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Breck Smith on Living as an Artist: Teaching Students to Draw Shapes

One of the important lessons I try to teach students is how to use negative shapes or negative spaces when they are working. Normally we think of the objects in an artwork as positive space. Negative space is the space around and in between the objects. Drawing negative shapes is a very useful tool because it helps you to think more about overall shapes and lines and which directions they are going in. They also help to get your mind off things like, “I’m drawing a tree, so I’ve got to make it look like a tree.” That’s an impediment to drawing, or it can be an impediment.

Nude, 1962

Richard Diebencorn

Note how the black negative shapes define the body of the nude woman.

Ocean Park No. 45, 1971

Richard Diebenkorn

Diebenkorn evolved into these rectilinear abstracts.

Two of my favorite artists who use negative shapes especially well in their artwork are Stanley Lewis and Richard Diebenkorn. Diebenkorn, during his life, made the transition from representational work to abstract work, and I feel that his emphasis on drawing and painting the shapes that he saw were an important element in that transition. Stanley Lewis once did a wonderful artwork of a sidewalk scene that I have tried to find since and have not succeeded. You got the feeling that Lewis was drawing while he was waiting for someone to come out of a store. But there was this beautiful shape of the sidewalk that took up about the bottom third of the drawing. It had a diagonal shadow that defined the upper edge of the sidewalk. The whole scene was so mundane that most people wouldn’t think of representing it at all. Most people think that the subject of an artwork needs to be something special or pretty, like a waterfall, or else something arranged in a particular way. But if you’re used to drawing, and if for example you are waiting for someone to come out of a store or something like that, and you start drawing whatever it is you see in front of you, many times it can turn out to be an exceptional work of art. And you could tell from looking at that sidewalk that Lewis saw something that was interesting to him and he wanted to represent it, and the result was a great artwork.

Porch, Rainy Day

Stanley Lewis

In the mid ‘70s when I was in school Betty Edwards came out with a book called Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. It was a very influential book and talked about negative shapes a lot. One artist that this discussion brings to mind is Giorgio Morandi. His paintings are mostly still lifes, mostly the same objects over and over, but when you look at them you can tell that he poured so much attention into shape and negative shape that the paintings are at the same time both representational still lifes and beautiful abstractions.

Natura Morta

Giogio Morandi

A good exercise for me is to take a pencil and shade in the shape of whatever it is I am drawing, rather than outlining first. Another good exercise (and I tell my students to do this) is when you’re drawing something, try to imagine that your pencil is out there in space touching whatever it is that you are drawing as you draw it. Drawing negative shapes is just a very helpful tool in drawing and painting.

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