Break Rules (Principle 5/7)

Use the largest brush possible for the area you are painting. Keep colors muted. Block in your work. Work from general to particular. Work the whole surface. Don’t use glazes. Paint wet into wet. Paint from life. Soft edges. Lost and found edges. These are just a sample of rules regarding technique; I don’t even want to get into those having to do with what to paint: that changes with the seasons.

Realist painting is especially rife with rules that go straight back to the old European academies. They invented the them to help teach students, but cast in stone and enforced with a jealous fury, their dogma led to the ruin of both the rules and the academies themselves as evidenced by the vapid, overproduced work of the later19th Century and the subsequent explosions in the 20th Century. However, every era and ism has its own set of dogmas which are ripe for challenging.

I like rules because they helped me to find my way and provided a way to mark my progress. I also think that learning traditional drawing and painting gave me the confidence to paint anything with a large arsenal of techniques that keeps things interesting.

Visual art has probably always seemed confusing to painters in any given period, but we are in an era of unprecedented freedom which really tests one’s judgment. The only rules we have today are the ones we choose to follow. I went through long years of keeping my head down and sticking with what I was taught. I had several instructors with forceful personalities and strong points of view which were hard to ignore. It wasn’t until I moved out of New York and lost my support network that I had a reckoning with who I was and what I could hope to be. I believe that painters should learn all they can about traditional drawing and painting, but they must chart their own course. I’ve seen the work of many artists who studied with prominent masters and they continue to paint much as they were taught. The only difference between them and their instructors is pretty much choice of subject. I don’t think that is enough. Painting is about seeing, imagining and realizing in visual terms. What you paint is important, but the primary concern must be how you paint.

So, what rules have I broken? I rarely block in my work; I have used clashing colors and straight-from-the-tube colors; brushes that were the “wrong” size; chucked “natural appearances” out the window; employed glazing (not wet-into-wet); bolted layers on panels with real bolts. Fortunately, I have not done these all at once, but selectively, when needed. I am not claiming a ground breaking assault on the foundations of art, but for me these were significant accomplishments. It feels really good to go beyond what you have been taught and work from what you know, from what you think can be done better than what you had done before.

If one holds too tightly to rules they become (bad) habits and lead inevitably to stagnation. You will find yourself painting to conform to what you have been taught rather than seeking new paths. Rules are meant to be broken; that is how we grow as individuals and how the arts stay vital. When you break rules you may end up changing them. That is a goal to aim for. But how far does one go? When you give something up what do you gain? What will your temperament allow? These are questions that are worth answering.


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