I was first introduced to the concept of negative space drawing while rummaging through a box of books in my parents’ basement.
The 1979 copy of Betty Edwards’ Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain and I had come into the world the same year, and it was evident from its torn cover and musty smell that we had both collected our share of scars along the way.
Salvaging the book from the pile was more about saving myself than art appreciation. It was an attempt to keep my mind occupied, just like the countless novels I tried disappearing into for days at a time, the copious amounts of food I cooked though my nervous stomach wanted nothing to eat, and the hours I spent laying in bed day and night trying to will myself back to sleep.
Aside from the nightmares, being unconscious was the only state of mind which allowed me to stop thinking, stop analyzing, stop perseverating over the accident that had taken Aaron—my best friend, my soulmate before I even knew the word existed.
In the moldy pages of Edwards’ book, it was the section devoted to perceiving spaces that I kept returning to.
By focusing on the areas of nothingness that existed within the whole picture, and then subsequently drawing that nothingness, Edwards promised readers they’d be able to create a more genuine interpretation of their subject than if they just tried to draw it directly.
For someone who was struggling to make sense of everything before her, I craved the chance to see things more clearly.
Armed with a charcoal pencil and notebook, I headed outdoors that evening to experience negative space drawing for myself. While sitting on a bench, I scanned my surroundings for something to draw. Among the pines, an old oak stood out. It was barren of leaves and the last few moments of daylight glowed between its outstretched arms in pink and orange hues.
In it, a single bird caught my attention. A crow resting on a gnarly branch. My first instinct was to mimic the corrugated lines of the branches and then find my way around the bird’s sloping back and pointed beak, but I had to resist. If I was going to do this the right way, it would take a leap of faith to follow Edwards’ instructions, guidance I doubted would generate an easily identifiable “tree” and “bird” before darkness came.
Though I wanted instant art, it took time to focus on the shapes between the branches. I struggled to take my mind off what I thought I knew—the bird, the tree—and to return to the ineffable shapes that surrounded them.
My first attempts were mediocre, but whether I liked it or not, the exercise forced me to shift my attention from the objects and patterns I readily perceived in the foreground to the silhouettes in the background for which I had no names or prior associations.
For someone who was so used to desperately analyzing her life ad-nauseum, there was a certain beauty, but also unmistakable terror in allowing myself to see the unseen.
While my foray into the art world lasted only a few more sessions, it served as a bridge to help find my inner voice, to listen to the tiniest whisper of knowing that I had been drowning out with my attempts to analyze anything and everything that had to do with Aaron.
On the outside, my attempt to keep myself perpetually busy led to a normal and enjoyable life. I had a husband, a home, a job, three college degrees and two kids. But on the inside, it was in the quiet moments of each and every day when the thoughts required for daily function were through and my mind was free to do as it pleased that my musings faithfully returned to Aaron.
Unsuccessful as always, I tried to make sense out of nothing over and over again. What if his accident could have been prevented? Did he know how much I cared for him? Was he gone, really gone? Could he hear my thoughts when I talked aloud to him still? To make matters worse, I had no one that had known him to analyze my fears with. I was slowly drowning alone in my thoughts, and little by little, I was beginning to fear that they were making me insane.
At first, I didn’t have words to describe the unusual things that were happening more and more frequently, so I relied on other people to define my experiences. Back then, I only saw the world in terms of things that were right in front of me, things I knew to be real because others acknowledged and validated their existence for me. It was easy to live in a world of pure coincidence, where synchronicity was written off as wishful thinking and if something could not be explained with science or logic, it probably didn’t exist.
That is why, when one night information came to me with no method of transportation save my own intuition, I knew there was more to the picture I wasn’t seeing.
A friend who lived overseas, Monique, appeared to me in a dream. She was the kind of friend who always had it together. While I was still figuring out what I wanted to do with my life after graduation, she had already breezed through Brown, then Harvard, and earned both a Truman Scholarship and a Presidential Management Fellow along the way. That night in my dream, however, she wandered about aimlessly.
As the dream unfolded, her long black hair (her most striking feature in real life) changed from brown to blonde to red, from long to short, and a number of other styles that didn’t quite suit her. When I awoke the next morning, a nudging voice in my head told me to look her up online. She had always been easy to find due to her many accomplishments. It only took two minutes to discover her obituary. Not only was I unaware that she had been sick, but I had never seen the pictures I found that morning of her sporting a variety of wigs during her brief but unsuccessful attempt at chemo.
The pain of losing another friend was complicated by the strange way the news came to me. When I explained what had happened to the few people I trusted, they passed it off as coincidence or wondered aloud if I somehow subconsciously picked up on a clue that she was sick during our last conversation a year earlier. I assured them I had not.
