Six Time-Honored Rules Every Artist Should Ignore
April 20, 2018 22 Comments
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, 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.
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
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.
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.
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 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.
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 pleasure of viewing any masterpiece in the world, 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.
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 artistic 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 fatigue, obsessiveness, and depression.
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.
the granddaddy of them all…
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 overdone, 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.
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, the process 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. Or it can turn on you and put the kibosh on 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.
Thanks for confirming what I kinda figured out myself over the years. Brilliant advice to keep and share
Thank You, Annelies!
I always find your blog super inspirational. Thanks for the share.
Thanks so much!!
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.
Thank You, Jill, for your comments, and for this advice on reading. Very valuable! Many parallels between art and literature, wouldn’t you say?
Thank You, Lynn, space is a beautiful thing.
Oh so refreshing to read. Your article creates a lot of space Chris.
Thanks, Dean! Hope your workshop was a success , and good luck with ALG. Teach him something.
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.
Great points to remember Chris – I’m printing them up and putting it on the studio wall!
Thanks, and looking forward to seeing your work again, Grace.
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.
Loved Reading This!! Printing out excerpts to put up in the studio!! brilliant!!!
I agree and enjoyed all of these points: and this moment, I like #6 the best! Like a joust. Go forward , retreat, change it up, be open to the mystery.
Thank you, Chris! It feels like you wrote this just for me! EVERY word resonates – I will for sure be sharing this with my students! Great message.
It’s beautiful work, thanks so much for sharing it. Just updated the FB post.
Great read Chris.. !
Beautiful work, Tony. Thanks!
Great read Chris.. great points
I continue to appreciate your insights; especially as I head into a day of teaching and not working on my own art, this really resonates.
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!