Negative Drawing

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If you want to draw something, generally you’ll find a piece of paper, pick up a pencil, charcoal, or other marking implement, and go at it. The white space becomes darker as you cover it with your carbon, and those lines, crosshatches, dots, and gradients become an image. A representation of something imaginary or real.

When I was in art school, I grew quite fond of a style called ‘negative drawing.’ It was a method that flipped the traditional drawing process on its head: you would cover a sheet of paper in graphite or charcoal, then attack it with an eraser. Instead of adding to a blank canvas, you subtracted from a full one. You carved away at the sea of ‘something’ to create something new. By removing some of the whole, you gave increased meaning to what was left.

This method of creation is just as useful personally as it is artistically.

We all spend a great deal of time adding things to our lives — relationships, skills, personality traits, possessions — and these things really do help us achieve full, happy lives.

But it’s not until we start subtracting — until we carve away at the unwieldy mess most of us end up with over time — that we really come into our own. Until we organize all those lines and gradients — erase the unnecessary to create a more beautiful piece of artwork — it can be difficult to understand what we’re seeing when we look at ourselves. Even more difficult is explaining who we are to the world when all they have to go on is a piece of paper covered edge-to-edge in charcoal.

Addition is good, but don’t neglect the eraser. Subtraction helps bring balance and order to chaos.