There are no rules in my work. I don’t really have studios. I wander around — around people’s attics, out in fields, in cellars, any place I find that excites me. I dream a lot. I do more painting when I’m not painting. It’s in the subconscious. I begin to see an emotion building up in my mind before I ever put it down on the panel… Sometimes I do my best work after the models have gone away, purely from memory. (Andrew Wyeth)
The above is one of the most abused quotations in art, because people willfully misinterpret it to mean that Wyeth was saying there are no rules to making art. Wyeth was a master technician, and he surely understood that the visual arts are largely about material handling. Technique ends up, in fact, being very structured. The more you master that structure, the freer you are to do innovative things with it.
If you really doubt there are rules, try mixing oil paints and chalk pastels, or paint over an oil substrate with acrylic paint.
I have been studying the above print by Karen Adrienne, the director of Circling the Square Fine Arts Press in Gardiner, ever since I visited the press on Sunday. It’s fascinating, beautiful, and ethereal, and it has qualities that landscape painting would benefit from. But it sings because Adrienne is a master printmaker. Imagine if she decided the ink should be poured on the press itself, or that she could use butter instead of ink.
In oil painting, we have a few select mantras: dark to light, lean to fat, big to little. These are all, in fact, rules. We’ve all tested them, of course, but most of us end up re-embracing them.
Mid-20th century painters liked to break rules. For example, by adding white house paint or zinc oxide in the place of traditional lead white, they created paintings that are cracking and flaking off their grounds just fifty years later. These whites were never intended to stand the stress placed on them by impasto.
I learned to paint using an artist-mixed medium of stand oil, turpentine, gloss varnish and a few drops of cobalt drier. I’ve since gone to using commercially prepared mediums. They’re made in controlled conditions with tested materials, and they create less opportunity for ugly surprises.
Then there was Ralph Albert Blakelock, the most famous painter you never heard of. In 1916 he managed to set a record for the highest price paid for a painting by a living American artist ($20,000). Sadly, he was mentally ill. One manifestation of that was his idiosyncratic painting chemistry. Considered a virtuoso during his life, he is relatively unknown today, since so many of his paintings have darkened into near invisibility.