Carving Out The Negative Space

As long as I can remember I’ve been drawing. The tools are simple, inexpensive and portable which made it easy to practice through a variety of life’s stages. Drawing is an additive process, meaning you continue to add lines to something until it is a recognizable form. It’s like taking bits of clay and sticking them together lump by lump until your sculpture is finished. Drawing is a very handy, quick way of getting an idea down on paper. It’s familiar and predictable. It allows me to build worlds and ideas in a linear fashion. 

In contrast, block printing is subtractive. The artist removes the material they don’t want printed and the printing surface remains untouched. In that sense it is more akin to stone carving, in which material is removed until the form within is shown. As Michaelangelo said, “The sculpture is already complete within the marble block, before I start my work. It is already there, I just have to chisel away the superfluous material.”

The moment I got my printing press I started experimenting with block printing and discovered that my confidence with the pencil didn’t help me to create successful prints. Eventually I realized that I had been approaching printmaking backwards: I had been trying to build lines in a familiar way like my drawings, when really what I had to do was exchange my positive space for negative space and my lines for shapes. Once I started thinking about my block like a sculpture, the real power of block printing started to emerge—dramatic contrasts and unexpected shapes working together to create a compelling composition. I carve away some bits and leave others. I roll on the ink and lay on the paper and force it all through the press—and the end result is almost always as satisfying as it is startling. 

In his 1891 work; The Decay of Lying, Oscar Wilde suggested that “life imitates art far more than art imitates life.” Art affects the way we see the world around us, which in turn affects the course of our lives. The fog in London, he postulates, has always been there—but its ethereal beauty wasn’t appreciated until the poets and painters represented it in a positive way.

Similarly, my own art has become a metaphor to me about my own self-improvement. I can strive to make positive changes or try on new activities and processes, but often they feel like different costumes I try on and discard in a month or two. They are linear and appeal to me because I understand how a concrete action might connect me to some kind of growth. From exercise streaks to a revolving door of hobbies, I have been known to sample from a wide variety of activities, but I’ve noticed that the truly dramatic changes come under heavy pressure from external forces in my life. Like block printing I need to think about it backwards: it is only under strain that I eliminate the things I no longer need. 

It is this subtractive work that sculpts us from kids to young people to healthy adults. Curiosity gets us into all sorts of trouble, but maturity helps us carve away the vestiges and unnecessary bits until a functioning human emerges. My partner Anie always says, “that will work for you until suddenly it doesn’t anymore” - a sentiment that echoes this work of removal. In life, as in art, a moment of inspiration leads us to carve away a bad coping mechanism or toxic relationship—we thought it was working but suddenly we see things in a new light. 

In many ways this past year has felt like a giant printing press: we are being stressed beyond what we thought we could bear. It’s at these moments we have choices to make—hard choices—to shed the weight and move forward when the temptation is to distract ourselves and stay put. There is no timeline on any of this, of course: good things take good time. If we choose to move we can expect some pain because the process of uncovering involves sharp objects and lots of pressure. Take comfort knowing that inside all of us is a beautiful sculpture or a compelling print waiting to be uncovered. The end result is always startlingly satisfying.