When most people draw the figure, they approach it as an “object-oriented” exercise. The figure is an object, which occupies a certain space within a room. There she sits - boom - simple. Well, it’s not really that simple. There are other forces at work here. The space surrounding the figure can be seen as much as an object (or force) as that mass of humanity sitting in it. The space beyond the figure and around the figure creates interesting negative shapes, planes, and edges when the lines of the space intersect the figure.
Looking Beyond the Figure
It’s easy to see how a shadow forms a shape as it is cast across the body, or how a chair leg creates a shadow shape on the floor, but how do those same shapes interact with the air that is pushing against them from the space? Beyond the figure, walls create shapes, table legs create shapes, lamps create shapes, easels create shapes and shadows from these items create shapes. They also create holes in space (think of it as the air between the objects or through the objects).
Sculptor Rachel Whiteread has based her entire career delving into the shape of negative space. Walking past her sculpture of chairs in a gallery you do not see legs, and backs and spindles. You see the space between and around these elements. These have a definitive form, and when they intersect the figure, they give us landmarks for our overall picture plane, which helps to unite it and make for a more cohesive drawing (one that doesn’t happen by chance - one that you control).
Take Control of Your Composition
I used to tell my students not to let Strathmore or Canson dictate their picture plane. Make four distinct marks that set up where you want the drawing edges to begin and end. Don’t just settle for the edge of the paper when you run out of room. This takes some pre-planning on your part. It’s important to think about how much of the figure (and the surrounding space) you want to incorporate into your piece. Think of it as a mini-design project, where you are trying to decide upon the elements that are most important for an interesting composition.