Break the Rules

There’s something to be said for being blissfully ignorant about the way things are “supposed” to be done.

If I had read that it takes most businesses at least three years of consistent work and marketing to get off the ground, I’m not sure I would have left my safe job at the museum.

©Pamela Ramey Tatum, Lovers in Times Square V. Oil on linen, mounted on board, 22 x 30 inches. Used with permission.
©Pamela Ramey Tatum, Lovers in Times Square V. Oil on linen, mounted on board, 22 x 30 inches. Used with permission.

If I had waited to discover directions for leading an online class, I never would have started teaching my own back in 2003. I didn’t know of a model for online classes at the time, so I made it up.

Rules for Being a Successful Artist

There are no official rules for one’s art career, but there are precedents. Plenty of resources offer guidelines, including my own book, blog, and online programs.

These unofficial rules might include the following topics:

  • How to put together a portfolio
  • How to approach a gallery
  • How to write an artist statement
  • How to organize your website

There’s nothing wrong with knowing these things, but, in order to innovate, you must ignore the rules and forge your own path. You have to experiment.

©Linda Hains, Share. Acrylic on canvas, 56 x 56 inches. Used with permission.
©Linda Hains, Share. Acrylic on canvas, 56 x 56 inches. Used with permission.

Many artists in the beginning of their careers are frozen by the desire to play by the rules and get it all right. They don’t take action because they’re afraid of doing something wrong.

On the other end of the spectrum are artists who have been in the business for a while. They can be so closely tied to the rules that they find it hard to adapt to new ways of doing things.

Or they don’t notice when something isn’t working for them because they are too focused on doing it right.

Then there are the mavericks. These are artists who are cheerfully unaware of “the rules.” They figure out most things, but then they go and do something that makes me scratch my head.

©Camille Savage, Fight Against Gravity. Mixed media on canvas, 18 x 14 inches. Used with permission.
©Camille Savage, Fight Against Gravity. Mixed media on canvas, 18 x 14 inches. Used with permission.

I ask myself: Don’t they know better? Why, I wonder, didn’t they read that chapter in my book?

Darn it if it doesn’t work out just fine for them. They broke “the rules,” and the sky didn’t fall. On the contrary, they’re thriving!

Action of any kind always wins over unrelenting research. The latter devolves into inertia.

Use some of the creativity that goes into your art and apply it to your business—especially when the rules aren’t working in your favor.

Don’t be afraid to break the rules, ignore the rules, or make up your own rules. If you need it, you have my permission.

This article was originally published on February 15, 2010. It has been updated with original comments intact.

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14 thoughts on “Break the Rules”

  1. Hi Alyson! It’s easy to get caught up and overwhelmed by all the things we don’t know, but there is definitely something to be said for just doing it! . When I started my website, I could barely remember the very basics of HTML. I didn’t know anything about domain names or hosting. But I jumped right in and learned it all as I went, just figuring it out and making it work for myself. It was hugely rewarding! And like you said, if I’d known all the work it wouldl take and the challenges I was going to face, I would have been much less likely to go ahead and do it! These days, we’re so inundated with information that it’s easy to get overwhelmed, but at some point we need to stop reading and start doing!

  2. I agree. If I’d known about the rules of the publishing world I’d never have self-published my children’s book “Magic at the Museum”. But I did, and it was nominated for an illustration award and went to #2 on the bestseller list. I’m glad I wasn’t intimidated by any rules, I think that’s why I succeed! Thanks for all your inspiration, Alyson. X

  3. Let me put the “breaking of rules” into an advertising perspective (it was my day job for years):
    That’s why the rule breakers you mention land on their feet. It’s far to easy to play it safe and die in the banality of advertising or marketing like everyone else (which is what all this webinar, newsletter, blogging, social networking, etc. is all about).
    I do like something you allude to, which is STRUCTURE for the business. Those are the “rules,” if you will. Every business needs structure or a plan of action, from daily activities to the bigger picture or end game.
    Structure doesn’t have to be boring, or common. It’s just planning and taking action. Breaking from common rules, is… yes, differentiation.
    Nice article.

  4. Alyson, you illustrate an elegant balance between a solid business framework and creativity–building a foundation, like the precedents you mention, but not getting so tangled up in what someone else says is “right.” Slavishly following a guru, or handbook, undermines autonomy. Artists can’t function without that.

  5. Great article, Alyson!
    I believe it all comes down to what I call, “disciplined creativity.” Specifically, having the vision, motivation and discipline to define one’s goals, figure out how to achieve them and finally to make it happen for you. Not for anyone else. For you.
    As you say: it means knowing which rules to follow, which to bend, and which to ignore. Much of that knowledge comes from experience, but a lot can also come from listening and observing – which isn’t all that far from what artists (or artisans, in my case) are all about, is it?
    Carpe diem.

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  12. The back of my Artistic License states that, “The bearer of this license is hereby authorized, at his sole discretion, to tweak, bend, alter, modify, exaggerate, reinterpret, experiment with, employ, not employ and/or disregard the generally accepted rules, methods, conventions and paradigms without hinderance or impediment.”
    If you don’t believe me.. see it here!
    So where in the world does one GET and artistic license?? Think about it. No one is going to issue one to you. You have to make it yourself. You have to give yourself permission to break the rules.

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