Sketching the Negative

Drawing negative shapes
I love to draw as it is an activity that demands that I be fully present, pay attention, make moment by moment observations of shapes, lines, textures and lighting, and swiftly transfer these impressions on to paper.

Since our November weather is chilly, I either sketch outside quickly or photograph my inspirations and draw them later from my laptop screen.

Our garden is at its end and yet it still motivates me to put pen to paper.  In the process of chopping down the dying weeds, flowers and herbs, I noticed the Elecampagne, beautiful even as it withers, its leaves glowing transparently with vivid crayon box yellows and greens.

Elecampane, also known as Wild Sunflower, grows five feet high and has huge leaves up to a  1 1/2 feet long. When I stare at it, I see the interesting shapes between its leaves that impel me to grab my pen and sketchbook and start recording what I see.

It is much easier to draw negative shapes (the shapes between your subject matter) than it is to draw the thing itself. Training yourself to see the negative shapes is a great drawing habit to develop as it enables you to draw more spontaneously, with lively results. Observing and sketching the negative shapes bypasses the left side of the brain and the need to, in this case, correctly draw a proper leaf shape.

Seeing Negative Shapes

If you struggle with removing the clutter from what you would like to draw and see negative shapes clearly, these tips may help:

1. If your subject matter is close by or in your yard, place a large white card or piece of foam core (I keep one tucked behind my dining room buffet!) behind your subject matter before you begin to sketch or photograph it.

This will help define the shapes between the leaves and cut the visual clutter of the other plants in the background.

The white card makes it easier to see the shapes of the negative spaces, the shapes of the leaves and the definition of the edges between.

Putting a white board behind leaves to see negative shapes

2. To help see negative shapes, print out the photo and trace the shapes to get a feel for the structure of the plant and the negative shapes. Then discard the tracing and try again drawing from real life or the photo.

Drawing the negative shapes

3. If you draw from photos, another technique to help you get in the habit of drawing the negative shapes is to alter the photo. If you have Photoshop or a similar program, play with the image with the “artistic cut out filter” until the negative shapes begin to pop (see image below).

After practicing drawing the negative shapes from the altered photos, it will be easier to observe the negative shapes no matter what your subject matter or whether you are sketching outdoors or from a set up still life.
Distorting Image in Photoshop

Creating the sketch

As it was getting too cold to draw after I finished the garden work, I sketched the photo (see first image above) later from my computer screen. I concentrated on the negative shapes from the photo and added as few details as necessary to suggest the plant.

As the negative shapes were my focus in this sketch, I splashed on a variety of rich greens made from Winsor Blue and Aureolin Yellow that I observed in the real leaves and left the plant white. I may later use the sketch as a reference for a painting.

Drawing the negative shapes gives the sketch the free flowing movement that I love and that is easy to lose in an overworked botanically correct drawing.

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Patricia Bentham
Phone: 250.474.7162

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