"The Rules" of Art

Art: The Process of Creating an Oil Painting

I recall an episode of Downton Abby where a certain gentleman made a glaring fashion blunder by wearing a white tuxedo vest. Obviously, he should have known better—should have known to wear the black vest. The family was scandalized and horribly embarrassed for him. I can only imagine.

Rules that dictate behavior in “high society” are often comical, and it’s easy to question their validity at all. Aren’t norms arbitrary and man-made? If society banded together, we could all just as well decide that it’s proper to wear orange vests to our dinner parties, and then that would be the right choice, right? The truth is, some rules are like that. And some aren’t. Some rules are really more conventions than rules. But the rules I want to proceed to discuss here – the rules of art, are far from arbitrary or man-made. We artists take our cue from nature itself. Nature – the way things work, the way things are put together – is what dictates the standards for beauty. I’d like you to study this photo:

This is a oil painting by John William Waterhouse entitled “The Lady of Shalott”. Look at the painting and notice where your eyes are led and where they rest. Are you haplessly scanning the piece, with nowhere for your eyes to land? Probably not. If you’re like most people, your eyes will immediately fall on the face, and then wander to the golden prow of the boat, and then follow the gentle curve of said boat, up the figure to rest once again at the girl's face. Your eye does this for a reason. The painter, John William Waterhouse, used a device called the Golden Section when he composed this piece. The Golden Section (also known as the Golden Ratio or the Divine Proportion) is an almost magical ratio. Mathematically, it is the ratio 68:32. This ratio is found all over nature, all over art, all over everything we deem beautiful. The Golden Section is the most aesthetically pleasing division of space. Looking up at the above photo again, start at the right side and trace your eyes over 68% of the way to the left. That point corresponds to the placement of the woman’s face. Start from the bottom of the photo and measure out 68% and you’ll find your eyes again stop at the woman’s face. Your eyes naturally fall on her because they are carried there by this intersection of two very important mathematical divisions. But there is another reason your eyes are drawn to rest upon the woman’s head. Waterhouse employed not only the Golden Section in the composition of his piece but also his knowledge of contrast. Your eye will always travel to where the lightest light and the darkest dark meet. There is a reason the Lady is wearing white and the sun is shining bright on the top of her head: this creates the point of greatest contrast in the painting against the dark background of the trees. The result is that your eyes are not scrambling but resting naturally at the exact point the artist predetermined to draw them.   I might also mention the use of complementary colors in this painting. Complementary colors are opposites on the color wheel and a complementary color is used to either balance the predominate color or to accent it. Look at the painting again. The predominant colors in this piece are muted greens but he also uses the complement of muted reds. In the water we see blues and violets and that is complemented with the golds and yellows. All this to say: this painting was not haphazardly assembled. Waterhouse worked within The Rules and created a masterpiece.   The last thing I’ll say about good art is that it is always created with skill. There should be somewhat of a mystery about it. When standing in front of a beautifully painted piece of art you should be prompted to awe and wonder, asking the question, “how did he or she do that?” To be honest, much of the artwork in modern times leaves me asking no such question. There is no mystery and no obvious skill. Such art neither commands my respect nor holds my interest. Art that will be remembered throughout history is not that which ignores the rules, nor that which becomes tirelessly bogged down with the rules. No, art that lasts will be that which so internalizes the rules that it moves beyond them, synthesizing and remixing them into new focal points of beauty—new reinventions of that created order which was there from the beginning, but which is inexhaustible in its number of true expressions.