What Would You Make?

As creatives, we make things. But are we constrained by sets of rules and conventions? What would you make if those rules weren’t there?

We’re makers

Artists are makers. Maybe that is obvious. We have to be able to realize what we visualize.

It doesn’t do any good to say “I wish you could see what I’m thinking about doing.” It is not real until we do it. But sometimes we are held back by rules that seem to prevent us from doing what we want to do. Sometimes those “rules” are the voice in our head that is trying to keep us out of trouble, since trying something new carries the risk or failure or rejection. That protective voice can’t evaluate the upside of what we do, just the potential downside of loss or embarrassment. That fear can be as debilitating as hard rules someone imposes on us.

Whether it is our inner voice or the things we have been taught, when they prevent us from making what we feel we should, they are in the way.

Follow the rules

Many people seem eager to put rules on us. There is the famous rule of thirds. Then other rules of composition. You must have a foreground, middle ground, and background to have a balanced image. Don’t put the subject in the middle. Watch the edges. You can’t have any clutter or distraction there.

If you make it past all those, there are rules about what a photograph can or can’t be. Have a well defined subject that is in sharp focus. Never shoot in the 4 hours each side of noon because the light is too harsh. Expose (the histogram) to the right, but do not blow out highlights. Always use a tripod. There are many more. You know the routine.

Sometimes it seems impossible just to make an image. It all gets too complicated.

Whose rules?

But as I often ask, where did those rules come from and are they really “rules”?

There is no standards body that certifies artists. No one needs to grant you permission to practice your art, even if you went to art school and they thought they had the right to do that. No one can come and yank your image from the gallery wall because you broke a rule.

Given that, why do we act as if we are bound by rules or conventions? Is it to fit it? To be part of a group? Because we are insecure about our style or ability?

Maybe our favorite artist only does very realistic and dark black & white work, so that is the constraint we put on ourselves. We submitted work for an exhibit and it was rejected. Everything selected was highly abstract, so we think that is what we must do. Our local camera club disallows landscape images that show any sign of man, so that must be a rule for landscapes.

Don’t apply them indiscriminately

All the “rules” may well have been created for good reasons. But they should not be applied indiscriminately. There is a story of the mother teaching her daughter to cook. The mother cuts off the end of a roast before putting it in a pan and cooking it. The daughter asks why she did that. She says she doesn’t know, but that’s what her mother taught her to do. Sometime later the little girl asks her grandmother why she cut off the end off roasts. The grandmother told her it was because when she was young her pan was too short.

The story is probably fake, but it’s point is valid. Even if rules were created for good reason, they may not apply to you in the situation. Always evaluate the reason realistically.

Be yourself and do your own art. Who gets to decide if the work pleases you? Isn’t it only you?

What would you make if there were no rules?

Imagine there were no rules imposed on you. What would you do in that case? What would you create that is different from what you are doing now?

Would you be bold to create fresh new art that may bend genres and go in new directions? Then do it! You do not have to be bound by anybody else’s rules. Set your own values and constraints. That is how creativity happens.

Now, I am not advocating total anarchy. There is enough of that posing as art. It does not have to be disturbing or unrecognizable to be creative. Just make it your own vision.

Learn the history of image making. Study what has been done by masters over time. The things that have been recognized as leading to “good” art. Knowing what has been done will not pollute you.

What will pollute you is taking those things as rules that you must follow. Learn the rules then creatively break them. That is the way to push the boundaries to new limits. Limits you discover and exploit. Be free to take your art in whatever direction feels best to you.

No rules.


I get ideas in a lot of unlikely places. It fascinates me that I got the idea for this article from an interview I heard with Carrie Underwood, the Country singer. A lot of her songs bend and even blur the limits of her genre. She was describing one project she was working on and being frustrated in not being able to come up with the effect she wanted, The patterns and constraints of what makes a typical country song seemed to box her in. Then she asked herself “what would I make if I didn’t have rules?”. After that she felt more free to relax the constraints and take ideas from rock or other sources that she liked. Now she could create her own preferred style.

We can do it, too. What would you make if you didn’t have rules?

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