catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 12, Num 5 :: 2013.03.01 — 2013.03.14


Imagination: The negative space


We all have substance.

This is Hayden:




Hayden a blob of “o’s” and “0’s.”

This is a lot of substance, but with little behind to create shape.

Mere substance is not enough. Yes, Hayden is there, we see that. But what is Hayden? There needs to be a realm of spacelessness between the substance. This shapes Hayden into something more, into a form. So, if Hayden had open space, this might be a better representation:


   00     00

 ooo     ooo

   o          o

      o    o


See! Now Hayden can almost be called a thing, rather than an awkward shape. The space allows for Hayden to choose its existence, to become something more than a basic surface. It’s a fullness, an identity. It takes both the substance and the space to complete this form, both our view of reality as we experience it and what we create outside it to shape who we are. It takes the pouring of imagination between the gaps to give an identity fuller form.

Negative Space

When I, as an artist, examine an object to draw, there are two aspects in the scene to notice: the positive space and the negative space. The former are the contours of the object itself, it is the substance that you’re trying to create. The latter is everything in the distance behind it, it’s all of the background surrounding it and everything that peeks through any emptiness in the subject. It takes a strong focus on both of these to truly bring out the lines that make an image. While an initial reaction would be to look only at the positive space, at times the negative space has certain shapes that stand out much more easily and drawing out the negative space can help bring out the form of the subject. An awareness of both is helpful in order to find the contrasts and create a full and complete image. For instance, when drawing a tree, it helps to focus on the shapes created between the crossing of branches rather than the branches themselves, and thus bring the reality of the tangling limbs into better realization. This isn’t limited to only drawings of art, but it’s also an important aspect of the nature of a person.


We all have substance made from our values and the facts we create based on our life experiences. This is our positive space. Anything we know, with as much certainty as we’re able, sets this structure into place. It is made of facts, of knowledge, and grounded in solid reality. Imagination is anything that breaks free from this realm of reality, the creation of anything that is not, and inhabiting space outside the structure; this is the negative space. It takes both our view of reality and its opposite to make the image of our self come through to ourselves and others. There is nothing unfortunate about the negative space; it’s merely an opening in which we flourish.  While the terms “positive” and “negative” could be misleading here, there is nothing intrinsically good or bad about either. I just hope to use these terms’ concepts to bring to light the natural use of imagination as a way of understanding people around us.

We all have imagination. Whether we create ourselves or take time to understand and accept something created by someone else, we’re breaking free from reality and noticing something that is not truth with the perspective that it might be, or at least could be, fact, regardless of how ridiculous or out of our world they lead us. Without imagination, there is little to no shape. When we imagine, we don’t deny the facts, we make them more clear. Imagination and creativity work to bring out what we know, just as negative space has an equal share in forming a subject as the negative space. Without imagination, our structure, our image of self, would be very flat. It would be like Hayden.

There are many structures thrust upon us: a faith we might inherit, a society we live in, norms that are taught to us. While some of this structure may very well be helpful, such as a value that insinuates it’s wrong to cause harm to others, or to eat things that are dangerous, many imposed values can also just create confusion when taken to an extreme, especially when so many of these values can be subjective. The way someone might design a theater, or write a story, or sing a song is obviously going to vary between the United States than in Rwanda; or even between Rwanda and Ethiopia. Even across the southern border in Kenya, it will be different, and yet again different from those in India or Brazil. Even for something more commonplace, such as using the restroom, there will be remarkable differences. The surroundings that nurture each individual can vary widely from person to person, and to insinuate there is a right or wrong way to think or structure something only distances people from one another, and stops them from truly appreciating the imagination of another culture. While inherited structures are ultimately very important for each person’s story, without an appreciation for how imagination shapes structure, and structure shapes imagination, we hinder ourselves from coming to understand others more completely. Even in observing ourselves, it helps to explore our own negative space while we also watch for the shapes formed from the imagination and substance of those around us.


Enjoy the forms

For instance, think of the image of the vase that creates the lines of two faces looking at each other. As a picture, the two separate images seamlessly switch so that you never know which is the positive space and which is the negative. They take turns. This is what the imagination of each person will bring about, such a deep sense of who they are that the negative and positive space of identity can’t be separated. One’s grounded reality and one’s mental creations are both true of how any person takes on the world.

As you continue to encounter others, take some time to ask them to share something that isn’t true — something from their mind, some spontaneous story, or animal, or object, that could never be or happen. Listen to it, and hear what they say. It’s not just something imagined, it’s their soul telling you how they shape the world as they’ve come to know it, how they shape themselves in it. Take care to listen to others talk about what other imagined things they value. Everyone gravitates toward different art, toward different forms of imagination, and the more you come to know what they appreciate the more you will know who they are as people. Don’t neglect the millions of shapes and forms around you. Listen to them, value them. The shapes are not objects, and they are not commodities. They are what make a person who they are.

For instance, Hayden is a new individual to you. At first glance, new people will come across as relatively formless, nothing but a surface. As their imagination is opened before you, as they reveal their personal creation, their identity is brought out for you. Your view of Hayden gains a shape that was always there, and you come to see more deeply another’s greater beauty.

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