Considering the negative…space, that is

I have been trying to integrate what I saw in my travels this summer, and I’ve been pondering the question of negative space…
But before I share my noodlings with you, I need to reveal my sea fan experiment from last month. After printing the light fan shapes and the darker water, I added some coral shapes in the background. It amazes me how adding a brighter and darker color makes the water so much lighter and does add lots more depth. The coral shapes have three colors in order to hint at dimensionality. There is a great deal of activity in the work, and not many places for the eye to rest. I often need to live with a linocut for a while before I decide if it will make it to a frame, or get flipped and used as a test print.
Sea Fan linocut. It doesn’t get a name unless it warrants a frame!
So back to negative space — or in the design world, “white space.” There are lots of famous examples of the use of white space. This about the face/vase illusion for example. In all of these, the positive and negative spaces make your brain work to decide what it is seeing.

In The Oasis of Matisse at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, I was again reminded of how effectively Matisse uses the white (or off white) paper space in his work. His cut-outs are active, but he is willing to leave space untouched. In the work below, I think he is especially effective in the images on the far left and far right.
The Oasis of Matisse at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. These cut-outs are best enjoyed in person.
In my Color and Composition class at Indiana University, we were asked to make silhouettes from imagery we found in popular printed media. We were then encouraged to abstract the silhouettes and use them in a composition. Here’s one that I did. On the back I wrote, “I saw the Arabic letter as a potential spiritual symbol. By elongating the human form, a spiritual searching and reaching is described. This objective hasn’t been met yet, as the forms do not meet.”
Composition exercise from 2005.

In the composition, the lack of connection meant something. I didn’t connect the forms. I didn’t fill the space. Yet when I immersed myself in the world of relief printmaking, the inked block already commits you to filled space. You have to actively carve away the block to “save” the white space. I usually think of this in terms of a watercolorist — considering where the white will act as a highlight to the forms.

Elizabeth Busey. That Which Surrounds and Supports Us. Reduction Linocut. 28 x 28 in, Edition of 11. $725 unframed.
I consulted my website, looking for linocuts where I seemed to have more white space. In That Which Surrounds and Supports Us the cells themselves are often white bounded by color. The undulating inner circle is made prominent, but the overall feeling is still filled.
Elizabeth Busey. Unforeseen. Reduction Linocut. 13 x 28in, Edition of 22. $350 unframed.
In Unforeseen the white space is the top layer of water as it cascades downward. This is one of my more graphically-inclined linocuts, devoid of my traditional textures and fussiness. I like the image for that reason. It is forceful, but also restful.
One of the recurring problems with using white space with block printing is that sometimes the resulting image is confusing — as though something were left out. I often dive deep into a pattern, wanting to immerse the viewer, and use the boundaries of the block as a signal that you are looking at a close-up or at something that is so vast that your visual system could not possibly take it all in. How would an irregularly shaped block – that might allow more white space – work?
I’ve repurposed Friday afternoons in my studio for experimentation, so this is one of the questions I will be exploring. Who knows where it will lead…

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