, but the point is he created room for his colours by his use of space on the canvas, as opposed to creating the illusion of space in the mind’s eye. He wasn’t really interested in creating 3D illusional paintings. And if other people do it better nowadays (who?), he got there first! Space. The final front ear.

From: Jacqueline — May 07, 2013

The oil painting–Warm Autumn–wow! The painting makes me feel like I can walk up to the house and smell the warmth of the trees as I go.

From: Susan Kellogg, Austin, TX — May 07, 2013

I think that Matisse can neither be understood or appreciated through literal or concrete thought processes. He was after the portrayal of an approximation of a feeling. I like the suggestion that his work could be seen as relating to Victorian culture…whether in reaction or celebration! Some of his imagery is deeply biomorphic…his large tropical leaves reflect the shape of the hippocampus…just sayin’.

From: Susan Kellogg, Austin, TX — May 07, 2013

Slight correction: I should have said…his large tropical leaves reflect the shape of a traumatized hippocampus. I was once struck by that when I saw the brain scans of those distortions in a text book.

From: Rick Rotante — May 07, 2013

To Anon -re: Nude men. I agree that nude men were are not a topic for interpretation in painting for the reasons stated. But I’ve found out several things about painting nude men. Even when clothed, I still had trouble getting them sold. In the twentieth century, women prevail as the archetype sex symbol. Back when the Greeks ruled the world, and through the Renaissance, men were the archetype. But then sex was more –bisexual and practiced by many. Now that same sex partners are becoming more accepted, I have managed to sell quite a few nude men and continue to get commissions for nude men. So, all is not lost. Remember, what goes around comes around. Keep painting nude men, they are a worthy subject for all artists.

From: J. Bruce Wilcox — May 07, 2013

Well- I got a good laugh today! Thanks- anon- and Rick- too- Gay men who are artists have often been pigeonholed into thinking about and making ‘gay’ art- read: sexually oriented- because nobody’d EVER done it before- in the last several hundred years. And go ahead and try to find it out there- when male/male greek or roman vessels or mosaics or frescoes or whatever are found- they are mostly hush-hushed into oblivion. But the amount of heterosexism embedded in naked women paintings is blatent- and boring- at best- because it’s all based in bullsh*t. As an abstract artist who’s not a heterosexual- people have always wondered why my art wasn’t gay enough! Oh well.

From: Anon — May 07, 2013

BTW the femaile nude body is MUCH easier to render than a male one because of all the obvious curves and bold shapes. Male anathomy, especailly in a relaxed state, is very subtle – so it’s difficult to get it convicingly and to make the poses interesting and inviting to look at. It’s a great challenge for an artist.

     Featured Workshop: Sharon Rusch Shaver 050713_robert-genn Sharon Rusch Shaver workshops Held in Paris, France   The Workshop Calendar provides up-to-date selected workshops and seminars arranged in chronological order.     woa

Derby Tidal Pond 1

acrylic painting, 34 x 43 inches by Jack Dickerson, Brewster, MA, USA

  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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