Rules: Love Them, Leave Them, or Break Them Just on Principle?

Rules: Love Them, Leave Them, or Break Them Just on Principle?

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?

Personal Enrichment

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.

An image that doesn't quite capture the emotional tenor of the moment in the way I originally thought it did. Shipwreck Beach. Kauai.

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.

This one does a better job, I think. But will I still think so in a decade? We'll see. Wailea Beach, Maui.


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.

“Science and Charity” Pablo Picasso. 1897. Image in the public domain.

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.

“Les Desmoiselles d’Avignon” Pablo Picasso. 1907. Image in the public domain.

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.

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Chase Wilson's picture

First, I gotta say to Brent, another good article. Keep em coming.

The people who think that there aren't any "rules" in photography are either 100% forgettable, or 100% lucky.

The painting referenced above, "Science and Charity" – was produced by Pablo Picasso when he was 15yrs old. It was his second large painting – made after his first large work "First Communion" which he produced for the Exhibition of Fine Arts in Barcelona less than a year prior. Piccaso was taught art rigorously since he was seven by his dad. When, at 13, his dad got a job at Barcelona's School of Fine Arts, Pablo was asked to take the entrance exam. The exam which generally took a month to complete was said to be completed by Picasso the next day (highly speculative). After studying at the prestigious School of Fine Arts for a year, he began the "First Communion" and then shortly after, "Science and Charity."

In the ten years between finishing "Science and Charity", and "Les Desmoiselles d’Avignon"[1] Picasso traveled to Madrid to attend the best art school in Spain "Royal Academy of San Fernando." He dropped out after a month because he said there was nothing more to learn from an institution. He instead opted to petition the Prado to make copies of paintings of Velazquez. And then traveled to Paris to study Pointillism, Romanticism, African art and the early developments of what would become his signature style Cubism. All before he turned 25. The painting "Les Desmoiselles d’Avignon" which generally is thought of as the beginning of his signature cubist style, still follows many of the traditional rules that were established in his youth. The only rule that I see him breaking in this painting, is adherence to traditional human form. The colors are complimentary. The composition is laid out with a limited gamut. There are strong leading lines and arabesques throughout the entire frame. This painting is not the embodiment of no-rules. It's almost the exact opposite.

In fact, this style that became Pablo's signature style, and which made him so famous, was a direct response to a new technology just starting to get its legs at the time. The technology was called "Photography." Picasso is to have said something to the effect of "Photography is going to be my ruin." Because if you can take a photo of something, then there's no reason to have a painter do it for you (in regards to the commercial work he was doing at the time). So Picasso agonized over this photography problem a great deal. And his answer to photography, was abstract expressionism. He was going to do with paint, that which couldn't be done – ever – with photography. Again, I feel the need to reiterate the fact that all of this happened before he was 25. It's this response to photography, that I feel places him in the genius camp, and not just the savant camp. His ability to look at a bleak future, and to develop a creative means to re-write the future, and thereby re-write art history.

I wrote all of that not to provide a brief history lesson. But to say plainly:

You are not Picasso.

Anybody that thinks that rules don't apply here – are saying so based on the back of the work made by Picasso. Picasso the great rule-follower; the great rule-breaker; the savant and creative genius that invented a new future for painting. He would never be so ignorant to think that everything that had been established in art before him was useless and restrictive trash to be discarded. Picasso broke the rules because he respected them so much. The same goes for Monet, Rothko, and even Pollok.

I was going to make some more points, but I recognize that I already wrote enough to give the "no rules" crowd enough ammunition to shoot me down as it is. I'm happy to provide more ammunition should the conversation require it.

1. d'Avignon is the name of the street that the School for Fine Art is on. And was the `red light district` of Barcelona at that time. The painting, while produced in Paris, is depicting the women of his life in Barcelona.

Chase Wilson's picture

Either that’s a pseudonym, or your parents had an incredible sense of humor.

Brent Daniel's picture

Community college?! I was thinking, like, Berkeley or something. Oh, well... ;-)

Brent Daniel's picture

Hey Chase,

A) Fantastic bit of history and great points. Thanks for taking the time to provide some great insight!

B) It's interesting, ... I'm not sure whether to think that he broke with some longstanding rules, or really set out to explore what would eventually become the foundations of others, which perhaps hadn't even been codified as rules yet in western art (the African influence is really interesting though; the fact that some of the things he set out to explore may already have been understood in that artistic community).

