The Rules of Art

I am a stickler for rules. Just ask the grandkids. If they won’t follow the rules in the games we play… well, grandma won’t play. Now, this might seem like an odd position for a creative individual to take. Rules are stifling, right? Rules are the antithesis of creativity, right? Rules thwart our creative abilities, stick us into uncomfortable boxes, and deny us the ability to truly express ourselves. Right?

Yes. No. Maybe. It depends.

I start from the premise that rules are necessary in most of the things we do in life. I’ve always been very athletic. I’ve always participated in a lot of sports activities. I’ve always been highly competitive. Rules have, therefore, been important to ensure that everyone is on the same playing field, so to speak. You know… all those old sayings that cheaters never win and that winners never cheat? Plain and simple, when it comes to sports at least, not playing by the rules makes one a cheater.

Of course, sports is not necessarily considered a creative practice, not in the same way as the various arts such as music, dancing, writing, and all of the visual arts. Here we find a different attitude toward rules, a feeling that rules are bad. Breaking a rule in art or music doesn’t make one a cheater; it makes one brilliant according to conventional wisdom. Instead of adages about cheating, we hear advice about stepping out of “the box”, getting away from our “comfort zones” and daring to challenge the status quo.

So we seem to think that breaking rules is a good thing in art. We hear people muttering nasty things about conformity and following the crowd. We want to stand out. We want to be different. We want to be unique.

Speaking of which, don’t you just love that meme that reminds us: You are unique… just like everyone else. True, indeed.

When I began learning to draw, and later when I began learning oil painting, what I wanted most was to be like other artists, to be good enough to even be considered as an artist, to be accepted into this colorful world of visual artistry. Being different or standing out in some way was the last thing I wanted. Even now, six years later, I’m probably much more interested in conformity than individuality. I have learned that all-important lesson about being myself in my art, understanding how we each have our own marks to make, our own personal style, and I’m content to not stray too far from the crowd of conventional art.

I’m thinking here about the quote attributed to Pablo Picasso. Learn the rules like a pro so you can break them like an artist.

 Did Picasso ever actually say those words? I don’t know, and it doesn’t matter really. The same thought has been expressed countless times. It’s a way of saying that (1) rules exist, (2) rules can be helpful, and (3) sometimes we’re right to do away with rules.

With writing — the art form I’m most familiar with — there are definitely rules. Languages have grammatical rules to follow. Spelling is standardized (for the most part, at least). Publishers have rules for formatting manuscripts, as well as rules for specific genre content. If you want to be a successful author, you learn to respect the rules, which means, as often as not, following them. You learn, too, that sometimes there are reasons to break a rule, and if your reason is valid you stand up for what you’ve written, discuss it with your editor, and come to an agreement. Rules can be bent and broken.

But let’s get back to art. As I pondered this whole question of art and rules, I found myself on very uncertain ground. What are the rules of art? I thought back to some of the basics I’ve learned and could only come up with a few hard-and-fast rules: Warm colors advance; cool colors recede. Compositions are stronger with an odd number of elements. The sky is lighter near the horizon. The eyes are placed half way between the top of the head and the bottom of the chin. A good painting needs a strong focal point.

Sort of a mish-mash, don’t you think? A bit of this, a little advice on that. Good guidelines to follow, for sure, but are these really rules? Are there, in fact, any rules to this game we call art? I was off on a search to see what I could find.

The results? The rules of art, such as they arepertain to a few essentials: composition, perspective, values. These rules of art are closely related to design principles, so I feel I’ve been building a solid foundation through my studies of design.

I found this information interesting:

In every artistic discipline, knowledge of and respect for the core tenets of one’s subject are instilled from the earliest levels and are continually used as a foundation for building to more advanced levels of mastery. – Basic Rules to Create Great Art

Reading on, I came across these thoughts:

…as you advance in your craft, you see that each artist has his or her own interpretation of the principles; this is what allows each artwork and each artist to be different from another.

Aha! It’s not really a question of following the rules or not. It’s more a matter of how we choose to interpret them, how we understand the principles we’re putting into practice. To some degree, it has to do with priorities, I think, which goes directly to self-expression. Sometimes different elements in art might contradict each other. As the artist, we choose which to express.

Maybe “The Rules of Art” exist only in imaginary worlds, such as that of Spongebob Squarepants and Squidward Tentacles. In an episode titled “Artist Unknown“, Squidward lectures SpongeBob about following every rule in the book to know how to properly do art. However, Squidward’s words cause SpongeBob to leave in tears.

There is, perhaps, a sense that true artists don’t need rules, that rules get in the way, block us from expressing what’s truly in our hearts, and that if we really want to pursue art we need to throw out any rules and do whatever feels right. How many times have instructors encouraged us with the words, “Anything goes!” or “There are no mistakes”… ?

