Rules. Can’t Live with Them. Can’t Live without Them.

Right off the bat, do you like the idea of having rules or hate it? Chances are if you hate it, it’s because you didn’t make them. How about rules for art? How does that make you feel? Many people bristle at having rules for their art. They think of art as a place to break rules. But whose rules? I want to make a case for creating your own.

The rules to follow in your art practice are the ones you create to make the process easier and get a good result.

That’s not really accurate but it’s more powerful then saying rules are set in place to make the process less frustrating and guide the result in the direction you are hoping for. The process will always be frustrating, and the result is never guaranteed. But to keep from being paralyzed with indecision about how to begin and anxiety riddled with dread that it will all be futile in the end, a few rules are super handy.

Are you with me? Do you want to make some rules? Great! But hold on. Rules can only be formed from analyzing artwork you’ve made that you like. Not artwork that someone else has made. Artwork you made. We will get to that. First you need some constraints. Constraints might become rules but only if you say so.

You don’t get a rule until you find a constraint you really like. What’s so great about constraints? Let me answer a question with a question. Do you prefer making multiple decisions an hour or just one or none? Say it’s around 5 pm and you’re getting hungry, what do you like most, for your spouse/partner/friend/roommate to say I’m getting us some pizza, sound good? Or inform you they just sent an email with 25 new restaurant options, could you take an hour to peruse them all and decide which one to order from. Maybe if it’s 2 pm on a lazy Saturday the second option could be fun, but not for every meal. It’s too tiring and it steals time from the good part, eating and hanging out.

Same with art. Having all the choices just keeps you from getting too it. Whittling down the choices to the ones you will most enjoy is super helpful. A constraint is a way to make entry into the process as easy as it can possibly be. Let’s assume what we want is to be making some art, how can we go from not making art to making art? Make all the decisions that cause waffling ahead of time so that no decisions need to be made during the fragile transition period from everything else you do to making art.

Let me give you an example of something I have been doing for 4 or 5 years that has almost no decisions attached to the entry point. And because of that I’ve made quite a lot.

I make abstracts. Here are the constraints.

  • 9 inch x 9 inch paper
  • Alcohol based markers
  • Abstraction only, no representational imagery

That’s it! Very very easy to start one up. I just get the paper out, get the markers out and go! The first decision I make is the first mark and I usually make it very fast. It really doesn’t matter too much. That’s not true. It probably matters a lot. But thinking about it and getting worried I will mess it up doesn’t alter the way it matters. It doesn’t contribute to something better. The process works just as well if I deliberate or don’t deliberate. That’s the value of constraints!

So how do constraints become rules? Constraints are physical, material and easy to define. Rules are stylistic, aesthetic and related to what pleases you. They would be harder to convey to another person but intuitive to you. Because you decide. You decide based on what you want. How do you know what you want? From looking deeply at what you have already created and noticing what you want more of and want you want less of. If you look at your work and see that some is neat and some is messy, which part excites you, attracts you? Do more of that and less of the other. The rule would be let it be messy or make it neat. Often it’s the relationship between the two, make it two thirds messy, one third neat. Rules aren’t easy to convey to anyone but yourself because you need a very intimate understanding of what you are doing to make them, and you are most likely the only person with that understanding.

The rule for the two abstracts above was create a pleasing balance between symmetry and chaos. Of all the times I have tried to achieve that, the one on the left is my favorite. The one on the right is not bad but not quite as good to me. I am not going to show you the ones I hate because once I determine I don’t like one, I never want to see it again. I make quite a few of those. Naturally if you are pushing your boundaries, you are bound to fall over them. Failure is also useful for rule formation. The rule is usually a variation on don’t do that again. The trick is to identify what that is. You can’t make it a rule if you don’t analysis it and make it conscious.

Sometimes the rules are use only four colors. Or they revolve around combining a limited set of shapes. Often, it’s a combination of two or more types of rules: Use these colors, use these shapes, make it loose but tidy. The point of the rules is to narrow my focus, so I don’t get overwhelmed. The point is to help me make the one thousand decisions every piece of art demands. The point is to see what happens and lean into the direction that feels good. The point is to make a lot of art. The point is to make some good art. This is how I get there.

9 thoughts on “Rules. Can’t Live with Them. Can’t Live without Them.

  1. While I like all of them, I like the first three using five colors the most. Well actually two use five colors the one with the avocados only uses four……While I miss the green, I do like it a lot.

    I also like the one with the red Es more than the more Chaotic one, which is NOT soothing to the eye or brain.


    1. Thank you Mom! I love love LOVE your candor and specifity. You have been a super champion of my art work forever. I completely agree with your assessment. Usually I don’t make tryptics but I love the one I show here. The theme and variation is the rule of the trypic. Don’t repeat but make it work with the others.


  2. One of the big questions. It’s really cool that you want to address it, because there are some things we might not want to examine too closely just in case the ‘magic’ dies.

    I think rules are good, though I wouldn’t always think of them as rules or constraints so much as guidelines, touchstones, tests.

    Guidelines like: try not to repeat yourself (unless you can really improve on something), if you don’t know where to start, just make a mark, dammit. if you are loosing concentration, come back later. Can you turn your idea on its head to make it more interesting? Ooh there are many guidelines.

    Touchstones are very personal and hard to define to other people. Knowing you are making something that feels like your work – not someone else’s – might depend on whether you have already figured out what it is that is truly ‘you’. That could take years, decades. Touchstones for me can be things like losing track of time completely, or being unable to say how an idea or solution came about. I love those the best.

    Tests mostly come at the end: do I believe in what I’m making? Because If I don’t, nobody else will. Have I come to the end point or am I still missing something? Can I leave something out or take elements away and thereby gain clarity?

    Thanks so much for what you are writing on this blog. It’s intriguing to peek into other people’s work processes, and it’s also generous of you to share the mental processes too.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much for this thoughtful and nuanced reply. It’s really heartening to receive. I am challenging myself to become conscious and put into words how creativity works for me. I haven’t really interrogated myself about why I use the word rules rather than something else. I do think of them as rules but maybe more in the sense of rules of thumb, meaning guidelines, which is the term you suggested! That probably is a better term.

      I think the reason rules keeps sticking for me is it’s almost like a game. Rules are the container of the game play and the game is make it good, the rules are telling me what the boundaries are. They aren’t important after the piece is complete. I don’t compare a completed work against the the rules that helped form it. Once it’s done, if I like it, I could care less about the rules one way or other. They are only servants to process. The rules exist in my mind to help me keep making it good. I’ll have to explore that dynamic more.

      Regarding touchstones, I couldn’t agree more that the goal is to make something that feels like your work. I love and agree with everything you wrote.

      Tests, also yes to what you wrote. The evaluation process. I should think about how rules do or don’t play into that.

      Again, I appreciate this comment so much! And I love your art so it’s all the more meaningful!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I love your art too, and it was a fascinating thing to discover the abstract strand of your work, it’s such a separate discipline. And I love what you’re doing with it.
        That analogy about rules being the container for the game play is spot on too.

        Liked by 1 person

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