The Law of Gravity is Not a Rule, True Story!

How many times have you heard the expression, “Great artists know how to break the rules”? What exactly does this tell us? If rules are so significant, then obviously, breaking them should lead to disastrous results. However, when analyzing the work of great master painters, like Anthony Van Dyke (above), we can see that breaking the so-called rules had the opposite effect. Portrait Artist Anthony Van Dyke created a masterpiece.

It seems to defy all logic that one could break rules and not crash and burn. This is because in a civilization, such as ours, rules keep us from turning into an anarchistic society. If we didn’t have them, people would be killing, drinking and driving, jaywalking, and stealing left and right. Why isn’t this the case with regards to painting? The answer is very simple. The whole point of rules is to mandate the correct way to act. The fact that we are expected to follow rules implies we’re too stupid to make proper judgments on our own. Rules have been put in place to keep the un-smart people in line, but this can sometimes be problematic.

At intersections the rule is: always cross when the light is green, never when the light is red. The truth is: don’t walk in front of a moving car. When the signal turns green you have the right-of-way. What if, as you’re crossing the street, a car driven by a teen (texting their BFF), comes barreling down the road, right at you, and see’s neither the red light nor you…Splat! Hey, you had the right of way; you followed the rules! But unfortunately, as a result of following the rule, you are presently meeting your maker.

A rule, by definition, is “a principal or regulation governing conduct.” Rules are created for people who don’t have the capacity for reason. Truths, on the other hand, are “verified or un-disputable facts.” For example, the truth about gravity, is simple: things fall down (not up)! Unfortunately, those of us who aspire to live the life of artists haven’t been properly conditioned by society to think objectively consider the situation at hand and respond appropriately. This kind of training, I believe, should be the top priority of art education. Michelangelo said,” A man paints with his brain and not with his hands.”

Being an artist is about experiencing flow, not about regimentation. When I’m painting, I’m responding to the situation at hand and allowing the best solution to reveal itself, moment by moment. A truly trained artist is highly capable of making the appropriate decision at the appropriate time. This is the essence of creative problem-solving. There is a saying,” Give a man a fish and he won’t starve for a day. Teach a man how to fish and he won’t starve for his entire life.” We  teachers must nourish our students by giving them the tools necessary to allow them to think as artists. I have spent my entire artistic career trying to understand why the old masters did what they did, not trying to ape the style of artists long gone, or even worse, trying to force others to do it.

The result of learning rules, in lieu of truths, is dogmatic thinking. If students are not being taught how to think, but instead are being told what specifically to do in a given situation, they have very little chance of evolving. Students come up to me all the time and proclaim that they’d alway been told: “never use black,” or “always use the compliment to grey colors,” or “always use blue in shadows,” or “always hold the brush this way!” or “always paint a portrait against a dark background,” or “Don’t overwork a painting,” or “never touch a brush stroke once it’s on the canvas,” or “don’t ever put detail in a painting,” or “never use more than three colors in a mixture,” or “allegorical painting is more significant.” These are but a few of the myriad of rules we’ve all had shoved up the old wazoo. In the case of the Anthony van Dyke’s Lady Lucy Percy (see above), the oft cited  rules that “warm colors come forward, cool colors recede” and “intense colors comes forward, grayed down colors recede,” have obviously been tossed out the window.

Rigid adherence to rules turns us into automatons and, even worse, make us totally dogmatic with regards to judging all else. When we are led to believe that the principles we have been spoon fed are indisputable, how can we avoid casting a blind eye to all else? It saddens me when an artist’s work displays little or no evidence of their own hand. I worry that the realistic movement of today will share the same sad fate of 100 years ago.

To make matters even worse, those doing the professing believe their rules are really truths.

We don’t need to be told what specific action to take. We need to understand what effect our actions will have. Ultimately the choices we make in art, as in life, are what define us. We need to nurture our ability to make our own decisions and express our own individual points of view. Until next time…