Epiphany: on Music and Breaking the ‘Rules’​

"One More Rep" by Anna Rose Bain

"One More Rep" by Anna Rose Bain


I am a professional artist, but what some people don’t know about me is that I've played piano since I was eight years old. I was classically trained all the way through college, with a major in art and a minor in music. I took all the music classes: ​ ​ theory, aural skills, counterpoint. I even took voice lessons and sang in ​the ​choir. I loved music with a passion that rivaled my love for art… it was that big a part of my life.

But there came a point when I had to choose, because I couldn't devote 100% of my time to both. These art forms each demand much more of a person when it comes to choosing a career path. I chose painting, and the music gradually diminished from my life.

Recently, however, I’ve returned to playing piano once in a while just for fun. Since I've played some of the same stuff over and over for the last 15 years, I decided to order some new sheet music to freshen up my repertoire.

At first I was excited to play through the new material, but I quickly realized that the music was just "ok". Honestly I got rather bored playing through these lovely but cliche arrangements of popular songs.

This made me realize that I have changed. I'm not a student anymore, but a person who is capable of taking something and making it my own. And as a recovering rule-follower, it has taken me years to realize that I can do this. The possibilities are limitless.

Now I know why my high school piano teacher was pushing the "Fake Books" on me, but I never wanted to try them. Now I know why jazz musicians can really let loose, and why improv performers can take an ordinary tune and turn it into something amazing.

What does this have to do with art? Well, as with the music, I am arriving at a similar place in my painting. One can spend a lifetime playing scales or painting color charts, and working solely on technique, but at some point, we have to break away and start becoming artists. We have permission to use our imagination and just roll with it. Let the art carry us on an unexpected journey. Those of us who struggle with perfectionism will constantly hear voices in our heads telling us to play it safe, and do things the comfortable or traditional way. Follow the "rules" because they are time tested.

But that is ridiculous! I have the vocabulary, and I’ve had it for years-both as an artist and a musician. Why did chord charts always scare me? Because it meant I had to take something and be "original" with it! Why does breaking away from classical art scare me? Because it means I am forging new territory and I have to own it.

I've been having conversations with other artists about ways that we can break away from traditional molds. Here are a few ideas:

  • ​Glaze an area down to improve the value structure and overall design.
  • Eliminate or add elements either from another reference source or from your imagination.
  • Do an entire painting in only one color family.
  • Choose unusual subject matter (I am currently starting a series on people
    working out at the gym!).
  • Go through stacks of old studies and paintings and analyze why they worked or didn't.
  • Drastically change some of them to see if your problem solving skills have improved since you first painted them.

The list goes on and on but I’d love to hear what you have to say about this. How are you successfully ​"breaking the rules" in your art?

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  • Benji Palus

    This really hit home. I made the same decision to give up music to pursue painting. Music was my first love, but I realized that I had a natural understanding of visual art that I would never reach with music.
    And I’m currently going through the same checklist, lol; going through old work while trying out a subject matter that’s new to me. Thanks for sharing, Anna!

  • Anna, this is so where I am at also. And, discovering this about four or five years ago in earnest, sent me into a downward spiral with the quality of my work. I just was not capable of creating “original” ideas at that time. I was a good technician and copier for the most part. But, I did keep on trying, and feel like I am finally getting it. I realize I have to work through all that problem solving, trying new stuff no matter the outcome, and not listen to what others have to say. It is hard work trying something out of the “technique” oriented pathway we go through to be able to use our tools and create technically good paintings. Copying the scene in front of us was easy, and making changes such as leaving something out, or moving some element a little, was not hard, and the start of being more creative. Now to carry it on further… painting from several resources, or working from my memories, or just plain “jumping off the cliff” with an insane idea … these make for works that don’t become successful, but do further my abilities and is teaching me more. Thanks for your post, as it spurs me onward!

  • Artist Faisal

    Thanks for Sharing! You might have another third skill,… as a writer.

  • Decker Walker

    To shake off habits temporarily, just to see how you like a different way of working, try this. Find a reproduction of a painting you admire that is quite different from the way you paint – perhaps an impressionist painting if you’re classically trained, or an abstract if you paint representationally, or very gestural and painterly if you paint in a mostly controlled way. Hang this reproduction beside your easel where you can look at it as easily as you look at your subject or your developing painting. Then paint your subject using the colors, strokes, compositional tendencies, etc. of the reproduction. In other words, paint in someone else’s style. Try this several times. Incorporate anything you do that you like into your painting thenceforth.

  • Laurel McBrine

    Love ❤️ this painting!!

  • Mary Rose

    I really enjoyed this blog. I don’t think for me, it is “breaking the rules”, but finding oneself in art. Deciding that I can do this with what I have learned about art, and focusing on what I like best, putting colors together and making good compositions. As for “breaking the rules”, it seems in many areas, there are no rules, and that it is not an improvement. There is a lot of bad stuff out there by people who only want to break the rules without learning them first.

  • Thanks for the comments, all. I love your feedback!