Thursday, January 22, 2009

On Rules

First off, thanks so much to everyone that wrote a comment about the last post. I am glad it made sense to everyone and that people found it helpful. Also thanks to those that wrote comments disagreeing with me, I always appreciate that as well, and reading those comments inspired me to clarify a couple of things and to talk a bit about a topic I talk about often, namely the idea of "rules" and whether they exist in regards to art.

Obviously everything I write on my site is my opinion and my opinion only. Everything I write is based on my experience as an animator and storyboard artist.

I think it seemed to some readers that I was writing about every facet of art that exists when I talked in the previous post about staging things to get different effects. In general, I don't really write posts that relate to every facet of the visual arts...as it says on the banner at the top of this blog I mostly write about storyboarding unless I specify otherwise. Anyone is welcome to read this blog and comment about what I write but it's mostly about storyboarding. That's why I mentioned that I have had pitches of my own work fall flat when I ignored those staging rules...I am really talking specifically about storyboards which don't have the benefit of things like music and color, which are other strong clues a movie gives you to indicate whether a scene is comedic or serious. So I find it helpful to use whatever clues you can in storyboarding to set a context for your audience so that you get the desired response from them.

It's no accident that many movies take advantage of these concepts to help get a reaction out of the viewer as well; that's why I used examples from live-action movies to make my point. Of course, I always assume that it goes without saying that not every movie, comic book, TV show and other medium will follow each "rule" I discuss scrupulously.

Which brings up the often-discussed topic of "rules". Are there "rules" for artistic endeavors? If we follow these "rules" are we limiting our creativity and quashing our instincts?

I find it interesting that people ask this about some artistic fields and not others. Film and drawing have a strange thing in common: some people seem to think there's no reason to have to know anything about either discipline to succeed in them. Frankly, many people seem to think it's detrimental to the quality of their work to study their art. They seem to think that if you just "jump in" and "go with your gut" that you'll be better off than spending any time studying either discipline and learning a solid foundation of knowledge before you attempt to say, write a film or become a storyboard artist.

And yet nobody would ever think they could pick up a bassoon and play a Mozart concerto on it without years of study beforehand. Nobody would assume they could jump up on stage and "wing it" through Swan Lake and be as good as someone who studied ballet for ten years.

"The enemy of art is the absence of limitations." - Orson Welles

The "rules" don't exist to quash your artistic freedom; they are there to liberate you. Art has limitless possibilities so artists use the "rules" to organize and give their work control and, therefore, beauty as well as meaning.

If I gave you a box of 64 crayons and told you to draw a picture, would you assume that the best way to approach it would be to make sure you used every color at least once in your drawing? Would you say you feel "limited" by only having 64 colors and say you needed 128? Of course not - we all know that the best way to approach the drawing would be to pick a small number of colors - 5, 7 or 8 or so - that look good in conjunction with each other and stick with those, using them in a balanced way. Some of the greatest works of art ever created were created only using one color...



...or no color at all, even (check out any drawing by Rembrandt).

The last thing to say about the "rules", of course, is that of course they can - and should - be broken. They exist to be experimented with, pushed, bent and broken. But the problem comes when people don't want to take the trouble to learn them first. The only way to really know how to break them is to learn them and follow them until you know them inside out. Then you have the sensitivity and the understanding to know under what circumstances they can and should be broken.

I can't tell you how many times I have looked at a great drawing and thought to myself that what makes the drawing great is the careful application of the most basic and fundamental "rules", and nothing else. The "rules" can take you really far, if you are humble and patient enough to learn them. I hate to see people expend so much energy denying this truth and making things so much more difficult than they have to be by rejecting the idea of "rules" and turning their backs on hundreds of years of knowledge passed down from every artist who has gone before us....but so be it, obviously we all have to find our own way, and I wish everyone luck on their journey.

Okay, I know this is always an inflammatory topic and, like any subject that makes for great debate, I will never convince people on the other side of this that I am right just as they will never convince me that they are right...but I had to say all this anyway.

Something else more interesting coming soon, I promise!

20 comments:

Julie Oakley said...

What a wonderful post - you've expressed your opinions so clearly. I absolutely agree with you. I come to your blog for clarification on things that work and quite frankly I think that applying many of the 'rules' you discuss to any kind of art can make it much better. So often people seem to think that spewing out any kind of personal expression (without learning from the past) is a way of producing art and they wonder why no-one is interested in what they produce.

Pat said...

In my own opinion, you're absolutely right about them rules and fundamentals, Mark.

Tim said...

