The ball may be the subject, but the placid blue water gives the ball cognitive, emotional, metaphoric buoyancy.

The ball may be the subject, but the placid blue water gives the ball cognitive, emotional, metaphoric buoyancy.

When I walk around an elementary school and see paintings or drawings hanging on the walls--say of a house, or a bicycle, or a dog, or an airplane--I'm always interested to see the shape and scope of the space around the subject. The blank area has a name, aesthetically speaking. It's called "negative space". It's the space around the subject that helps build character and contextual relevance. Children often leave tons of negative space, so intent are they to perfect their rocket ship in one discrete place on the page. Conversely, there are always some kids who feel that any space left blank is territory that should be filled in, thus eliminating almost all emptiness in favor of riotous lines and bombastic color.

As we get older, the potency of this seemingly unused space begins to increase. We start to notice when things feel vacant, or, when handled well, we notice and nod appreciatively when space has been left empty by conscious intention. We begin to notice the long pauses in conversation with some people carefully articulating an important thought. We also begin to notice how other people never have anything to say, even as they spill an endless jabber of words. Handled well, negative space is anything but negative.

Negative space is the empty universe in which the mote of Earth floats in vacuum. It's the water of a swimming pool on which an untouched beach ball bobs up and down. Its good treatment requires a measure of confidence on the part of its creator. It's a statement that a creative person believes his or her direct expression of a subject is compelling enough, or organized enough, or valuable enough to not require more. Good use of negative space proves the maxim: less really is more.

Negative space doesn't just appear in paintings and pencil drawings. Smart industrial design often tries to simplify in a way that leaves cognitive space for a user. The musical pause--say, the infinitely brief suspension of sound before a violin cadenza yields to the waiting mass of the orchestra--focuses the audience on being present, on waiting with delicious anticipation.

I look for expressions of negative space as indications of competent thought. It's not the same thing to just leave "blank space". Blank is….blank. It's a nothing; it has no form, no intention. But just like the number zero can help mathematicians count to infinity, negative space is the absence of mass that holds an idea in place. By itself, it counts for very little: negative space only exists because of a positive something. But I find that sometimes the intentional declaration of emptiness can be the defining clue that there's something else in a creative person's mind full of meaning, or at least worthy of consideration.

--Michael Starobin

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