Are there rules in art? If so, should we follow them? Is it all right to break them? Is it really a question of how we interpret them? Or should we just toss out Squidward’s book and do our own thing?

As I continued searching for answers, I came across this discussion from the IDEA Society:

Are There Rules in Art?

It begins by pointing out the role of science:

How useful are rules in art? If it were a science, there would be fixed laws, as in physics and mathematics. If not, is it possible to set rules? Leonardo da Vinci says yes: “Truly this is science, the legitimate daughter of nature, because painting is born of (that) nature.”

This is the heart of the matter, I think, because the simple fact is that art and science are not two separate things, especially for landscape artists. There are scientific principles in play, and if I break the rules about lights and shadow, or atmospheric perspective, my art will suffer for it. It might be unique. It would definitely be different. But would it be successful? I don’t think so.

But then again, we have those fauvists with their wildly-colored canvases, so far from anything that truly exists. we have primitive artists who overlook or ignore the principles of perspective. We have surrealists who create worlds where scientific laws — rules — don’t exist. All of these, of course, are art, so here we go again.

Much depends, obviously, on what media we work with, our subject, our style, our personal thoughts about art. I know that I need rules to follow because I’m still at a developmental stage, still working to learn art and improve my abilities. I need to learn all I can about the scientific elements of landscape art. I need to know about those warm and cool colors, about lights and shadows. But that’s me.

Maybe you don’t need the rules anymore. And that’s all right. Art isn’t a competitive sport, and we each create our own playing field. We can discuss ad infinitum how art is judged, scored, and awarded accolades. In the end, though, I’m not sure any of it has anything to do with rules and how closely they were followed.

What do YOU think? Are there any real rules in art?


  1. These are really great points to think about.. I also stick to rules as a teacher. And those points you explained that sometimes, like in art, breaking the rules is actually good because it makes one think outside the box. But rules are needed to make sure we play fairly.🥰

    This tickled my mind. Love it!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Yep. There are rules, and then there are rules. Sometimes we need them; sometimes maybe not. With art, I think it is more about basic principles and how we interpret them. At the same time, there are those “scientific” rules that aren’t really open to interpretation. Lots to think about, really.

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  2. I think the word “rule” is the problem for me. Often, in art, I think what is called a rule might better be called a principal. Or maybe someone more adept with language could find an even better word. For example, light is necessary to define a subject, or our eyes are drawn to off-center are less rules than observation of how we humans process information. Turning those into guidelines for making art creates what we call rules, but, like the “rule” of gravity the word hits me wrong.

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    1. Words can be very important, so sometimes we need to choose ones that work best for us. “Rules” can sound harsh when applied to art, so I do like to think of guidelines and fundamental principles of design and composition. Creativity often takes precedence over all the rest of it, though, don’t you think?

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  3. I am so glad you wrote this. I think about rules a lot. I have no problem with them as I make up my own. I observe what I have done that I like and then I make up a rule that is essentially, do more of that! My rules are mostly just codified constraints, like, use this medium, use this size paper, only use 4 colors or something like that. Its fine if I break my own rules but mostly I don’t because I find them so helpful.

    With my sidewalk faces it’s a bit harder to articulate them. The rules are: make it simple, use only the stuff nearby, have a recognizable emotion, make it different then anything I have done before.

    Just like with any game, you can’t know you are winning without rules. The rules are there to mark progress, to make comparisons. The important thing is to use them to your own benefit rather than feel inhibited by them.


    1. I love your thoughts! Thank you so much for sharing, and yes, you’ve brought up an important aspect of “rules” that I overlooked — the rules we set for ourselves. Like you, I make up my own rules (I really need rules to follow as I’m learning). I don’t know that I think of them so much as “rules” to be followed at all times, but for me maybe those “rules” are more like “instructions” for a particular painting, like the “rules” I learned from John Carlson’s Landscape Guide… such as “the sky is always the lightest value” and on and on. Of course, with art, we can start with any rule, look around, and find dozens of artworks that break the rule. I really like your thoughts, too, about knowing if we’re winning. Yes, rules can mark our progress. As you’ve said, we can use rules to our benefit. Definitely true. My rules might be different from yours or anyone else’s, and some people are happiest with the “no rules” rule — hmmm, a contradiction there! But if rules help us, they’re good. If they’re not helping, maybe then it’s time to revise the rules a bit, make new ones, or toss them out altogether. I’m not at that point yet, so I’ll keep looking for, using, and making up my own personal “rules of art.” Thanks again for commenting!

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      1. Exactly! I love cooking, and I often write “recipes” for my art, too. Then, just like in cooking, I make various “adjustments”. I think it’s always helpful to relate to things we know and love, so cooking analogies often come to mind for me. And definitely yes on doubling the amount of garlic!

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    1. Yep… rules, guidelines, instructions, directions… do we have them in art? Do we make them up for ourselves? Do we need them? I’ve had fun exploring the questions.

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