The soul grows by subtraction, not addition.

— Thoreau

The rare exception, I painted Beer Bottle alla prima from a photo yesterday. (I usually paint from observation.)

I’m away from my studio, staying, Thoreau-like, in a cabin in Maine, and can’t set up my subject easily.

While still wet, I posted Beer Bottle on a couple of painters’ groups on Facebook.

The painting received a rather stinging comment from someone who posts none of her own work: “How about some cast shadows?”

I advised her that, in reality (in this case, photographic reality), the cast shadow falls behind the bottle, and is invisible to the viewer.

She responded: “Artistic license is an essential part of the process. We can add or subtract as our vision dictates. Shading and shadows add a bit of interest to a rather flat and static composition.”


Unless solicited, the rules for these Facebook groups prohibit criticism; but that’s beside the point.

Should I wish to paint what I see (even in a photo), really, what’s it to her?

And as for the license to “add or subtract as our vision dictates,” unless you’re a photo realist, painting is all about that.

Particularly subtracting, or, as I prefer, extracting.

Subtract is a Middle English word that stems from the Latin subtrahere, meaning to “take away.” We use it in the very same way, as in “subtract your tip from my winnings” or “the soul grows by subtraction.”

Extract, on the other hand, stems from the Latin extrahere, meaning to “pull out.” We also use it to mean just that, as in “the cops extracted a confession from the killer” or “Betty Ford drank vanilla extract when the liquor cabinet was locked.”

You might say, in painting Beer Bottle, I subtracted a few details; but I prefer to say I extracted Beer Bottle from the actual bottle (or more precisely, the photo of the bottle).

And while we’re parsing words, extract isn’t far removed from abstract.

Abstract stems from the Latin abstrahere, meaning to “pull from,” as in “the student abstracted large portions of the research paper” or “the professor is full of abstract ideas.”

Abstract is the mirror image of extract. The only difference is, when you abstract, you pull from; when you extract, you pull out.

You might say Beer Bottle, compared to the actual beer bottle, is a bit abstract. I pulled it from the photo.

Subtract, extract, abstract, whatever: when it comes to advice from my teachers, I’m all ears.

But the random critics be damned.

Above: Beer Bottle. Oil on fiberboard. 8 x 10 inches.