A lesson in leaves

Fragments - Leaf -  small

I spent the afternoon out looking at leaves. Well, really, I was raking the magnolia’s gamboge dress that that she left strewn all over the floor. She’s going to be mighty cold without clothes on this winter.

The cedar trees that dried out severely during our summer drought went dancing to the Aolian harp this week along with the dogwood and the hazlenut tree. It shook a might layer of dried “needles” out from underneath its boughs. It made a beautiful burnt sienna carpet on the ground; but unfortunately it has a growth inhibitor that prevents other things growing and if the debris is left, it seeps into the soil and kills all the other struggling plant forms.

So I was sweeping up and containing all that stuff into green garbage bags to go to the yard waste dump and all the while I was looking, looking, looking. Those cedar bits are so-o-o-o-o beautiful – really graceful forms; and the magnolia leaves were turning from their pure yellow of only a few days ago. Burnt sienna was seeping out from the veins. Grey dots were forming. Some had been underneath the others for a while and had turned solidly brown or, the ones I pulled out from under the cedar hedge, were black. These black ones must have survived a winter and a summer, hidden rather deeply under the hedge. All these colours in all the variety was a real pleasure to look at.

When I came in, I spent some time sorting photographs. With digital cameras, we aren’t so discreet about what we take. After all, we don’t have to print them all, so we, or should I own up here and say “I”,  take several where I might only have taken two in the past.I have thousands of photos now and my computer is clogging up with them all. I need to get some off the computer.

I came across this lesson I gave to one of my students recently about positive and negative shapes. So I”m going to do one of my little ten minute lectures here on elementary positive-negative shape considerations.  It is inextricably linked to concepts of composition.

Pos Neg shapes sketch small

This page is a series of thumbnail sketches for illustration purposes.

See the little rectangle in black with the white P in the center. The white is the positive shape, a circle. Everything that is left is deemed the negative shape.  It’s a rather boring composition, really. If you’ve read my other blogs on composition, you will know that this gives a single figure in a rectangle which makes it difficult for the eye to go anywhere else in the picture and so it becomes tedious to look at the one spot and the viewer will quickly tire of looking at the work.

In the next thumbnail just above it, there is a shape that represents a head and shoulders plus background. This is a small improvement over the first example. At least the black figure touches the outer edge and so the eye can easily work from left to right, right around the figure and out the picture on the other side. It begs the question: will the viewer take the time to stay and look at any detail in the picture, or has the artists simply given the viewer permission to quickly enter stage left and exit hurriedly on stage right with out much attention in between. The negative space in this image is the white background.

The bigger sketch of the figure with shoulders drawn down to the bottom line, with a space between the arms and the outer edges, a familiar portrait style,  just illustrates that by doing so there is still only one negative (background) shape. One can vary the shoulder tilt or add a hat with an angle to avoid a too-symmetrical effect.

Many portrait artists through the ages have used this simple bust-plus-head model of composition.  If you have ever gone through the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, you will know what I mean. After a short while going through the portraits, you stop looking and speed up your tour through, looking for something a little more engaging (and of course, there is,) in other galleries of the museum.

In  the thumbnail with two figures, it illustrates that you can use a shadow of the original shape to make the background more interesting. It’s been a while since I did these notations, so I had to think about it a bit. It’s not obvious that it represents a figure and a shadow. So I would add, if you put in two figures and ensure that they are at different heights or wearing different colours, or vary the composition in some other way, you can make your positive-negative balance more interesting.

Talk about forgetfulness, I’m reminded of Robert Browning, the 19th Century  poet,  who was asked what something meant in one of his poems.

He replied, “At one time, only God and I knew. Now only God knows.”

I’m trying to figure out the remaining thumbnail sketch. It looks somewhat like a dog.  But with a V neck.  I know what P stands for in this lesson, but what does S stand for? Why would a dog be wearing a V-neck pullover? And is that a necklace, the wavy stuff? With this inability to explain myself, I ought to stop right here! But being verbose me, I have a few more relevant things to say and one more picture to show.

Fragments - Leaf 2 small

I asked my student to draw a branch being particular to notice the direction that the leaf grew off of it and noticing the spaces between the leaves as an integral part of the composition. When she was done, I took a few pictures of the drawing to show how cropping a drawing can improve the overall disposition of objects in a composition.

As an aside, note the overlapping leaves. It’s one of the principal ways to indicate perspective. It may sound obvious to those of you have been painting for a long time, but people struggling with representation often need to have this pointed out.

As an outcome of this lesson, I thought that my new student did a great job of finding a good composition and a variety of negative shapes.

Now back up to the top drawing, the one that opened up this blog.  I quickly sketched these three leaves and enclosed them with a line denoting the picture plane.  The leaves do not touch the edges.  The point is, though, that there is an implied entry to the drawing via the left hand side and an implied exit on the right hand side (after some looking about the various shapes and spaces). If you get an image close to the edge, it acts as if it is touching the edge. A pointy shape will work better than a round one in making the eye take a synaptic leap across the vacant space.

In this drawing I also illustrated how shading can accomplish some of the interest in the “negative” shapes and can heighten the positive shape by doing so. I liked this drawing well enough that I think I may paint it, but in colour!


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2 Responses to “A lesson in leaves”

  1. forestrat Says:

    Positive and negative space – another topic that is important to Japanese ink drawing. A Zen approach to negative space is very different from a western one. The Zen aesthetic prizes nothingness so much that negative space is often the “subject” of an image rather than the things depicted.


    • lookingforbeauty Says:

      MDW, I’m a fan of Japanese imagery – they are so spare, so elegant. It comes from that meditative discipline that the Japanese artist is trained in. I find most Japanese imagery quiet, meditative and so beautifully thought through. Even when the forms seem so liberated and free, especially in the calligraphic images, they are the product of painstaking repetition and practice to get the perfect form. K

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