The positives of negativity

When I was taking art in school, I had this teacher who was entirely and totally hung up on Negative Space. She was also totally hung up on what she believed to be the ugly vicious truth about cheese (hint: Google “rennet”) was entirely obsessed with pointillism, and knew a really disturbing amount about which famous artists had what sexually transmitted diseases. For me, this has resulted in guilt around cheddar, an interest in Maximilien Luce, an overwhelming fear of syphilis and the knowledge that what makes lace so interesting to knit is almost entirely negative space.

This teacher, for months and months, had us draw not the subjects of our work, but the space around and between them. It’s an interesting trick. Let’s say that you’re trying to draw a face. In your head, you have all of these ideas about what faces look like. You know that eyes go at the top, that noses go in the middle and mouths at the bottom… right? No. I drew this for you.


See that? Eyes in the middle. Check it out on a real person. (We will not include all of my hair to avoid throwing off the average. )


The first time someone showed me that, I can’t tell you how surprised I was. (And how much better my face drawing got, and how quickly.) Noses and mouths in thirds below that. When you are trying to draw the positive elements of your subject, all of this stuff that you think you know that you actually don’t know (like that eyes are in the middle of your face) influences the way that you draw, and you might not draw as well, considering that you’re fighting a battle with what you’re seeing (eyes middle) and what your brain knows (eyes top). Drawing the negative space in a face… the space around the eyes, nose and mouth, lets your brain give its presumptions a rest. You might have some really specific ideas about where eyes go.. but I bet you’ve never spent a lot of time internalizing what the space around your eyes looks like. We just don’t look at it- we’re human. We focus on the present objects – not the space around and between them. Drawing the negative space lets you draw more accurately sometimes, because your presumptions don’t leap up and guide you.

I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking … this is a knitting blog. Please stop talking about drawing and your art teacher because frankly, the drawing part is boring and that teacher sounds like she shouldn’t have been around young minds.. but stay with me. Knitting lace is like drawing negative space.


I’m knitting the positive. The present “subject”. The yarn and my stitches are making a thing… and that thing is what you see here. Very nice, pretty colours, looks soft and clever – but it’s not breathtaking, not gripping, not something that you’d be missing sleep to work on. (I may have stayed up a little late last night doing that just one more row thing) Looking at the positive, this is pretty ordinary, but if you look at the negative.. the space between and around the stitches….


Knitting lace is all about negative space. When I knit it, I feel like I am just putting yarn around important and select parts of air, and when I look at it that way, it knocks me senseless.

(This is the Peacock Feathers Shawl, from Fiddlesticks Knitting (best charts in the world) yarn is Midnight Rainbow, from Perchance to Knit.)