Finding the Positive in Negative Space

Research has long shown that doing artistic and creative work is important for the health of our brains. In my case, returning to art after 25 years of being a working mother has changed the way I see the world—and myself.
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Art sketching drawing pencil notebook

On a recent Saturday, I head to my weekly sketch class at the Art Institute of Chicago where Mark, the instructor, sometimes wears a blue velvet blazer and occasionally a cravat.

"Bonjour!" he sings at the start of his lecture.

"Bonjour!" I respond with my 40 or so classmates. I am trying to match his lyrical tone, pretending I am French.

Mark is lecturing about negative space. He wants us to go into various galleries, choose a painting, and sketch the area between objects, rather than the outlines of the solid objects themselves. In the negative space—or the in-between parts—the air, shadows, the translucent non-presences become animated. You learn to discern what is there by examining what isn't.

"The solid objects will emerge if you draw what is in between," Mark says.

His exhortation is a reversal of what we're accustomed to noticing: the solid weight of what is before us. I am not used to looking at the world or interpreting square footage this way. Daily, hourly, I concentrate on deadlines, meetings, outcomes, obligations, the soul- and time-consuming tasks that are tangible and required. I define myself in job descriptions: journalist, author, instructor, editor, mother, sister, volunteer, mentor, friend. Sometimes I cannot see or acknowledge whatever might lie between these roles and titles but is still unmistakably me.

At first, the in-between space seems hazy and difficult to align with what I'm used to seeing.

Soon enough, though, as Mark offers more examples and explains the term, the nothingness begins to grow its own weight. I am conscious that this is a reversal, illogical, that it is not the way others move through the world when they dismiss the ethereal as emptiness.

Mark is finished with the lecture, and we migrate to the back of the auditorium with our clipboards and plastic mesh supply bags, waiting our turns to take a sheet of gray paper and a white pastel stick. The sparseness of the assignment has left me breathless.

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Neuroaesthetics is the study of the impact of arts on the human brain and behavior, pioneered by Semir Zeki, a neurobiologist and professor of neuroaesthetics at University College London. Zeki's 1999 book, Inner Vision: An Exploration of Art and the Brainlays the groundwork for the discipline. Now 78, Zeki has spent decades researching the neurobiology of beauty.

Zeki recently told an interviewer for Brain World, "In our studies, we found that whenever subjects experienced beauty, regardless of whether it was from a musical or visual source, the experience always correlated with activity in the medial orbitofrontal cortex"—a specific region in the brain's frontal lobes connected to decision-making.

Experiencing beauty in any art literally changes us. This finding is also replicated in studies from other researchers that suggest our brains are altered—often evoking a sense of pleasure—in the presence of art and creativity.

The International Arts + Mind Lab at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine is working with Drexel University's College of Nursing and Health Professions on further research into creative arts therapies, to discover and catalog the impact of creating art on brain health. The partnership has published research showing that artistic expression can mitigate trauma and stress and augment healing and recovery.

According to the Arts + Mind Lab, creating art can also improve heart health by reducing stress, lowering blood pressure, and easing heart palpitations, according to Dr. Harlan Krumholz, a professor at the Yale University School of Medicine and a member of the board of directors of the Foundation for Art & Healing.

As Krumholz has put it: "If stress is bad for you, then creative pursuits are the opposite—creative pursuits allow people to find their 'flow state,' a mental state in which they are so fully involved in an activity that they become unaware of passing time."

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I know I am different on Saturdays in sketch class, when I suddenly have time to reclaim the spaces of my life in between what is already claimed or demanded by others. Dropping everything else that I am, or that I'm told I need to be, makes me feel whole.

Wearing my linen apron caked with weeks of charcoal and pastel dust, I adjust my gray plastic seat in the Art Institute of Chicago's Gallery 201, which displays European Painting and Sculpture. I park myself about five feet in front of Gustave Caillebotte's most famous work, Paris Street, Rainy Day.

Paris Street, Rainy Day, by Gustave Caillebotte (1877).

Paris Street, Rainy Day, by Gustave Caillebotte (1877).

I try to avoid being jostled by the blue and black backpacks of the dozens of tourists, gazers, and lovers angling to get closer to the painting, transfixed by its size and fame. I strain to see it differently, honoring what is behind and under and above the outlines, finding meaning in the aftermath and the pauses of the gestures, in order to replicate the scene.

The repetition of shapes between figures and buildings exposes what is not measurable, what bears no depth. I assign the air the form it deserves using the end of a white pastel crayon, the dust from my strokes littering the paper.

This is my rescue, refuge, respite, redemption. No one is calling, texting, emailing, asking me to meet a deadline, edit a story, file a report, deposit money, pay a bill, fix an error, attend a meeting, or respond to questions I have no answer for.

I have been working since I was 16. College, graduate school, jobs in journalism, 18 years working at a university. Marriage. Motherhood. My oldest son is 30 years old. As soon as he was born, I felt I was fully spoken for. I stopped being able to do anything that wasn't a necessity. Two more sons in five more years. One less husband. A career that still required time and intellectual energy.

I stopped painting, sketching, creating art; there was simply no room in between the requirements of maintaining a family, a house, a resume. For decades I have not been able to make time for anything much beyond work, home, family, or volunteering for causes that I believe strongly need my help.

Then, five years ago, I began taking these sketch classes.

Today, with my clipboard perched on my lap, as I apply white blotches of shading to the gray paper, the spaces between the figures and buildings of Caillebotte's masterpiece reveal the action and the movement, the solid presence of men and women and the buildings they're sliding past as they stroll across the cobblestone boulevard.

When you think in terms of negative space, the objects, events, and bodies that bear weight are no longer prominent in your field of vision; they recede. You look at the lines between for what is memorable. Soon, you don't see the substance, the weight, of what everyone else sees first. Instead you see the depth and shapes of what had been invisible, and you understand that these in-between spaces define the entire scene.

Mark calls for us to finish and return to the auditorium for a class critique of our works. My sketch reveals objects on bare paper and white pastel swirling around them like flying saucers. The space between has more substance than the objects themselves. I feel quieted, serene, full.

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