In our last class the subject of negative space in regards to drawing became the focus. For some odd reason I had challenged myself to do a large drawing with a 4H pencil. It is so subtle I imagined people would have to use a magnifying glass to see it.

It is exciting for me to be teaching drawing again, and even more fulfilling when a student listens, applies and integrates what she learns so deeply with her life. That was my response to reading her article for LinkedIn. Susanna Massie Thomas, Strategic Leadership and Life Coach, CPC, ELI-MP,  kindly let me copy it in it’s entirety here. After I read it, I added the Sunflowers as a prayer for Ukrainians. I think you will be inspired by her thoughts.

“All my life I have wanted to learn how to draw.

2022 is my year to do it.

“Why do want to learn to draw?” my new art teacher asked me on my first session before I’d even picked up a pencil or opened my blank sketchbook

I thought for a moment.

“Because I want to learn to see,” I replied.

I’ve always been intrigued not just by WHAT artists see, but HOW they see it: Right brained, non-verbal, and synthetic as opposed to left brained, verbal and linear. It seemed magical and exclusive. Like a poor kid on the street looking in the window at the colorful revelers within, I wanted to join the party.

Prismacolor tin

Prismacolor tin

In my first lesson, I was taught the kinds of marks one can make with pencils of varying softness, how different types of papers receive graphite and some techniques to quiet your left brain to let your right brain to take the lead.

Next came contour drawings, drawing from memory, then sketching what you see. Faces of live models, from photographs, a self portrait followed.

By my fourth lesson, I felt bold enough to do a little extra homework and tackle a subject I loved -horses. The horse on the tin cover of my Prismacolor pencil box looked good. But my rendition of it, although respectable for a beginner, not so much.

Drawing by Susanna Massie Thomas

Drawing by Susanna Massie Thomas

“I can’t figure out how to make it look alive like it does on the cover “I lamented last week when I showed my teacher what I’d done.

“That’s because you haven’t drawn the negative space.”

“Negative space?” That sounded foreboding.

“The empty space between the elements of your sketch,” she said. “Seeing that is key to drawing. First you learn to distinguish negative spaces from positive ones. Then you focus on making all the elements balanced and harmonious with one another. That union gives your work authenticity and makes your image “pop.”

She sent me home with instructions to start a new picture of the Prismacolor horse beginning with the background and dark shapes, then adding shading and lines.

“Remember, you can’t have positive space without negative space,” she told me. “It may seem alien at first, but when you open your mind to seeing the negative space, drawing will become easier.”

Hmmmm… maybe.

I was still trying to wrap my head around that concept when, two days later, Russia invaded Ukraine.

Like so many, I’ve been riveted to the news for the last five days watching in horror as Russian tanks and troops roll into Ukraine and missile blasts light up the night sky in cities across the land.

WAR. The ultimate negative space.

But ”you can’t have negative space without positive space…” keeps ringing in my ears.

What could that possibly be in this situation?

  •  The remarkable bravery of the Ukrainian troops and civilians standing their ground, taking up arms, making Molotov cocktails, ready to die for their country.
  •  The solidarity of two thirds of the world in condemning the invasion, embracing sanctions, cutting off access to Russian resources, shutting down bank transactions, freezing assets.
  •  The global protests, brave news reporting, flood of funds, munitions, and humanitarian aid.
  •  The undeniable proof, like Covid 19, that we are all connected in this world.

CONNECTION. The ultimate positive space.

In our places of work, our families, our own minds and hearts, there is so much “negative space” to stress about, wrestle with, shun, or ignore deliberately or innocently.

To counteract these “negative spaces,” many of us become devotees of what psychologists Todd Kashdan and Robert Biswas-Diener call “gung-ho happyology” in their book, The Upside of Your Dark Side. We turn to mindfulness to squelch our cerebral clamor. We condemn our anger, apathy, egotism, cynicism, and rail at our roadblocks, detours, and the times we run out of gas or just plain stall out.

But at what cost?

Those of us who studied at iPEC, the Institute of Professional Excellence in Coaching, are taught we all experience 7 different kinds of energy that range from the darkest of “negative spaces” to the lightest of “positive spaces,” and that every level-negative or positive-has disadvantages and advantages.

In fact, you can’t experience any level of energy without the potentiality of the flip side.

You wouldn’t want it any other way.


Drawing by Susanna Massie Thomas

Drawing by Susanna Massie Thomas

Because as I learned this week in my art class, the union of negative and positive spaces lends depth, dimension, strength, impact, and interest to our outcomes.

That’s a great thing to know if you want to live your most authentic, vibrant life.

And it’s rewarding for me to know, that as I hoped when I took on this art endeavor, I’m finally learning to see.

Cheery bye,


  1. As an iPEC Core Energy Dynamics specialist, I help my clients and their teams distinguish (both with and without the help of horses) the negative and positive spaces in their lives and organizations, embrace them both for maximum growth and to achieve vibrant, impactful outcomes.”

 Susanna Massie Thomas , Strategic Leadership and Life Coach, CPC, ELI-MP

"On a Grey Day", Sunflowers detail, drawing with a 4-H pencil by Kathleen O'Brien

“On a Grey Day”, Sunflowers detail, drawing with a 4-H pencil by Kathleen O’Brien

Work in progress - "On a Grey Day", 30x22", drawing with a 4-H pencil by Kathleen O'Brien

Work in progress – “On a Grey Day”, 30×22″, drawing with a 4-H pencil by Kathleen O’Brien