I couldn't agree more.
I have often spoken to art students and brought up the need for limitations. Of course young students bristle at the very idea of limitations. So I ask if they like black & white photography. Naturally, they all do, to which I reply, "Well, that's a limitation."

It's also like music. If you compose in a particular key, there are many, many notes that you are forbidding yourself from playing.

It's why a Hircshfeld caricature done with eight simple lines is no less genius than a Doré etching made with several thousand. Yet neither obeys the "rules" of the other.

Keep up the great posts!

FerGil said...

Learning the rules is also about discipline. Most aspiring "artists" think that the talent they have is more than enough, and are not willing to devote their time to learn the rules, fundamental principles and history before they actually work. Too bad, because their talent could be truly extraordinary, and they'll never be anything more than "ok".

Scotland Barnes said...

As someone trying to break into the industry - I'm always learning new ways in which the "rules" are important. The more the rules become an unconscious element to my work - the better the reviews I get. Even times when I have drawings that have failed to succeed my expectations - the rules often keep it from going to the trash can and force me to pull out the tracing paper.

Often I end up helping younger artist - and the experience is always the same - showing them the rules of drawing. They always act surprised to learn of the "work" it takes to get a drawing.

Great post Mark!

Emil said...

Agreed!!! Agreed!!

In my own experience, everytime I've had to approach a new form of art (like the time when I first approached live-action cinematography) The first thing I always do is look for some sort of a principle/ a set of rules. I seek a common source of which I can begin my education.

And then I continuously obssess over those laws, and I continuously observe how past masters have utilized those laws in their works. And in time, the more I understand these laws, the more I realize how far I can go out of these laws while still producing an equally satisfying output.

And so in that way, I completely agree with you. The more we learn these set of rules, the more we accept this box we're in, the more we grow out of it.

Nice posts by the way....I'm so glad I found this blog! :>

Jazzy said...

respect!
if my english wasn't so poοr i would say more!

mcnooj82 said...

I once took an acting class where the TA said something that I've never forgotten. I'm paraphrasing her below.

Learn the craft and hone it. Don't assume that you're a Brando because Brandos are the anomaly. Such an intensely natural bright talent is a rare occurance. The rest of us mortals will have to deal with truly learning the craft so that we can achieve the illusion of perfection.

Unfortunately, as the tools to create art make it more accessible than ever, we get a lot of people who think they're a Brando.

I don't post often, but I love love love love your blog for exactly this.

Jim Mortensen said...

On the same subject of rules...

Not only is it advantageous to follow drawing/staging rules, but often as a filmmaker it's important to set up your own "rules" for how characters behave, how locations are depicted, etc.

A great example is the classic Roadrunner cartoons. Notice how the Roadrunner can only run on the road. That one rule defines pretty much the whole Coyote/Roadrunner interaction.

Another example is one that Michael Sporn recently posted: a film called "Patriot". The film jumps back an forth in time, and in order for the audience to read clearly what time we are in, the filmmaker had to set up rules. Blue = Present/Concentration Camp, Tan = Past/Home. It's a simple rule that is defined for the purposes of clarity (and one that gets broken at the end, for a very specific reason).

Pseudonym said...

The way I think of it is this:

The best art is created by those who break the rules. The worst art is created by those who don't even know the rules are there.

It's more important to know why the rules are there than to know what the rules are. When you know the "why", you can break them deliberately.

Oh, and Tim:

If you compose in a particular key, there are many, many notes that you are forbidding yourself from playing.

Actually, that's not true. The first great work of music which used the modern scale, Bach's Well-Tempered Klavier, opens with the famous Prelude in C major, which uses all 12 notes in the scale.

All music students study this piece because a) it's a tractable problem, and b) it's highly instructive about the rules of harmony in music theory. You can think of this piece as the "definition" of what it means to write a piece in C major.

Now it's true that not everyone is Bach, just like not everyone is Brando. Nonetheless, it was a standard exercise at the Paris Conservatoire for over a hundred years to set a melody to the Prelude, much like how it's a standard exercise in art school today to produce a Rothko.

de aap said...

I agree, I always find it funny when some of my fellow animation students think they don't need to know about the rules.

I enjoy your blog very much. There is a lot of inspirational information here for an aspiring story artist, thank you!

Tim said...

Hi Pseudonym,
Yeah, I over-simplified music composition just to make my point. But in just about every style of music (except maybe John Cage pieces), there are self-imposed limitations, whether it is a key signature or rhythm, or even how many instruments are in your band or orchestra.
I think a better term than "rules" is "style choices". Choices of color palette, deep or flat space, screen composition, camera movement (or lack of), which lens to use... the list goes on.
(So I'm not arguing with you... just backing up my point a little more)

Of course there are actual rules (in drawing) concerning perspective and anatomy, etc. But even then, we all learn how to cheat and deviate from those rules to make a better image.

