Patrick Caulfield – his use of positive & negative space

Caulfield used simple, often geometric, sometimes assymetrical shapes superimposed on each other to create depth through layering images through contrasting perspectives; for example, in Still Life with Dagger (1963), the viewer is taken into the format almost horizontally, in the manner of a “conventional” still life. A necklace is draped through the handle of a jug which is distinguished from the background only by an orange outline – the necklace moves forwards towards the viewer, supported by the jug. However, the viewer is also, simultaneously, looking down at the table top, on which a bright turquoise dagger stands. The two perspectives are connected through the jug; the viewer is simultaneously looking at and into the jug. In doing this, the positive space of one perspective becomes the negative space of the other – this effect is enhanced when the image is seen in black and white due to Caulfield’s choice of a mid-tone (a blue-grey) for both vase and mat. The eye moves back and forth between them.

In the upper-left corner, are abstract blue and red shapes. The blue is echoed in the mouth of the jug; the red has no “colour echo” elsewhere in the image but it is more than matched for its radiance by the blue-green dagger, both of which stand out against the predominantly cool background and prevent the image disappearing into a sea of greys and blues. The necklace moves forward due to highlights on the beads and the difference in sizes of bead. The purpose of the negative space in this image is to project positive space forward. How this is perceived by the viewer depends on which perspective they engage with at any one moment.

This dual perspective and use of negative and positive space is seen in other of Caulfield’s paintings, including Vases of Flowers (1962) and Black and White Flower Piece (1962), all of these came from the same period in the artist’s life and all are in the Tate’s collection in London.

In the years that immediately followed Caulfield produced still life in prints in which there tends to be only a single perspective, and colour is used with shape to project positive images out of negative space. The horizontal and vertical planes are not evident and it is left to the viewer to interpret these within the negative space. Two examples of this are Earthenware (1967) and Coloured Still Life (1967). Also, although tonal contrasts are not used within blocks of colour, the viewer interprets the surfaces as curved from the interface between positive and negative space. A screenprint, The Hermit (1967) has very different subject matter from the other examples mentioned here but the technique is similar. Caulfield uses primary colours to portray a hermit sitting at the mouth of a cave. The red cave and yellow sky could be seen as the negative space surrounding the hermit; however, the cave itself could also be perceived as part of the positive space, especially as it is so prominently set in the foreground.

The ideas / perceptions expressed here are my own. The images were accessed from Tate online, the home page for which is http://www.tate.org.uk/ . Date accessed: 26.08.11

Below is my own interpretation of Caulfield’s work.

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Caulfield’s designs are simpler than my own, which is “busier” than originally planned. I tried to keep to a colour scheme similar to the one in “Still Life with Dagger” and kept the background neutral. There is a dual perspective, although I drew the circles (mouths of the jar and lid of the incense burner) freehand… The green shells on the book look more like leaves – the colour choice is confusing. I used Inktense pencils, which produced a very pale drawing, without clear “darks” to balance the lighter tones and then carefully applied a wash in sections, allowing each one to dry before wetting neighbouring areas. I discovered that it is very difficult to apply colour in a flat, atonal manner such that a uniform colour is obtained; the larger the area, the harder it becomes. Coloured pencils – even with a wash – do not match the intensity of colour achieved by Caulfield; acrylics or oils would be needed for this. I do not have much experience of working with oils but imagine that it would be easier to obtain larger areas of uniform tone with these. I am quite pleased with the colour balance – although the basis for this was not my own idea! . I particularly like the orange lines and book edge, which provide a “frame within a frame” which tilts towards the viewer – that was my idea!

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