Empty Space

Sep 21

Last year I took a drawing class and the first thing the instructor discussed was the use of empty/negative or white space. The term is used for the space which is left blank in a drawing, painting, photograph or graphic presentation. This empty space is what allows the objects in the work of art to exist.  One of the best descriptions of negative is “space where other things are not present.”  We spent one class trying to work building imagery through the use of negative/empty space.

I keep returning to Anne Lindbergh’s  Gift from the Sea as the passages I underlined years ago are popping out to emphasize the simplicity I am seeking these days and connecting to other things – the art class – long past.  One of the quotes I underlined:

“For it is only framed in space that beauty blooms.  Only in space are events and objects and people unique and significant – and therefore beautiful.  A tree has significance if one sees it against the empty face of sky.  A note in music gains significance from the silences on either side.  A candle flowers in the space of night.  Even small and casual things take on significance if they are washed in space, like a few autumn grasses in one corner of an Oriental painting, the rest of the page bare.”

She goes on to say, “My life, I begin to realize, lacks this quality of significance and therefore of beauty, because there is so little empty space.  The space is scribbled on; the time has been filled.”

I am again struck by the significance of these words, written in 1955, to the world today.  How is it that we can find significance with so little empty space in our lives?  I long for the pause between the notes, yet I feel pressed to fill every pause with something that “needs to be done”.  I file, I write, I call, I post, I tweet, I read but seldom pause to sit in silence and allow the empty space around me to create significance, beauty.

As I look for ways to create more empty space in my life in order to reflect I offer up a few examples of the use of empty space in art and music.

My daughter Lindsay’s photography site has two good examples on her opening page at


As well as numerous other examples in her landscape and travel photographs.  Another friend and photographer, Jeff Rennicke, has some great examples as well.  Here is one from our trip to Africa.

This M.C. Escher Gallery has some excellent examples


On the music side listen to the space between notes used by Jack Johnson and James Blunt.  They both use silence or a pause where it’s not typically expected.  You will often find this as well in classical music.  Some examples I really like are Mahler’s Resurrection and Barber’s Adagio for Strings:

Maybe tonight would be a good not for some empty space.  Sit on the back porch, listen to the Mahler symphony and gaze up into the dark night sky and ponder, just for a moment, the beauty of the space between us.  Just you and the space between the note, the space between the stars and the space between you and infinity.  How’s that for evening of adventure?

One comment

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