PART 1: EXPLORING COMPOSITION – project 2 using space

Using Space

This project required ‘experimenting with colour, composition and detail to create an image which uses the whole support, rather than relegating some areas to the ‘background’ or leaving them unworked.’

This has been an interesting project and one which I’ve had to spend some time getting into. I began with research into the work of Elizabeth Blackadder and, because of the very individual use of space in her paintings, it forced me to examine much more closely the whole area of space and background in the context of composition.

It was Blackadder’s interest in Japan and the philosophy behind Japanese art which intrigued me from the start and opened up a new way of looking at the space between images in a painting. From Zen philosophy, she may have been influenced by the idea that empty space doesn’t mean nothingness. Simplicity and emptiness characterise much of her work but not emptiness as we know it. I wanted to explore along this line of thought and so, in the sketchbook, I began with an empty space containing only colour, using a sheet of coloured paper. The colour of course is suggestive of something and so I suppose you immediately have an active space. Perhaps ‘active’ is not the right description because I find that the coloured paper is very flat, as I suppose white paper is (thinking of Blackadder’s flower paintings) and so the composition becomes very flat. If I had painted the background colour there would have been an element of texture and tone.

Exploring this further I then added a stroke of green. As soon as I did this, what was the space immediately became the background with the stroke of green claiming dominance. One seemed to rule out the other. I took this further and added an image to the space. All I could register was the image.

I continued with the directions for the exercise and built up objects on a hanging cloth which I then drew in coloured pens. The space between the objects looked very empty and was indeed background. I spent some time arranging the images, changing positions, taking them beyond the boundaries of the paper but still the spaces between them seemed empty and lifeless.

I felt to be getting nowhere with this and so I went back to Blackadder’s painting entitled ‘Still Life with Iris’.

Elizabeth Blackadder- 'Still Life with Iris'

Elizabeth Blackadder- ‘Still Life with Iris’

How to begin seeing the space as an active part of the whole and not just background!! On closer study, I could see that there was a lot going on in the empty spaces, tones of colour, repeated flashes of colour, shapes, texture, small indistinguishable shapes (possibly objects), lines. I hadn’t noticed these at first but now I could see that they created movement and energy. Suddenly I found that my eye was going to the spaces first.

So I began to explore this in a few studies bringing tones and texture into the spaces, trying to make the spaces part of the objects. I didn’t want to get too involved with paint at this stage and so I simply used coloured pens. As I focused on the spaces, the image began to come alive.

I experimented further by starting with the space using tones and textures of grey and then introducing the objects. None of these studies are particularly interesting but I could see the importance of using the space. By now I was working with the whole of the picture plane and both the objects and spaces had equal prominence. I found watercolour a good medium for this and allowed the washes from the pens to find their own way around the space. My thought was leading naturally towards other artists, Matisse, yes, and Emile Nolde.

Henri Matisse- 'Still Life with Vegetables' - 1905/6

Henri Matisse- ‘Still Life with Vegetables’ – 1905/6

Following the research into Matisse and looking at his work I wanted to explore further this concept of the importance of the space in composition. I am constantly reminded of this element because I have Matisse’s painting, “Femme au Chapeau” painted in 10905, as my screen saver on all my devises and so I’m very familiar with the way he throws power and energy into the image by repeating the colours and tones of the image in the space behind. All the amazing array of colours in the face appear in the spaces around the face creating a kind of patchwork of colour all over the canvas…truly inspiring! In my sketchbook I took another group of objects (I didn’t arrange them as a still life, just as various objects) and began drawing them with wax crayons. The difference here was that was I drew one object I repeated the colours elsewhere on the paper surface and so I was building up the composition as I went along. I worked quickly and didn’t spend time thinking through perspective and tone – I was just responding to the colours and the surface. I enjoyed this exercise and feel that the outcome has energy and movement…learnt a lot! I feel that this concept of using the space in a painting has a lot further to go with me and I’ve just tapped the surface.



About pbfarrar

I am an Australian living permanently in England. I have recently retired from the position of Principal of an independent school and have taken up the study of Fine Art with the OCA.
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