The Science of Additive Art

Art is not all creativity and divine inspiration — it can also be math and science. Process art is becoming increasingly popular as more artists are using additive techniques to create works drawn not just from inner creativity, but using procedures as well. The process is common, though not well known, in many creative fields — music composition, sound synthesis, sculpture, and painting.

What is additive art?

The main question for those who aren’t familiar with additive art is, of course: What is additive art? The most basic answer is part of the word “additive”: it’s a process of creation where you start with nothing (or very little) and add onto it gradually. In sound synthesis, additive synthesis is a common technique: you start with a simple sine, triangle, or other wave, and you begin adding more waves and resonances on top of it until you have something whole and completely new. In sculpture, rather than beginning with a block of granite (a subtractive process) you begin with one material — clay, for instance — and add onto it until the project is complete.

You can find simple metaphor in something like the 2048 game. You begin with just a couple small numbers and add them together. 2 goes with 2, you get 4. Put a 4 with another 4, you make an 8, and so on. You build the numbers until either your board is full (your sculpture is about to topple) or you’ve reached your goal of getting a 2048 tile (your work feels completed). In some cases, the game or sculpture is a clearly defined pattern which you can quantify. In others, like this painting or this 2048 spin-off, the patterns aren’t so obvious.

The point is that you start with something small — a number, a design, a material — and build until you have something completely new.

Types of Additive Art


If you think about it, painting is by nature an additive art form, though the process behind the work may not be additive. Adding red paint to blue paint gives you purple, and you keep mixing in colors until you get the exact shade you want. Putting the paint on canvas is also an additive process — you don’t start with a full block of paint and chip away at it, like you would with a sculpture.

But this definition of additive is very broad. More specifically, it’s the intent of the painter. The painter who has a full landscape image in his mind and sets to paint it is not using an additive process. However, an abstract painter who doesn’t plan out the entire painting may choose to paint a pattern here, add something there, and keep on doing this until he or she has covered the entire canvas multiple times, resulting in an amalgam of colors and patterns.



Sculpture is generally thought of as a subtractive process. You start with a block of granite, marble, or stone, and you chip away at it. You start with a general shape, then gradually get into the fine details. Some types of sculptures, however, are built from the ground up using an additive process. Ceramic works are shaped by hand, adding clay and molding them; the same is true with handmade pots and other dishware. Paper crafts and abstract sculpture are also generally made using additive processes, starting with a small piece of material and adding to it in different shapes and with different materials.

There are just the basics of additive art, but hopefully you’ll know where to go from here. As with any art form, there is a lot left to learn, so keep learning!

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