Put more negative space in your life – and reap the reward

Posted on May 19, 2010


Rippling Chair - negative space

Taking photography classes opened my eyes in many ways.  One of the most significant ways was in teaching me about negative space.

Usually when you look at a thing – say, a chair – you see the thing, and nothing else.  Your brain grasps that it’s 3-dimensional, that perhaps it has a back with rungs, perhaps a nice wide seat and 4 legs. You might notice its color and size and the materials used to make it.  You might appreciate how well (or poorly it’s constructed).  If you reach for it, of course, you focus on a solid part of the chair to grasp.

Photographers and artists see the chair – AND they see something else.  That something is called negative space.  As you look at your chair, all the space around it, all the space filling the crevices and openings and patterns is negative space.  Can you see it?  Look at an object near you – a lamp or a table or even your computer keyboard.  Can you close your eyes, open them again and try to JUST focus on the negative space – the space around and between the solid parts of the object.  It’s a very different way of observing something.  The very best photographers and artists use the negative space as much as any object to convey their message.  When they do, the picture no longer is constrained by descriptions like “a picture of a puddle” or “photo of cow’s skull” or “4 buildings next to each other.”

Zippy Is Feeling Awful Negative

Suddenly the puddle becomes a shape capturing light in a way that makes it look like quicksilver on a black canvas – or the black is the silhouette of mountains or sine curves.  The cow’s skull outlines the shape of a mysterious landscape, perhaps a mountain or a cliff.

Cross roads

Suddenly there are no buildings – just a giant blue cross.  The space between the profiles of 2 lovers becomes an old fashioned vase – or a drawing of an old woman transforms into a young lady wearing a fancy hat.

What does any of this have to do with finding a calling?

Well, I think that finding a calling and feeling capable of pursuing a calling requires being able to see possibilities, rather than the fixed landscape that has stymied us for some time.  Sometimes I think you have to learn to see things in a different way in order to see all the possibilities.  Looking for negative space in your current surroundings exercises the same brain muscles as those needed to help you see all the crazy and creative possibilities in your current mundane circumstances.  Transform the way you think of your life and your goals by looking at them in terms of ‘negative space.’

Some examples:

  • De-cluttering your house:  Rather than trying to de-clutter by shoving things into drawers – or finding brilliant storage solutions for all your stuff, think of trying to create space in your home.  A home filled with space soothes and calms more than a home filled with storage solutions that are, in turn, crammed full of stuff.
  • Managing your schedule: Back in the days when I was a full-time Serious Person, I tried to use MS Outlook to manage my schedule – i.e., by stacking appointments one on top of the other, never overlapping – but always making sure there were no wasted ‘gaps’ of time.  As you might imagine, I spent a lot of time feeling frazzled and burnt out – and confused.  What I had to learn was that it was important for me to actually schedule breaks and rest and downtime.  When I had breathing space between appointments, I could process things better for each appointment – and I wasn’t losing paperwork between meetings or running from meeting to meeting.  I purposefully injected negative space into my calendar – and started to breathe.
  • Raising children: We hear so much about over-scheduled children, as if children’s lives – and, by inference, their parents’ value as parents – depends on their every minute being occupied by Useful and Educational Activities.  Children need space in their schedules as much as adults do.  I think kids appreciate downtime  – and when we leave the planning and execution of their free time to them – sometimes kids come up with some amazing output.
  • Prayer: For people who pray – sometimes prayer feels like a laundry list of wishes.  We might say, “God, I need this” or “God, please help me with this” or “God, bless my parents.”  Etc.  But prayer is a two-way conversation.  And in all relationships, both sides like to be heard.  So sometimes prayer can just be, “God, I’m here” and remaining quiet.  Listening, rather than requesting.

Want to strengthen your negative space detection abilities? Try one or more of these exercises:

  • Look for negative space in the objects around you. Take a good hard look at your coffee mug.  Then look at the handle.  What shape is formed by the space inside the handle?  What can you see on the other side?  How about the opening to the mug?  Is it round – or some other shape.  What does the space do inside?  (my coffee mug this morning  has a pot-bellied look, so the space actually expands inside the mug :))  What shape is formed by the lip of the mug or the sides?  Can you squint at it and try to JUST look at the negative space – without focusing on the mug?  Try the same with a chair or a lamp or your pet.  (sometimes it’s easier if you put them in front of a light so you can focus on the silhouette).  What is the shape of the negative space around you?
  • Listen for negative space (silence) in noise.  There are composers and musicians who use the silence in their music as punctuation as much as the notes of music.  Think Beethoven’s 5th Symphony.  Listen to some favorite music – and see if you notice the breaks, the little bits of silence and how that affects the piece.  Or listen to your backyard symphony (I’ve got birds singing up a storm).  Does it ever stop?  How about the sounds of traffic or construction – what do you feel when the noise stops?  Sometimes we don’t even notice the noise until it stops!
  • Negative space on your palate.  Go to a wine (or beer – or chocolate) tasting.  Or organize one yourself.  Focus on what people do to “cleanse” their palate between tastes.  How does the ‘cleansing’ affect your experience of the tasting?  Spend a little extra time on each taste AND wait a little longer between tastes.  Alternatively – consider your own food and cooking choices.  Do you usually season your food – a lot? Do you combine many different flavors?  Try something you might normally eat seasoned (say, a farm fresh egg – or some perfect grapefruit) and eat it plain.  Close your eyes and smell the food before taking a small mouthful.  Hold the food in your mouth.  Notice the flavor and texture before you chew it (thoroughly) and swallow.  Take a few seconds to focus on that bite before you pick up another.  Spend time on your eating.
  • Negative space on your to do list.  Breathe.  This is the easiest one of all.  Take just a couple minutes.  Sit comfortably.  Take 10 breaths, slowly.  Count to 10 as you breathe in.  Pause.  Count to 10 as you breathe out.  Wait!  Give yourself a second or 2 before that next breath.  Repeat.  After you’ve taken your 10 breaths, examine your body and your mind.  How do you feel?

Keep looking for and injecting negative space wherever you can.  You may find that the negative space helps you to appreciate everything in your life a little bit more.  Maybe the negative space will give you the room to breathe and to THINK.  And breathing and thinking are important parts of pursuing your calling.

Breathe!  And share your thoughts in the comments.


p.s. – If you’re still not seeing it and need extra help – just ask the Magical Quest-o-Meter for guidance 🙂

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Photos by future15pic (Rippling chair), cayusa (Flippy is feeling awful negative), and aeioux (Cross roads) via flickr.

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