At any rate, the thing that stands out to me in Desmoiselles is that he seemed to begin exploring in a more minimalist, focused way many of the things that would nearly a century later become known in the scientific community as neuroaesthetic laws. Obviously, painters had used contrast for millennia to differentiate objects in their artwork, but he moved to large, solid sections of color, retaining primarily just the areas of greatest contrast, the hard edges between forms (something Ramachandran would later suggest we innately respond to). This contrast is even emphasized with extra strips of dark or light next to the edges, very similar to the way sharpening works in the digital world. Backgrounds became simplified and abstracted, the better to isolate subjects (another law). Somewhat disjointed collections of forms were used to represent the women's figures, suggesting he was experimenting with the brain's preference for perceptual grouping, and often visual metaphors (yet another pair of laws). Some things --- like complementary colors, balance, and other compositional techniques --- were "rules" that had been used for ages. But in many areas it seems like he was very explicitly breaking with the traditional style (and implied rules) to intentionally explore some profoundly cool concepts.

Nikola Vakarelov's picture

Thank you a lot for your comment, wish there were more articles like this just for comments like yours.

I would like to add that Picasso was also profoundly fascinated by photography, he was more inspired than scared by it. At the end of his life, in the south of France, he became really close friend with André Villers, a photographer he met one day on the beach. Picasso bought him his first real camera, and they basically spent their days together. Picasso would make collages and ask Villers to do photographs that can be superposed with them, they even made a book like that, along with poems from Jacques Prévert. For them, art, respectively painting and photography was more of a game than anything else, with coincides with the fact that Picasso always wanted to "paint like a child". That's something you'll see in many artists, the last I heard about it was Anders Petersen, the photographer, who said he wanted to photograph the streets of his childhood as it was the first time he saw them. Children do everything without asking themselves 1000 questions, it's the time where what we do is at its purest form, it's all about curiosity.

As artists, and especially photographers, we should never forget the compositionnal tools that made art harmonious and successful for centuries. We have illustrators and painters do hundreds and thousands of sketches until they master one part of their art, but rarely do photographers take pictures just to train one part of photography. Let's say you photograph diagonals until you master it well enough, then you add light and shadow play, analogous colors, complementary colors, even more complex color schemes, then you aim just for balance, and like that, you go through most of the things you'll ever need in your photography, until they become just second nature. At some point, if it's trained enough, you'll automatically see your scene with all the tools you've at this point automated, just as Picasso had learned everything he needed to before going sideways.

Photography nowadays is going the same way as painting in the early 1900's. Simple snapshots can be made by anybody with a smartphone, AI generated photographs will come soon enough. The only way for photographers to survive, is to make their work more personnal and evocative than ever. Even if Picasso's paintings seem like paint brushes thrown in an abstract way, there is no line in it that's randomly here, every single part of his paintings have a meaning. You can't control everything in a photograph, but what AI generated photographs and random snapshots will suck at is conveying the right emotion, the right emotion which also has his compositionnal rules. A hand placement, the perspective on it, any single facial expression and his variations are going to give completely different emotionnal responses to the viewer (this may also apply to types of photography without humans, where the proportions between the elements, their placement in the frame, and all their other visual qualities will produce different responses). That's where the photographer will survive, by mastering his craft to the point where he will be able to convey what he want to (Da Vinci was erasing hand positions, faces, and many other things tens of times from his paintings until the got it right, he was maniac about it and knew how small, imperceptible things to the viewer, can make a world of difference).

Sorry if I lost myself at some point in my comment

Tl; dr: It's all about mastering your craft to the point where you can only focus on the emotions you want to convey.

Michelle Maani's picture

Pablo Picasso found a gimmick, a lot of fools to ooh and aah over it, and laughed all the way to the bank. Because he could knock out a cubist painting in a matter of hours, whereas the previous art he produced before took days if not weeks. He was a good con man and salesman as well as an excellent artist who knew his craft. But he also knew his public.

Mike Dixon's picture

I think that sometimes words get in the way. The "rule of thirds" could be called "The Principles of Thirds". This means almost the same thing but doesn't feel quite as strict as a rule or a law. I think some people are caught up on it being a "rule", ignore it entirely, and think they're being artistic. These rules, these principles, they work as a guide for a reason. It's still just a guide though.

Scott Magnuson's picture

They’re more like guidelines.

Peter Grogono's picture

"Rules are my humble, obedient servants" - Josef Haydn, 1732-1809

Bokehen Photography's picture

Thrown out the window.