The Art of Subtraction

Don’t worry, there’s no math involved here!  In a previous post, I mentioned that I had the opportunity to take a class with famed author/illustrator Floyd Cooper.  He taught us the art of using negative space to create a painting.  His well-known technique involves painting a surface first and then wiping it away with a kneaded eraser until an image appears.  If it sounds a little bit magical, that’s because it is.  Especially when you watch him do it for the first time and then see the amazing results in just a few short minutes right before your eyes.  You feel like you’re watching a magician perform a magic trick.  But in taking the class I realized it comes down to some of the most basic elements of drawing.  Working with shapes and blocking out space.  Only in this case, you start with the negative space and work backwards.  I think the organic nature of it is somewhat freeing.  You don’t have to stare at that dreaded white paper in a total panic trying to figure out where to begin.  Of course, part of the reason Cooper makes it look so easy is because he’s been practicing this technique for  a long time, so he’s got it down to a near science.  A highly creative science that is 😉

Here are some of my attempts at using this technique.  The first two use charcoal (an old favorite of mine, though messy).  The last one uses paint, similar to what Cooper uses.  I was not able to finish it at the conference.  Later I found that the dried paint was hard to remove, so I added charcoal.  But this is also in keeping with Cooper’s style.  He showed us that sometimes you can start by initially subtracting to create light and shadow.  Then add in contour lines to create definition.

You can practice this style with writing, as well.  One of my favorite exercises for creating a poem involves starting with an old magazine article and then blocking out portions of the text with a black marker until you create something new.

How can you practice the art of subtraction in your art?  Writing?  Life?  Please share!

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