The Beauty of Rules

October 17, 2017

Brandon Long
Creative Director, Community Arts Center

So many people outside of the creative industry (AKA Art) – have the belief that artists just go around breaking the rules all the time.  They see us as wild rebels – that we are bound by no restrictions.  As artists, I think that we often do our best to live up to that image because it’s how we like to be seen, creating art with reckless abandon.  It’s cool to break the rules.  I hate to tell those that see us in that light that it’s all an illusion.

While it might not seem like much fun, the best (and often most creative) art is art that is bound by rules.  Not rules of thirds (photographers love that one), not rules of color theory (although it comes in handy), not rules of linear perspective, or anatomy, or any of those kinds of rules.  The rules I am talking about are self-imposed rules.  These are rules that the artists decide to follow for themselves, as a means to fully exploit their creative nature.  If you look at some of the most innovative art throughout art history, you will find artists that are adhering to very restrictive, self-imposed rules. 

Think Picasso inventing cubism – he was so bound by his own rules that his work became almost unintelligible as he tried to show his subjects from every possible angle. Think Piet Mondrian, one of the earliest practitioners of pure abstraction.  His rules of composition were so restrictive that he eventually worked his way toward hard-edged lines and blocks of primary color.  Think Jackson Pollock, dripping and drizzling paint across the huge surfaces of his canvases, working on the floor rather than an easel.  While some may argue that these artists followed their own rules until they (ahem) painted themselves into a corner, I would say that by staying within their own restrictions, they fully explored the ideas that they became known for.

Why would artists create their own rules?  What fun is that?  To fully understand why an artist would restrain themselves rather than freely explore EVERY idea, we have to consider how creative minds work.  Creative people have no shortage of ideas.  While some creative people may lock up under what we know as “writers block,” and claim to have no ideas, I would argue that in many cases, they have too many ideas to commit to a single one.  This flow of ideas, images, concepts, etc., can be a lot to deal with.  Most creative people have more ideas than they have time to commit to execute those ideas. 

Imagine the creative mind as an ocean – chock full of fish, algae, coral reefs, sunken ships, giant squid, sharks, and so on.  It can be a lot to take in. Without rules to focus the creative mind, anything is possible.  ANYTHING and EVERYTHING.  Sometimes that can be far too much to handle.  By setting rules for themselves, artists can essentially take that unlimited ocean of ideas, and focus it into a much more manageable stream – tapping it like a faucet on a sink.  By settling on a set of rules for yourself, you no longer have the anxiety of staring at the blank canvas or the empty page.  You know exactly what you need to be doing because it’s all spelled out for you.  If you are following your own rulebook, many of the hard decisions have already been made.

What kinds of rules should you impose on yourself?  There are all kinds of rules you can follow, and really it’s all up to you, but here are a few to get you started:

Materials:  A very basic rule.  You will only use the materials you have established in your rules. This can be the media you work with, the way it is applied, and surface material.

Size:  All of the work will be created on the same sized surface.

Colors:  Restricting your palette can yield some very interesting results AND save money at the art store.

Subject Matter:  Focus on a single subject matter until you get it right.  Monet painted those haystacks so many times, he had to have been getting something out of it.

Time:  Give yourself only so much time to complete the work.  Knowing that you must finish it within a certain time limit will cut out a lot of the time you might spend deliberating or doubting yourself.

Production Schedule:  Challenge yourself to make an artwork a day, a week, etc.                                

It is important to note that these rules are self-imposed.  You don’t really even have to write them down, and if you absolutely feel the need, you can break them which might lead down another interesting path.  Also, keep in mind that not every idea you are pursuing is going to be immediately interesting.  Sometimes, it can take quite a while of exploring a concept or idea before you begin to see what makes it have a lot of depth. 

Some of the ideas that I mentioned earlier weren’t necessarily groundbreaking to start with, but the artists fully mined them until they were rewarded.  For example: Picasso asked, “What if I showed this subject from several angles?”  Mondrian asked, “What if I made this simpler?”  And Jackson Pollock asked, “What if I dripped this paint instead of using a brush?”  Although they might not have used those exact words, those were some of the basic premises that resulted in some of modern art’s most innovative works.  If these artists hadn’t stuck with their rules, they wouldn’t have explored these ideas to the extremes.  By filtering their exploration through their own rules, they made work that was unmistakably unique.

So, next time you find yourself in a rut or questioning what makes your work stand out from everyone else’s, try creating your own rules and working within their framework.  You might be surprised at how freeing rules can be.