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…


  1. Grunesschwein says

    I agree with your sentiment, however, you are glossing over that Van Dyke was actually following the rules. While yes, he is contrasting her blue gown with the sunset orange background, her gown is chromatically much more intense than the “vivid” subtle low-chroma oranges of the background. You were the first one to teach me that color is not only hue, but also value and chroma. He was following a rule, and also perhaps the truth.

    • Hoisted by my own petard, a former student. I agree, I am indeed glossing over many things, but for now I just wanted to make the important point that strict adherence to any rule can be stifling in numerous ways. Far more information will be forthcoming in future blogs.

  2. I am studying art after a training and career as scientist….so I know all too well what rules are about and how important it is to understand the REASON behind the rule, not the rule itself. I wonder why current art training does not include treatment of the way human vision works and how our brain interpret the visual world, both in reality and on canvas. I think that alone could bring art to the next level of evolution – as was the study of anatomy or perspective in the Renaissance.
    However, I think one of my instructors made the point very simply: first learn the rule, so that you can learn how to break it. He also taught me that rules overlap and contradict each other, so you have to judge each situation individually. In the VanDyke portrait here posted, I believe it is the light-shadow contrast in the dress that brings it forward in our perception. Elements of greater contrast always appear nearer – another rule!

    • Thanks for your thoughtful reply. Actually, some current art training does address the workings of human vision, mine! Understanding the relationship between how we see and how our brain interprets what we see is tantamount. I’ll have to respectfully disagree with your instructor, that first we must learn the rules. We must learn the truths. Truths never overlap; they establish a context. Many students come to me with deeply embedded rules that can take years to expel. When people ask if it’s appropriate to study with me because they have little to no experience, I tell them that they may actually be better off. I’ll be addressing the mindset behind this painting by Van Dyke in a future post.

  3. Another nugget of wisdom! I too firmly believe there are NO “must nots” in art, only “must try”.
    (Have I mentioned I’m so glad you’re doing this? ;o) )

  4. Love your blog and your work, Marvin, and that’s a great Van Dyck! Legend has it that Thomas Gainsborough, more than a century later, specifically painted “Blue Boy” to challenge the rule put forward by his rival Sir Joshua Reynolds: “The masses of light in a picture [must] be always of a warm, mellow color, yellow, red, or a yellowish-white, and that the blue, the gray, or the green colors, be kept almost entirely out of these masses.”

    • Hi James, Thanks for your kind words and the anecdote. The fact that Gainsborough threw it up into the face of Reynolds gives me newfound respect for him. That’s kind of what I want to accomplish here. It’s kind of ironic that “Blue Boy” turns out to be his greatest artistic triumph. What greater motivation than to “stick it to the man!” LOL
      I’m a daily follower of your blog and I’ve always been a big fan. I’m not sure if you remember, but we met at the Society of Illustrators many years ago–maybe we were judging a competition?–and you did a beautiful portrait drawing of me (who’s not so beautiful). It means a great deal that you like my blog. The initial response has been very encouraging and I’m having a ball. Thanks again.

  5. I notice the modern composition “rule” of not allowing a line to bisect or divide a canvas corner is also “broken” here, although I suspect many such “rules” would seem strange to pre-20th century painters, the difference being that they employed higher principles and metatechne from which art was a deductive process, something more akin to philosophy or theology than a scientific inductive process and rules. The whole system has now fallen from its lofty position and shattered into tiny fragments called “rules” (although “tips” would be a more accurate description) that lack coherence and hierarchy.

    • Thank you Tom,very insightful and very well put. Every one bemoans the fact todays painters are lacking that special something when compared to great masters, like Van Dyke. The big difference, as I see it, is the lack of unity. Every aspect of the painting  needs to support the central theme. I call it “Sacrificing Virgins to the Volcano God.” I think you’ve touched on something very important here. Rather than establishing a hierarchy, decisions are made based on adherence to rules. Decision making become too piecemeal, and so does the work. Every aspect of a painting needs to support the central theme. Van Dyke did what was needed, no more, no less.

      I do prefer the terminology of “rule” to “tip” because “tip” implies more of a friendly suggestion and lacks the dogmatic inference. 

      Marvin Mattelson: Portrait Artist

  6. “Every aspect of a painting needs to support the central theme.”
    Careful Marvin, that sounds a little like another rule. 🙂

    I love that list of axioms quoted in the main text above. I have heard them so many times and they are often cited with a kind of religious fervor which I find frustrating. I enjoyed reading your blog.

    • Thanks Ron, I appreciate your kind words.

      “Every aspect of a painting needs to support the central theme” is a truth, unless of course, you want to be a ‘edgy’ painter.

  7. This painting looks like a Sargent in how she’s got the extra wrap held on with a brooch, and there is a column behind her.

    I have to say that the red curtain protrudes from the painting a little, and I would have asked Van Dyke to tone it down to a burgundy.

    • Thanks for your comments Patricia. I think if there’s a jump-ball about attribution the possession arrow points to Van Dyke. I think the image is a little over-saturated compared to the actual painting, but if I happen to speak to Mr. Van Dyke I’d be happy to share your suggestion.

  8. I’m curious to find out what blog platform you happen to be utilizing? I’m having some small security problems with my latest website and I would like to find something more safe. Do you have any suggestions?

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