In art, typically drawing or photography, there is a term called negative space. It refers to the empty space around the main subject in the drawing or picture.
Great artists learn to use negative space to their advantage. Sketch artists and painters often use negative space to accurately capture the shape of a complex object. By focusing on the interesting shape the outline of an object makes against the background instead of trying to directly draw the object, they trick their brains into drawing the shape of the object accurately.
Photographers and painters often use negative space to create a sense of balance in a picture.
The photo above is a typical example of such a photo. The blank space left of the boy’s face adds a lot to how we perceive the picture. We immediately wonder what has captured the boy’s attention. It creates a sense of mystery and adds to the story.
By allowing a certain prominence to the dead space, the artist can visually balance the subject in the picture. Very often this is used to draw the watcher’s eye to a certain place in the frame without making the picture look unbalanced. This is exactly what is done in this picture.
As in art, negative space is extremely important in life.
Life just works better if we acknowledge the principle of negative space and act accordingly. Aspects of life where it is applicable include time and energy management, love, sex, exercise and problem solving.
People that are really busy only stay above water by focusing deliberated on their resting times. Scheduling “guilt free” play time in a busy work week can mean the difference between have a fun busy week and dreading every moment of it.
Spending short periods of our time meditating or even just watching wind blow through trees makes a crazy calendar feel manageable. It calms down our minds enough to be able to cope with the demands around us.
These periods of quiet or of being “unproductive” act just like negative space in a great photograph. It creates balance and a sense of control which is important in managing our own well being and vitality.
The saying that “absence makes the heart grow fonder” is often used to describe the effect of being away from people we love. Being away from the people we love every now and then can often be the catalyst for us to understand just how much we care about them.
Absence is to the heart what the negative space is to a great picture.
When we then reunite with our loved ones we often see, smell and hear them in a new and fresh way. It creates a sense of newness instead of staleness. A sense of appreciation instead of being numbed by the mundane.
When we exercise, keeping our rest in mind is as important as sticking to our fitness regime. Muscles only grow and get stronger when they get enough rest. Balancing our “positive” exercise with “negative” rest make us progress faster. It prevents injuries, fatigue and in general allow us to get stronger. Many great coaches know that the rest days of any training program are just as important as the workouts. It makes the whole program work.
When solving problems, it often helps to not look the subject of the problem “directly in the eye.” Hard to solve problems can be fixed by looking at the space surrounding them, by looking at analogies, by studying their “shape” instead of directly studying them.
It is said that James Watt, the inventor of the steam engine, could leave a machine running in his imagination for days before coming back to it and studying where its weak points were and where it was wearing out from use.
By looking away from our problems we can often gain the inspiration needed to solve them.
In life the things we don’t focus on are often more important than we think. We don’t “see” the negative space because it is not “there.” Our precious moments of rest when we are busy. Choosing not to see somebody we constantly want to be with. Our rest days when we excitedly train for that marathon.
This is exactly the trick…focusing on what is not in focus.
The negative space in life is what gives the positive space some spice. The first kiss after a long absence. The first glass of wine after a long abstinence. Achieving my personally best after a few boring days of resting.
So next time we feel stuck or begin to sense the lull of mundane routine clouding our minds, ask: what is the negative space I need to see and acknowledge?
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Apprentice Editor: Sarvasmarana Ma Nithya/ Editor: Catherine Monkman
Photo: Francois Nolte