“I don’t follow any system. All the laws you can lay down are only so many props to be cast aside when the hour of creation arrives.” —Raoul Dufy
“Do what suits you…try to paint in the moment…
forget everything you have learned…”
–Jan van Oort
The words of these two painters are near and dear to my creative heart.
Dufy was a French Fauve painter who lived and worked at the end of the 19th century and through the first half of the 20th century. In addition to being a painter, Dufy was a draftsman, printmaker, book illustrator, scenic designer, furniture designer and public planner.
van Oort is a contemporary Dutch abstract expressionist painter as well as an architect, composer, jazz saxophone player, writer and advertising concept designer.
In other words, neither of these artists put all their creative eggs in one basket – or even two. The word polymath comes to mind.
As I look at their short biographies, I begin to detect the great appeal both these artists have to me and why their advice which is essentially advice to break the rules resonates so strongly.
One of my favorite novels and without question my favorite movie is Bang the Drum Slowly. This is a story of baseball, rain and human understanding. On off days or when it’s raining, the players sometimes engage in a game called TEGWAR – The Exciting Game Without Any Rules.
I’m not proposing a full monty game of TEGWAR for artists and neither were Dufy or van Oort.
But they, and so many others who came before us, know the value of learning the rules and then tossing them aside in pursuit of our own voices, our styles, our artistic ventures into new territory. As Joseph Campbell once said (and I paraphrase), if you’re following a path, it’s somebody else’s path.
I know this from another side as well. I’ve taught creative writing for several years and my goal is to teach the writers the basics and – yes – the “rules” of whatever genre we’re working on – poetry, fiction, nonfiction. They sometimes ask to see samples of my own work and I show them. But I don’t want them to write like me. I don’t want them to write like any of the writers they read. And I don’t want them to be slaves to the rules. I want them to use the rules as a foundation and the writers they read, including me, as samples, but I want them to write like themselves.
When we look at the art of those who’ve come before us, when we browse the magazines with the newest art, when we walk the galleries and museums, we get ideas and appreciate the art that interests us. But we don’t want to paint like those artists – we want to be inspired by them to paint like ourselves!
There’s a kind of poem called a “nonce” poem in which the poet creates a one-off poetry form just for that poem.
I’m all for nonce art. One-off paintings that will please the artist and won’t be repeated. The artist will make the rules and the result will be the artist’s voice sweetly singing in the halls of creation.