Six Time-Honored Rules Every Artist Can Ignore

Tony Curanaj
Celebrate, 2017, oil on canvas

You’re the Best Teacher
and the Best Student you’ll Ever Have.


Ah, art school.

A place that a group of young painters dreamed would spark creativity and imagination.

An environment that would nurture self-expression without limit.

The last place anyone expected to find a bunch of dull, outmoded rules.

But there they were, waiting for us. With cobwebs on them.

Many of us chafed at the rigidity of our artistic training. Sure, some things work, some don’t, but few things work all the time.

And when it was over, the impossible happened: The world’s worst student fell in love with teaching.

Which, I discovered, isn’t burying students in facts, knowledge, or “constructive” criticism.

When does criticism ever sound constructive?

Teaching is the transmission of powerful ideas. It comes from the heart more than the intellect. Otherwise, nobody’s listening.

The standout instructors, the ones with packed classes and waiting lists, didn’t just critique. They kept our curiosity up and our adrenaline pumping, long after we struck out on our own.

Get the hell outta here and start learning,
one of them liked to say.

So with all that in mind, I’ve given these time-honored artists’ rules the boot, urging anyone serious about learning painting to do the same.

Rule #1.
You Have to Get it Right the First Time

A gallant approach that happens to be pure nonsense.

Editing a work of art is an art in itself.

Every art form relies on editing to bring a piece toward finish and then to perfection. So why do painters have to get anything right the first time?

Once mastered, editing is a blast. Because it makes you feel invincible.

Editing a Work of Art
is an Art in Itself


The downside…

Until you master it, reworking feels like you’re losing ground.

You made a mistake.

You screwed up, again. You should have quit while you were ahead.

Maybe you shouldn’t be doing this. You don’t have much talent after all. Your sister has all the talent. Your parents always loved her more than you. That’s because you’re unlovable. You knew you’d never amount to anything and now it’s official.

OK, clearly spinning out of control here, but this is the kind of madness that can follow a minor setback in your art. I’ve actually heard such rants in my classes. They frighten me.

Rule #2.
Always Paint From Dark to Light

An academy staple that puts technique ahead of both observation and feeling.

And it’s so formulaic. We’re creating a work of art here, not baking a Bundt cake.

Six Rules Every Artist Should Ignore–Blog Post by Christopher Gallego

Christopher Gallego
Shirt and Door
Oil on Canvas, 29 x 21 in. Private Collection

Start however you want, wherever you want. Don’t over-analyze. Get out of your head and dive right in.

Learn how to handle gobs of paint. Keep your drawing skills up too. Drawing is the finesse; paint volume is the punch. Yin and yang.

Connect deeply with your subject, hesitate a few seconds, then respond with whatever’s appropriate. This will give your work more energy and truth than any procedure.


Rule #3.
You Have to Look at Art in the Flesh. You Can’t Look at Art Online.

Actually, you can.

Funny thing though about the words you can’t. Seems every great advance in human history was made by crazy people who ignored them…

You can’t cross the Atlantic,
You can’t build a flying machine,
You can’t fit a computer in your pocket…

Yes, there are inherent distortions in the digital image or any photographic image.

And yes, first-hand contact with a painted masterpiece housed in an architectural masterpiece is an experience that every artist should have.

But so what?
How are digital images harmful?

Why not enjoy the privilege of viewing any work of art you like, free from the crowds, noise, admission fees, aching feet, and grumpy guards that lessen the experience?

Take your iPad outside, pour a glass of wine, and it’s a no-brainer.

Rule #4.
You Have to Work Like Mad to Become a Great Painter

Must is the overbearing cousin of Can’t.

Overwork creates stress. Stress causes anxiety.

Anxiety leads to fear, fear leads to caution, caution leads to paralysis. To the point where your main goal becomes not screwing up.

Does this sound like creativity to you?

A steady, moderate work routine is way more effective than workaholism. Healthier, too. Those small, frequent breakthroughs really add up, leading to more breakthroughs. Overworking invites obsessiveness, fatigue, and boredom.

Rule #5.
Never Use Black

Why then, do they make it?

Black mixed with white and a touch of warmth is the ultimate neutralizer. If you know how and when to use it the effects can be gorgeous.

Think of those silvery neutral tones as a pause, or a moment of silence.



Nice, isn’t it?


Giving the eye a break is more effective than saturating it. Same goes for balancing details with empty space, another form of visual silence.

And lastly, the granddaddy of them all,

Rule #6.
Quit While You’re Ahead

This one has made countless artists paint like they’re inching toward the edge of a cliff.

Your art is a reflection of you. That includes your skills and your feelings. It’s not like a meal that can be overcooked, not if you’re using oils anyway.

Quit while you’re ahead stems from the insane notion that a great work of art is some fortunate accident that can’t be repeated. Or that a few wrong moves will be the death of the piece.

Either way, the approach is disempowering.

It’s perfectly OK to overwork a piece, so long as you know how to reverse it. You can always freshen up a painting with, well, fresh paint. Or remove any weak elements from the composition.

There’s no perfect moment to quit, so don’t agonize over it. Instead, become a whiz at moving forward, backward, then forward again, and watch your confidence soar.

Si Time-Honored Rules Every Artist Should Ignore: Blog Post by Christopher Gallego

Mary Jo O’Gara
Beets Leaning, oil on canvas

A Little Secret, Ray,
Muscle Memory Sucks*

Rules aren't meant to be broken. They're meant to be challenged whenever a better solution arises.

Granted, a simple, easy-to-grasp method is a great starting point for beginners. But don't get trapped in a box.

With a little repetition, that handy technique that serves you now can become a stubborn, growth-killing habit.

Muscle memory is funny that way. On the one hand, it can be your best friend in the world. On the other, it can turn on you and put the kibosh on your learning anything new.

Learning a language, for example, is hard. Losing an accent is practically impossible. Unlearning is infinitely harder than learning so be careful what you learn. And don't get attached to any of it.

Complacency is an Evil

~ Raymond Charles Barker


Forget your failures; paint over them, trash them, use them as serving trays or frisbees.

Or give them to people you don't like, whatever.

Just get them out of your studio, out of your consciousness, and take on new challenges.

Simply put, you're the best teacher and the best student you'll ever have, even if you've had great ones. Have a little fun with both roles.

* Classic line from 1988 film Rain Man: K-Mart Sucks


22 thoughts on “Six Time-Honored Rules Every Artist Can Ignore

  1. You said above: “Start wherever you want, however you want. Don’t over-analyze. Get out of your head and dive right in.”
    Doris Lessing said the same about reading. Open a book anywhere, skip the boring bits, read the end before you start…read a book any way you want…just read.
    Thank you, Chris, for your provocative philosophy.

  2. Brilliant, as always Chris!
    Great ideas to employ to continue to expand ones parameters.
    You have a succinct way of expressing prfound ideas which can benefit artists at all levels of their development.

  3. Thank you so much Chris! Such great points to remember. Like Mary Jo, I feel like you wrote this just for me! It’s so inspirational. Also, I really love the work of the artists you’ve included. The pieces are just beautiful.

  4. Chris, I almost want to weep this is so freakishly on point and relevant for so many artists today. I am definitely sharing this wisdom with my students. All the best!

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