One of the interesting trends in the comments on a previous article on the rule of thirds was a reaction not just to that rule specifically, but to “rules” more generally. That got me thinking a bit. What are “rules”? Where do they come from? Is breaking them an act of rebellion; or one of self-destruction?
Why Make an Image?
Before we get to “rules”, specifically, let’s step back and ask a higher-level question: what are we trying to accomplish as artists when we create a photograph?
A couple of general objectives come to mind. One is that we may want to capture the emotional essence of something for our own enjoyment or enrichment. When we make an artistic image in this context, we’re often trying to capture and express how the moment felt to us rather than just who or what happened to be in the scene when we pressed the shutter release. And in this context, who better to judge how effective we are at this than us, since we’re our own target audience? Here, one might well figure that the best advice is not to worry about the “rules”, to just do what feels right.
In principle, I agree, yet, there is a caveat. I’ve learned the hard way not to fully trust my emotional response to any image I’ve just created. When both the photograph and the experience that produced it are fresh in mind, it’s easy to convolute the emotional response to the two. I may think that I feel very strongly about the image when, in fact, I’m still responding to the actual experience, itself. For example, the image below was made about a decade ago while my wife and I were on our honeymoon in Kauai. At the time, I remember thinking just how superb the image was at capturing the essence of sitting by the beach at dawn.
Suffice it to say, with a few years’ perspective I’m a little more circumspect at this point. The image is great for sparking personal memories, but it doesn’t make me feel the way it felt to sit on that beach, watching the sun rise over the ocean with a cup of coffee warming my fingers and my wife next to me, listening to the waves wash against the shore. When I ran across it again recently, I was fairly appalled by how poor the photo was, both technically and artistically. It didn't match at all with either my recollection of the experience or my recollection of the image I'd created. It was a strong lesson that I should approach my own work with a tremendous level of skepticism until it’s stood the test of time. I’m far more pleased with a somewhat similar image made on a more recent trip to the islands (just below), but will only dare to feel any real confidence in the image in another decade or so.
How we initially feel about an image is likely useful information, but should also be treated as highly suspect.
Another way — in fact, the primary way — in which art is often used is as a means of communication. For an artistic language to be useful, though, it has to be understood by and resonate with the people on both ends of the artistic process, the creator, and their audience. We can’t communicate via an artistic language that we alone understand. No matter how eloquent or poetic a statement is in Gibberish, if our viewers only speak French, our efforts will be precisely for naught.
What Do “Rules” Represent?
With this pair of potential objectives (and their associated caveats) in mind, let’s think about what the “rules” represent. Artistic rules are typically the distillation of a few hundred — or even thousand — years’ worth of knowledge and skill assembled by the generations of artists who have come before us in the artistic community. (Kudos to Kirk Darling for presciently pointing this out in the comments to the previous article.)
I’m often intrigued by the number of parallels between the arts and sciences in terms of process; and this is a superb example. Artists have, in essence, been doing neuroscience experiments for literally millennia, empirically developing an understanding of how the brain and human visual system respond to different visual stimuli. Through experimentation and reflection, the artistic community has developed the knowledge and skills to create works of art that are able to generate the artist’s intended emotional response in someone else, the viewer. This is an astounding achievement. The scientific community, by comparison, has only even been studying neuroaesthetics for less than two decades.
To understand just how impressive the collective knowledge of the artistic community is, think back to your first forays with pen and ink or paint and brush (if you’ve ever been so inclined). If you’re like me, the first time you picked up a pen and tried to create a portrait on paper the result barely looked humanoid, let alone captured the emotional essence of the person before you.
Or recall the snapshots you took when you first picked up a camera. Have you gone back and looked at them recently? How effective were they at distilling and translating the raw emotional tenor of an experience, of communicating the way it felt?
My younger self — and, who am I kidding, my older self as well — still lacks a ton of the knowledge and skills necessary to identify, tease out, and translate the emotional heart of a scene or an experience — that bit worth preserving — into the language of the visual arts in an effective way. And I’ve had the benefit of art lessons, art classes, and the wisdom of countless individuals who have come before me to build from. Think about trying to develop this capability without the benefit of other artists’ insights, without being able to look at other artists’ sketches, paintings, or photographs. Would you even know where to begin?
Learning just the basic skills necessary to accomplish the act of visual communication in even a fairly rudimentary way typically takes thousands of hours of study and practice. And that’s when we’re able to leverage all of the knowledge, achievements, and insights of those who have come before us. We study the works of the masters. We practice technical skills until they become second nature. We learn “rules” of thumb about composition, exposure, shutter speed, subject matter, etc.. These “rules” compress centuries of trial, error, and the occasional breakthrough into easily memorable nuggets of wisdom.
What Does It Mean to Break the “Rules”?
Notice that a few paragraphs ago I used the word “experimentation”. For millennia, neither shadows nor perspective were effectively represented in artwork. Egyptian paintings, for example, were all two-dimensional representations of a scene. It wasn’t until a few hundred BC that the ancient Greeks started to represent shadows in their artworks. Perspective wasn’t used until the 1400s when the Italian painters Brunelleshi and Masaccio started to experiment with it.
These combinations of insight and technique were profound additions to the typical “rules” guiding the art and craft of painting up to each point. There was no guarantee that the use of either would be adopted by others in the community. They turned out, however, to provide a means by which the realism and authenticity of a work could be dramatically increased, and through that, the emotional engagement of the audience.
The same is true of the impressionist movement. Monet and others began experimenting with what, in essence, was the question of how much detail could be left out of an image while still effectively conveying the impression it left on the artist to their audience. It was an experiment that could easily have failed, but for the fact that the approach and techniques developed turned out to be tremendously effective.
Picasso eventually experimented with a similar idea, but not before he, first, learned the “rules”. His earlier works look much like that of other painters of the period.
After learning the “rules”, however, understanding their origins and their utility, he had personal insights into how some of them might be bent or broken, a curiosity to see how and in what other forms information and emotion might be represented and conveyed between artist and viewer. His later work was essentially a series of experiments to see how the human brain would respond to different choices of visual stimuli in the representation of familiar subjects.
Many of these experiments were fairly successful (strong bit of sarcasm there), though, the initial reaction was “almost unanimous shock, distaste, and outrage”. Picasso was onto some fascinating and groundbreaking insights at that point, insights that it would be nearly a century before they were described in detail in Ramachandran’s eight laws of neuroaesthetics. These include concepts such as contrast extraction, isolation, the peak shift effect, perceptual problem solving, and visual metaphor.
In each of the examples above, the artists weren’t simply breaking the rules for the sake of it. They weren’t just being rebellious. They mastered the “rules” first, both in terms of implementation and understanding. They, then, consciously chose to break the rules in selective ways, performing experiments to better understand how the brain works, how the process of artistic communication works, how the representation and communication of emotion and experience might be better achieved.
Should we break the rules, then? Absolutely. It’s how we learn. And it’s the only way to move our personal and collective artistic knowledge and skills beyond the current state of the art. But we should learn the rules first, love the rules, understand the motivation for the rules, practice them till they’re second nature to us, until we know their strengths and their weaknesses. Then, in the process of trying to understand why a rule can fail, we might just have a flash of insight into how it should be broken.