@b said...

hey mark...you bang on target !

"rules" has always been a very debatable subject, but your post caters to both the sides in a nice way !

thanks for sharing !

p.s. - i have to share this one around ! :-)

mark kennedy said...

Wow, great comments - thanks to everyone for writing one. I'm glad I struck a chord with so many readers. Great thoughts!

Abhilash K said...

Hi
Sometime recently I'd a discussion on the golden mean rule with my guide.The dought was whether it becomes too mechanical to make mathematical calculations to get out a beautiful work of art. Spat!!came an real good example... When we were kids we are thought to look over to right , left and again right and then move across a street. Then now we instinctly either follow this or else even brake them as time demands...

So I agree with you to the full that yes know the rules, make it practical and then move beyond them.

Well I am still trying to know the GOLDEN MEAN !!

Mr Kenedy big thanks to your continuing inspiring blog.

Joanne said...

I teach drawing and painting classes and have been talking to students about the "rules" for years.

We have talked many times about how knowing the "rules" gives you the freedom to break them when it is important to your artwork.

I love the way you have worded your message and (with your permission) would like to quote passages from your post with credit to you on my blog.

It would be good for my students to see that the"rules"apply to all art forms.

mark kennedy said...

Abhilash - Thanks for letting me know you enjoyed it - I think I wrote a post on that once - I'll try and find some stuff on that.

Joanne - sure, no problem, feel free to share it, if you think it's helpful then I would be very glad to see it passed along.

mfearing said...

You make some great points and the way you present your points is well thought out. I sometimes feel (I work most often as an illustrator) that many times (especially in schools) the rules are used to hammer students into working more like their instructors. Often the people teaching are preaching...so to speak.
With younger people this can be especially detrimental.
Working in animation, professionally, and having to match styles and fit your work into a pipeline obviously demands a high degree of draftsmanship and craft. This puts the need for learning the rules at the top of the list. It's also one reason why many people separate 'fine art' from commercial art.
This leads to another thought. Because of this need for execution, the training, the practice, the need to fit into a production, it seems like it can eat away at creative impulses. I think it was Shamus Culhane in one of his books that discussed this very topic. Saying it took so much effort and work just to remain a good animator it tended to take away from being a creative thinker or making the jump to being a good big story guy, a director.
I don't know the answer. In my own experience I get better the more I learn. But I know there are many people I will never be 'as good as' and all the practice in the world won't help. Because it's not just the line, or understanding composition. It's also the thinking behind it. The creative inspiration that can be uniquely individual.

Iℓαναяαѕαη.Я said...

first i cudnt get a meaning or i took it literally. But ur post was so good, i got what it really meant.. Thank u!!

Sarah said...

"The enemy of art is the absence of limitations." - Orson Welles

Thanks for this post. Such an interesting quote, it's like an inkblot test. Different people can take this in many different ways.

It reminded me of an interview I heard with Brad Bird (i think). He was talking about the great freedom animators enjoyed compared to live action film directors. Film directors would talk about the limits they faced in equipment and the ability to get certain shots. In short they came up against the natural world as in the weight of their equipment, sounds unable to be filtered etc. Animators on the other hand, Bird was saying, were often trying to capture the imperfections of camera work, the inherent limitations live action filmmakers come up against in order to give the viewer a feeling of reality....a way of relating to or believing in the reality the animators were creating.

I think he mentioned trying to recreate the limitations of a film set because it made the animation seem more a product of our reality and in doing so was able to bring the viewer in more. He gave the example of working on The Incredibles and realized that when a slight blur was added to a movement the action seemed more real....they worked to add in imperfections to the software.

In doing so I thought they were creating great art while attempting to impose these limitations on themselves in order to create a desired effect.

Another separate thought that comes to mind when reading this quote is the quality of some modern art pieces. At times the art can feel so deconstructed that it is difficult to detect whether the piece required skill to produce. Sometimes it feels like artistic nihilism...where no one can tell whether it is a case of the emperor has no clothes. So without some limitations, the art world can be filled with absolutely anything as long as someone wants it to be considered art. So where is the line drawn? When does something become art? Are limitations built into the concept or definition of art? Questions I suspect that we will all answer differently.

Thanks for the wonderful blog posts! (especially the Bill Peet ones)