That morning, between bouts of crying, I tried to categorize what had happened into one group or another. My options boiled down to real or imagined, sane or insane, and possible or impossible.
During those hours, I was restless and terrified. I paced back and forth between the couch and the computer where I combed over every email we had exchanged in the past five years in search of any sign of what was to come. There was nothing, so how did I receive the message of my friend’s passing? What word could I use besides impossible to explain how the information was conveyed?
Although it was easier to label what had happened with Monique as coincidence, the feeling that there was something more to it persisted. In so many ways, I had tried to make sense of Aaron’s passing and to understand how I was to exist in a world without him by over-intellectualizing it. This brought me zero results. But with Monique, there was no time to think, only to experience.
Much like with negative space drawing, the abruptness of it all forced me to step into the space between—the place where it didn’t matter how or why I had experienced that dream. The place where I just accepted it as it was. There, I was able to let go of what I thought I knew about the world and to allow things to simply be as they were without trying to make sense of them.
Just like the artist who allows herself to create a thing of beauty out of unrecognizable shapes, I found respite by pushing any attempt at rationalization into the background and simply letting myself be.
Despite the sense of calm I found in the “space between” that day, allowing myself to stay there for more than a second was difficult. Years went by, and before I knew it the 15th anniversary of Aaron’s passing arrived. Though I missed him more than ever, I was too busy with work and family to spend every day analyzing and asking questions. My brain was so full of thoughts about work and trying to pay for daycare and showing my children and my husband that I loved them that by the time I arrived at a conference for work one evening after flying all the way across the country to California, I was exhausted.
Perhaps that is why, as the plane landed on the tarmac, I could only dwell upon for a split second what a coincidence it was that California was the same place Aaron and I used to dream of traveling to years ago.
Once I arrived at the hotel, there was barely enough time to change my clothes before heading back downstairs for a welcome dinner. I was navigating an unfamiliar hotel one minute, then trying to find a place to sit in a crowd of over 1,000 people the next. There was no time to analyze my way through this sea of chaos. I just had to swim.
And that is why I was too exhausted to push away the voice in my head when it clearly told me to turn left. Walk against the wall. Sit next to the first person you recognize. I followed the directions without question. When I spotted a familiar face from the plane, a person who taught at my school and was also attending the conference, I sat down.
I had never met the woman, but it was nice to sit with someone from home. We made small talk. What’s your name? What department do you teach in? Where are you from? When I shyly named my hometown, a place so small people who live in Massachusetts themselves have never even heard of it, her eyes lit up.
For once, my mind was so removed from its usual nervous twitter that when she said Aaron’s family’s name, it sounded foreign to me. It had been 15 years since leaving high school, 15 years since I had even been near anyone who knew him. Now, 3,000 miles from home, his former childhood neighbor and mother’s best friend to this day was sitting right beside me.
What followed was a series of migraines, sleeplessness, and a feeling like electricity was sporadically coursing through me. But unlike the grief I had been buried in for years, when those feelings lifted, there was spiritual progress waiting for me on the other side.
Little by little, I began to trust the inner voice that had guided me back to Aaron on that day. Whereas before I suffered and missed Aaron on my own, my chance meeting later led to my being reconnected with his parents and people who still love and miss him as much as I do. I no longer spend extended periods of time worrying about unanswered questions. Instead, I’ve found comfort and love and best of all, answers, in a new extended family of soulmates. In doing so, I am closer to my friend than ever.
Although my drawing days were temporary, my introduction to negative space drawing has changed the way I understand the world permanently. So many gifts such as the gift of healing, or the gift of knowing have been waiting for me. I just had to go out on a limb to get them.
In his 1903 essay, An Introduction to Metaphysics, the French philosopher Henri Bergson suggests that there are two ways of knowing something.
The first, relatively, requires intellectual analysis. It requires picking something apart and reconstructing it until it makes sense. Bergson’s second way of knowing something, absolutely, requires intuition. Intuition throws symbols out the window and trades in the breaking down of something in an attempt to understand it for just seeing it as it is, whether it be unique, strange, or simply inexplicable.
The temptation to jump into Bergson’s first way of knowing and analyze something intellectually is always there, but these days, I tend to turn to the second way of knowing—intuition—when I want the truth. When I need help navigating the world, I allow myself to enter that arena of negative space where my intuition thrives. There, I am free of any assumptions about what is real and what is not.
There, I am truly happy.
On occasion, doubt still plagues me, especially when something seems magical or too good to be true, but I know my intuition has always been and will always.
I just need to stop fixating on what’s in front of me and tune into the invisible to see the whole picture.
Author: Elizabeth Gittens
Editor: Emily Bartran