Are There Rules in Art?

Philip Koch, Inland, oil on canvas, 45 x 60", 2008, George Billis Gallery, New York

Are there rules in art? The short answer: yes.

I grew up in the northern woods along the shore of Lake Ontario. It was gorgeous. It looked a lot like my painting above. As a setting for a childhood it was amazingly vivid. Almost all my paintings today echo my memories of those days.

When I was a kid we played outside in all kinds of weather every day. Some of the games were competitive, and with them I noticed an odd pattern. Even though we were just playing, agreeing ahead of time what rules we would follow ended up being a lot more fun. Having some rules curiously heightened the drama.

Imagine a baseball game where one team got three tries at bat and their opponents could swing away as long as they liked. It would be pretty dull.

There is by now a well known story of how modernism swept through the art world in Europe. Painters like Manet started borrowing the unorthodox compositions of Japanese prints. The Impressionists  broke with centuries of tradition by radically lightening up their palettes and doing most of their work in oil out of doors. Many of the innovations worked pretty well, inspiring artists of the next generation to scratch around for other ways to do things differently. 

Ironically, this notion of innovation's primacy became almost enshrined. In many corners of the art world the new rule was that if you were going to do important art, you'd better break some rules. 

Painting is like that. You break rules if they don't bring you closer to expressing whatever inner vision you're after. But you can't endlessly change the rules midstream. It leads to art that goes in all directions at once.

Poorly chosen rules or mindlessly followed rules will get you into trouble. But a wisely chosen rule to follow can act like a compass, guiding you through the conflicting emotions and accidents that attend making a painting.

Here's my painting After the Storm III, oil on canvas, 45 x 90" from back in 1986. It was done entirely from memory and imagination. One of the things I love about the world is how big it is- sometimes you can look out into almost limitless distances. I knew I wanted that.

One rule I decided on early was that all my moves had to make the space flow without interruption from close to far away. For example, I made the water's surface a different color in each of the various distances from front to back. It's an invitation to the viewer to enjoy exploring the spaces.

Another key idea I had was that I needed to coax the maximum expression out of one of the painting's major flat shapes. Actually I consciously modeled the silhouette of the big sand dune on my memories of the shape of the Canadian Geese I used to watch flying on their seasonal migrations over Lake Ontario. The image of them flying in formation to unseen destinations had always seemed a piece of magic to me as a boy. 

In the painting I've made another rule- only put the most dramatic darks in the places that I felt most expressive. So the dark cool blue blacks are clustered along the top edge of my giant goose-like sand dune. The marsh grasses in the foreground have had their shadows lightened up and changed to a warm orange color. My dune's silhouette had to be the main focus, so my rule was to banish high contrast from most other places in the painting.

Making art, just like making one's life, is a precarious balancing act. Like the tightrope walker, artists thread their way between paired dangers: falling off the wire on one side by overly shackling themselves to tradition or tumbling off the other way in a swarm of confused and conflicting goals. In reality there's no way I'd try balancing on a high wire. But having painted a few thousand paintings, I think I know the feeling our steady circus performers have to master. 


  1. Oh this is so true. Even within a given set of rules the possibilities are limitless. Without rules it IS chaos. We certainly must set our own when none are given.
    A couple beautiful paintings here in this post.

    Keep painting...


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