Starlit Mountain—How White Space
and Imagination Work in Haiga

An interview with Jeanne Emrich
founder of Haigaonline and editor of Reeds

Linda: Welcome Jeanne—although, since you are the originator of Haigaonline, this is really “Welcome back.” You and I met at the 2005 Haiku North America conference in Port Townsend, Washington. You gave a paper entitled “The Unscrolling of Haiga: The Traditional Aesthetic and Contemporary Media.” In it you discussed traditional haiga aesthetic, the “apparent impossibilities” for applying it to contemporary Western artistic style, and a way of reconciling these different sensibilities to achieve modern works of art that are both true to the haiga aesthetic while also expressively original.

What I remember about your presentation was your discussion of white space. It changed my style and my way of thinking about haiga. Would you tell us what is white space and why is it considered to be an important formal element in 2-dimensional art and in haiga specifically?

Jeanne: White or negative space is the field that surrounds the rendered images. It can be white, a single uniform color field, or a subtly modulated color field, but for the purposes of this interview we’ll call it white. If the space is in fact white, we may have a quite natural tendency to think it is empty or devoid of information and tend to overlook it. But it really isn’t empty at all. It has shape, color, and other elements, including energy, which the eye notices even if we are not aware of it. The proof of this that if you stare at a high contrast image, such as a black horse on white paper, for a minute or two and then look away or close your eyes, you will see the “ghost” of the image in reverse – a white horse on a black field. The negative space, then, is part of the visual field. Artists know of the importance of both positive and negative space and incorporate each as a creative element into the design of their work.

In traditional haiga, where ink brush painting is done on rice paper, the white space is literally the white paper. Historically, haiga has been quite sketchy—just a few lines and perhaps a bit of color—with plenty of space left for the calligraphy. The moment the positive images are painted, they change the entire dynamics of the negative space that surrounds them. For example, the painted space divides the negative space into various shapes which take on interesting edges of their own where they meet the positive images. White space also works as a field for the imagination to come into play, particularly when the painted image and the haiku suggest more than one interpretation. Then it works like the silver screen of cinema, with the imagination projecting the images in the verse or new images of its own onto it.

A particularly good example of this kind of dynamic use of white space is this sumi-e painting "over the wall" by Ion Codrescu and Gabriel Rosenstock:

Ion Codrescu’s energetic brushstrokes zigzag up the page dividing the white space into strong shapes that jut into the center from all sides and suggesting the liveliness and speed of quick action. We read Gabriel Rosenstock’s verse, over the wall and gone; / but/ for a second--/ the fox’s (sic) tail, and learn the cause of all this excitement. Prompted by the verse, we then look for the fox, the tail, the wall it zigzags over, and the landscape beyond. But these are not depicted (except perhaps the brushstroke in the bottom left of the painting which might be construed to represent the tail). Instead, we largely are left on our own to imagine the verse’s image in the painting. All this is made possible by the uncluttered white space provided us.

Editor's note: the in-text images in this article are thumbnails. Click to open a larger size of the haiga in pop-up window.