The Power of Negative Space

As I´ve grown older, I´ve come to appreciate the value of negative space.  For example, as you enter the building where I work, there are 2 very large display panels (or bulletin boards).  They are both filled to capacity with information.  Our PR gurus seem to feel that every square inch of space needs to be occupied.  There are several problems with this approach:

  • the panels are trying to display 4 completely different messages and in the end . . . none of them resonate.
  • the twin boards end up looking cluttered and overwhelming.
  • basically, there is too much sh!t in too little space.  All the messages are muddied.

Engineers (and I work for an engineering organization) are way too practical.  They view any unused space as a waste.  But nothing could be farther from the truth.

I´m currently in Madrid and two days ago I had the opportunity to spend 60 minutes in a room with Goya´s “Black Paintings.”  These are paintings that the artist created on the walls of his house just before he died.  To many, they are staggeringly bleak.  The paintings are dark and much of the subject matter is nightmarish.

One of the painting–The Drowning Dog–while still bleak, has a bit of detail in the animal and a large block of color.  Nobody really knows what this painting is about, or what message, if any, Goya is trying to convey.  There is a small, apprehensive-looking dog in painting.  The bottom portion is dark brown (hiding the dog’s body) and the top a vibrant gold color.  When viewed in conjunction with Goya´s other paintings, everyone (including me) assumes a dark subject. 

Goya's "The Drowning Dog"

The power of the painting is in its negative space, which is pretty much 98 percent of it.  The only detail is in the animal (and it’s pretty minimal).  “Dog” anticipates much of modern art.  For me, it is the first truly modern painting.  It you want to show alienation and trepidation about the future, there is not a better way to accomplish it.

I suspect that “Dog” conveys Goya´s end-game feelings better than any of his other works.

Hanging in my mother and father´s house above the fireplace was an original watercolor by the Chinese artist Chen Chi.  The subject matter is birds flying over a snow-covered field.  The painting has few brush strokes . . . but it creates the desired effect perfectly.  (Today the painting is the property of the Southern Utah University.)

I think most of our lives are filled with too much visual crap.  In a very real sense, everything needs to be simplified; there needs to be more negative space.  Every square inch of everything doesn´t need to be filled.  Our imaginations need room to work.

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One Response to The Power of Negative Space

  1. Ian says:

    I used to be in show choir, and one of the things you learn fairly quickly is that dance moves are usually choreographed to maximize negative space.

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