Additive vs. Subtractive


A few years back a friend at the time introduced me to an interesting way to view photography, and art in general, additive vs. subtractive.

The concept is simple of enough. In additive art you start with nothing, a blank canvas. From that point you build what you want, a dash of red here, a curve there, whatever. (My analogies will default to being painting related since the intial discussion involved painting, but not always, and it can apply to photo, dance, music, writing, whatever.) Elements are added to the image until the desired image is created.

In subtractive work you start with something, possibly everything, and then narrow down what you want into the final work. This type of work style is far less common. The best example I can think of, and the one I mostly practice, of course, is non-studio photography. You have an entire scene in front of you, but by removing elements, by cropping and cropping more, making all the necessary choices, the final image is created. It’s about subtracting elements until the desired image is created.

It’s simple enough. No big deal. But the thought process between the two is a world of difference.

Personally, subtractive is very easy for me. Throw a bunch of stuff in front of me, I’ll find what I think is the core of the subject quickly and create imagery to highlight that with no problem. I’ll use every tool in the book to get rid of all the junk that distracts from that core thought, idea, feeling.

Additive is still very challenging to me. I don’t see the range of possibilities of what can be brought into an image to make it stronger, if something needs to bee taken out I’ll usually see that mighty quick. (Hair, make-up and fashion are excluded items.) I know it’s a practice deal for me. I need to learn to think more conceptually. While I can certainly conceptualize while doing my subtractive work, it’s much more on the fly, and I tend to be better, to do better with pressure, at least at a certain level. In additive work the creation is less about the moment the piece is made, or the photo is made, and more about the process of getting there, the planning. (They never believe me in the office when I tell them that 90% of our studio work succeeds or fails in the planning process. Ah well, luckily I’m very well trained to work and think on the spot.)

A good example of this in my mind is that few musicians get on stage without crazy amounts of practice, the same for all performance. Paintings and drawings are often slightly changed throughout their creation, but that can be hours, days, weeks, months or years. There is plenty of planning time in there if you ask me.

Subtractive work tends to be less…forgiving? That word is wrong, but it gets the idea across. I don’t mean to imply that subtractive work is more challenging, it’s not, it’s just that once something is gone, it’s gone. With a photo, if the photo is taken without something in the frame, for the purposes of the photo, it probably didn’t need to exist at all. (Add that to my love of cutting off body parts and it gets kind of sick.) The other subtractive form I can most easily think of would be sculpting from a block of material, removing all the excess till you reveal the sculpture. If you accidentally remove part of the sculpture, ah, that’s a problem. Now, I know little about sculpture and I know there are some remedies, but you get the idea.

Sometimes I wonder if this concept is applicable to other art forms, writing, music, theater, whatever. I don’t know. I’d love to see it explored. It would probably fail, but I so love failures. Failures tend to be the most interesting successes (oohhh…one of those faux-wise statements that are actually complete BS.) But I think you get the idea. Failures are interesting to see because of what you can learn from them. I’m a fan of failing. (I better be some days, otherwise…just “ouch” otherwise.)

Other ideas to explore, the difference between performance and object art (see (or more accurately listen to) Joni Mitchell, on a live record talking about “Paint a Starry Night again man”, hilarious, in part because of it’s accuracy.) Performance once it’s done, can, and usually will be done again. Object, not so much, but sometimes.

Anyhow, that’s the start of an idea, and one I want to continue to explore.

Next in the world of strange art concepts that float through Josh’s head, how the written word should be distrusted, and maybe all words, though the tone and body language that go along with words are quite useful, the words themselves, not so much. This is why I hate loud bars these days. I have to work to listen to words, which are so uninformative, and the useful info is below the actual words and I can barely get the words.

Done rambling.

3 Responses to “Additive vs. Subtractive”

  1. P. George says:

    Additive all the way for me. Collage . Take the Given circumstance- modify by adding another element. respond to the result Good? Finished? Yes/no? if No then repeat.

    …and yes the danger of words….how does the language you use to cognate thoughts effect the quality and nature of those thoughts. wicked hard territory to navigate. Meta. very Meta……

  2. Josh Hawkins says:

    Not only how does the word choice effect thought, but how does effect thought removed from visual or auditory cues? Words are naturally more easy to be deceitful with, but at least with have other cues to examine to understand those words and put them into context.

    Classic, overused and obvious example here, and one everyone has been through, “I love you.” I’m not even going to get into variations between friends, family and lovers, which are there and significant, I’ll just stick to lovers. How often have you known she didn’t love you even while she said it? Or at least wondered to later to be proved right? Maybe other forms of expression aren’t as clear, but are they as easy to deceive in? Does clarity and precision of communication ease the navigation of the pathways of deception through communication? Because I can’t “speak” clearly with an image, does it make it even more difficult to lie with that image? Are “less clear” forms of communication more reliant on being in touch with emotions and hence more difficult to use in deception?

    I know I can use words to deceive, impede, or outright lie to people. Most of this I don’t bother because I rarely find it worth the effort these days, but the amount of steering done with words…maybe results in an over-intellectualization when a heightened emotional response would be more useful, communicative, and honest.

    I’ve got a lot of experience with visual art, and I can make it say what I need it to say whenever I want. I better be able to, I get paid to do that. On the other side though, it never truly shines unless I feel it, and if I feel it, it can’t help but show, nothing I do won’t stop it from showing at least a little, and hence, I believe what I show more than I believe what I say. And well I may know what my images show, the words are so loaded with meaning I’m not comfortable with them, while totally comfortable in acknowledgment of the same statement, just in the visual form.

  3. Josh Hawkins says:

    Oh yeah, and I haven’t seen any of your collage in a long while, when we going to solve that issue? I’m going to keep pushing till I’m satisfied, FYI.

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