In Western painting, white space is often something to fill up. The closest I can think of in Western painting where white space is used as a part of a picture is vignetting.
Vignetting occurs when a painting blurs towards its edges, creating a shape inside a border of white or another color. The white space encases the central object of the picture in an oval or round shape, acting as a frame to the picture itself. This is a conscious use of white space by the painter to frame a picture – it contains the picture, but does not interact with the painting itself.
When French painters of the 19th century became aware of the compositional elements in Japanese prints it was quite an eye-opener. Parts of a picture were suggested rather than seen – the imagination was used to fill in beyond the edges. Thus, in this same context, a piece of white paper has the potential for so much more than being filled in!
In her book Japanese Calligraphy: The Art of Line & Space, Christine Flint Sato writes “The calligrapher, facing the blank white page before beginning to write, does not ponder how to fill it, but how best to activate it” (p. 55). This suggests a dynamic relationship between artist or calligrapher with the white space – the white space is vital and alive, an element with its own life, its own potential, its own heartbeat and breath.
How then does the artist approach this white space? In ink painting, or in calligraphy, white can show through breaks in the ink as it is laid down – but the relationship with the remaining white continues. How the artist or calligrapher proceeds can energize the white, creating an exciting and active alliance between ink and blank paper – or kill it dead. Sato refers to this dead white as kukyo, meaning “emptiness” (p. 61). You can see Ms. Sato’s work, and some details of this book, at http://sumiwork.com/
Many books dedicated to the art of sumi-e write about its immediacy, but in practicing the art of sumi-e, I have found that I must practice to create that immediacy. This means knowing how wet my brush needs to be, how thick the ink, where I want to paint, where I do not want to paint. Japanese calligraphers, according to Sato, practice and repeat until they can produce a spontaneous – but a controlled spontaneity – calligraphic artwork.
Ink painting, as with all arts, requires practice and experience, and a willingness to “just do it”! In “doing it” skill is gained, and the mastery of the brush, the ink, the paper, the white space, give the artist a language of experience that allows, at last, that expression of self to flow so easily . . . practice those bamboo leaves every day!