Epiphany: on Music and Breaking the Rules

The Valley Patriarch by Anna Bain OPA
24″ x 42″ – Oil on linen

I am a professional artist, but what some people don’t know about me is that I have 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.

Still Life with Weights by Anna Bain OPA
9″ x 12″ – Oil on linen panel

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 in 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 the new material, but I quickly realized that the music was just “ok”. Honestly, I got rather bored playing 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.

Curiosity and Chaos by Anna Bain OPA
36″ x 24″ – Oil on aluminum

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.

Free Spirit by Anna Bain OPA
16″ x 8″ – Oil on linen panel

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. I would love to hear what you have to say — how are you successfully “breaking the rules” in your art?

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