Eight rules of painting
April 8, 2014
In the corner of Mrs. Haddleton's seventh-grade art class stood a potter's wheel and a kiln. I straddled the little stool and threw down a grapefruit-sized ball of clay--my first pot. Gently kicking the wheel's power over to me, she cautioned, "You're standing at the top of a ski hill with your skis on, and you don't yet know how to ski."
Several hundred-pound ashtrays later, I decided painting was more my thing.
Remembering my brief career in ashtrays and thinking about the parallels in all the arts, I decided to re-read English author and illustrator Neil Gaiman's Eight Rules of Writing. Eight seemed brief enough to hang on to, but long enough for a developing creative to partially reject. Rules are, like an ashtray-in-progress, meant to be thrown, poked and reshaped to suit yourself.
Here's my version of Neil Gaiman's Eight Rules. I've modified them for painters:
2. Put your first stroke down and move on with another stroke. Work your strokes and let your strokes work you.
3. Stop the painting before you think you should.
4. Put your painting aside and start another painting.
5. Always keep in mind that you are your own best critic.
6. Perfection in painting is probably not possible. Excellence in painting is for people who appreciate the poetry of your soul.
7. Your style is what you're doing academically wrong. Radicalize yourself -- you only have one life to show you've got style.
8. You need to paint with enough assurance and confidence to know you can do whatever you like. So paint your story and make painting your life. Be honest with yourself about your progress. Always try to do a better job than you did the day before. I'm not sure there are any other rules. Not ones that matter.
PS: "I've been making a list of the things they don't teach you at school. They don't teach you how to love somebody. They don't teach you how to be famous. They don't teach you how to be rich or how to be poor. They don't teach you how to know what's going on in someone else's mind. They don't teach you what to say to someone who's dying. They don't teach you anything worth knowing." (Neil Gaiman, The Sandman)
Esoterica: Writing and painting are two disciplines that are difficult to teach to someone. They are personal crafts that need to be mostly self-taught -- so you can make your own mistakes in your own sweet time. "I hope that in this year to come, you make mistakes," says Gaiman, "Because if you're making mistakes... you're Doing Something." Painting is a do-it-yourself thing that requires focus and a self-critical eye. After a while some people get very good at it. Writers write. Painters paint. According to Neil, that's about it. But I often wonder what might have happened if I had kept kicking that wheel.