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An Additive/Reductive Life

April 3, 2010

There are two basic processes underlying visual art: Additive and Reductive.  Additive mediums begin with a blank canvas and build imagery by successively adding layers and objects.  Reductive ones start with a full canvas and remove material to expose the forms within.

"Bike Beast" Charcoal Drawing by Brian Lockyear

Drawing is additive, you successively add lines and shading while pausing to see where the next should go.  Its true that with some drawing materials, particularly pencil, you can erase and go back.  But the primary process is to add material.  The fact that you cannot easily erase ink is one reason why drawing with it is so different than with pencil.  You have to make a much stronger initial commitment to each mark you make and, as a result, you draw differently.

Woodblock Print by Brian Lockyear

Woodblocks are reductive, you start with a flat plate of wood and carve away what you don’t want to print.   Mezotints are even more extreme.    The first step is to cover the metal plate with a fine-toothed field of cuttings which will print a rich deep black.  The image appears as you smooth out areas so they hold less ink and print progressively lighter.

And of course there is the great quote by Michelangelo regarding stone sculputure:  “In every block of marble I see a statue as plain as though it stood before me, shaped and perfect in attitude and action. I have only to hew away the rough walls that imprison the lovely apparition to reveal it to the other eyes as mine see it.”

Charcoal is the most balanced of media.   You build and remove layers of pigment and at will.  One of my favorite artists is William Kentridge from South Africa, with his amazing video images created from charcoal drawings and stop-motion animation.  One of the most profound images followed a newspaper blowing down a deserted street.  As the paper is erased and moved in each image frame, its ghost flys along behind it.

It strikes me that life is an additive/reductive process as well.  Each day we take a look at our canvas and make choices about what to keep, what to add, and what to remove.  Its not that one process is good and the other bad.  They are just choices that we have to make.   A new mountain to climb or a windmill to leave behind.  I think it helps to be conscious not only of our choices but of whether they areadditive or reductive ones as well.  It helps clarify and keep our boundaries.    Sometimes ghosts of the past trail along behind; painful, poignant, maybe beautiful.  And once you’ve laid down charcoal its almost impossible to get back to the pure white paper underneath again.  But with time, care and learning to work with the medium rather than against it, we can create the most amazingly rich images.  Time to get back to drawing!

– Brian –

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