glitched puppet ♥ illustrator, writer, musician
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Art Rules are Bullshit

If you're an artist, there's no doubt that you've seen little advice blurbs on how to draw or how to shade or color. Or really, on how to do anything else, art-wise. People are always putting little quips out there, telling artists to use this color, no not that one, oh make sure to never draw eyes or mouths or noses or hands this way or that way. All these little "rules".

It's all bullshit. Art rules are bullshit.


There are no rules to art.


None. Not one. There are no things you absolutely should never do, and there are no things you should always do. They don't exist. Art transcends all that.

But that's hard, because people want to read a paragraph or look at a color chart and feel enlightened and like they've gained a decade of improvement via literary or visual osmosis, or because they want to look at a little color tip and feel like they understand color.

And I mean, I get it! I do. I really do. It's always frustrating to be an amateur and feel like the only thing keeping you from being as good as everyone else is a secret that they know and that you do not, and if only you could just learn it, you'd be unlocking your full potential…

But it doesn't work like that! Advice is not meant to be some sort of hard rule. And, look, I can already hear the mental groaning from some professionals out there: "Okay, but there's a lot of advice you really should always follow." And yeah, there are a hell of a lot of "rules" you generally shouldn't break, as they'd detract from whatever message you're trying to communicate. I'm going to get to that, don't worry.


Anyway, it was all spurred on by a post I saw floating around the Tumblrs (from a blog that no longer exists):

Posts like these are Art Advice Fool's Gold. They sound REALLY good to read if you're pretty new to art or color or whatever the advice features! After all, it tells you exactly what to do. Awesome! Instant success. Color woes over.

But I mean, let's just talk about "rule 1".

Ignoring the entire rest of the post which completely ignores that color is relative and there are literally no rules about what colors you should always use together, this is a dud.

Advice like this comes from a place of near-total lack of color theory comprehension. It's one of those things you hear people say all the time. Why? Well, it really can be difficult to shade with black and have the palette still be cohesive. So it's one of those things you tell amateur artists because, generally, they don't have the experience or knowhow to make good use of black yet.


My first year at MICA, I had an oil painting class, and for the first couple sessions, we were only allowed 4 colors: black, white, a cadmium red, and some kind of warm yellow. Yes. Black. The forbidden color. Why? We were learning about values and saturation. Of course, we had the red and yellow so we could still mix colors, but the black and white taught us about saturation and values! This does apply to digital art. It absolutely does.

So, why then? Why is "don't shade with black" such prominent advice? It's mostly in the bit where someone only shades with black, and they don't do any of the in-between mixing. That sort of thing will throw a palette right into the dumpster if you're not careful about it.

So my biggest problem so far with "rule 1" is that it tells you to not ever do a thing, doesn't tell you why, and then moves on. This is the big problem with art advice. A lot of it has a basis in something, but is passed around by people who don't actually understand why they're following the rule or how it came to be. That's no good! The old adage comes to mind, "you need to understand the rules to break the rules," yada yada.

(As an aside, I literally did tell my partner just a few days ago something like, "Don't use that color. That's akin to shading with black, and you didn't do that in the other part of the picture, so the palette isn't unified. You should shade with other colors for a while and then I'll help explain ways to use black and have it look good.")


It's extremely bad form to tell people not to do something in a creative medium without explaining why.

Actually, I'd be adamant not to tell people not to do anything. It's more important to explain the different effects that doing X or doing Y have on the art! You want to impart knowledge about how your artistic decisions affect how others see your vision. You want to give them the tools to communicate what they're trying to do, clearly and concisely. You don't want to give them rules that they don't understand, with exceptions that they can't possibly guess because they don't know why the rule exists in the first place.

It's one thing to tell someone "don't shade with black, ever", and another to go "when you only shade with black, you're going to run into trouble keeping a cohesive palette, you're likely to end up with saturation issues, and the palette probably won't end up pleasing to the eye if you don't pay attention to the rest of the colors, among other things." The former scares artists away from experimenting, and the latter keeps the possibility in artists' minds.

You always want to keep that possibility open. You never want to scare artists away from trying new things. You don't want to shut doors they didn't realize could be left open. Don't do that! I hear lots of stories of art teachers, even, telling kids "never do this, ever." That is not something you should ever be doing as an educator, or as an artist. Encouraging critical thought about art is absolutely key. Why on earth would you end a train of thought before it has a chance to get started? The whole point of art is discovery and learning.


Despite this, I've been given a lot of good advice over the years. But that's what it was - advice. Not rules! Seriously! I've learned from skilled people, I've worked hard to join said skilled people, and it would've taken me a lot longer to get here without the guidance and advice and critique and everything else I've received over the years. But, the best advice was all stuff that explained the why. Always, always explain when you can. Instead of "all this yellow looks bad, don't use that color," try to explain something like "using that much yellow at that intensity and brightness can be overwhelming to the composition, especially if your intended focal point doesn't contrast enough with it. Yellow is a very powerful and attention-grabbing color."

So I mean, there's a lot of useful advice out there. A lot of stuff that helps contextualize why people make the decisions they make. And that's what advice should be doing! It should be helping people make the best decisions for the piece to best communicate what they want to communicate. Art advice should always foster experimentation and innovation. Anything else, and anything less, is a disservice to learning and growing artists.

Please, please don't stifle people by giving them a lot of stuff to unlearn.