Rules vs. Tools

Recently I’ve been reading a lot of watercolor books from the library. It is a great source of hidden gems, but I’ve also waded through a lot of material that does nothing for me and, if anything, turns me off the medium. I’m glad I didn’t find those books first! 

Nothing alienates me quicker than an approach to art that is rules-based: “Do this, not that.” “This is wrong, this is right.” “No. Incorrect.” I thought art was subjective! I am simultaneously too freewheeling and too analytical to accept rules-based systems, because in addition to being rigid, they also tend to be contradictory. Any system of art rules invariably ends with “Rule 10: Break the rules,” which invalidates the whole system.

That’s not to say that I don’t want any information or tips. I am reading a book to learn, after all. Teachers can also go too far the other way, simply saying “It’s all up to you! Everything is right! There are no rules! That splotch you made looks great!” And like… I guess I don’t disagree, but this is not helping me learn to paint the way I want to paint. It feels almost like knowledge-hoarding where the teacher does know how to achieve certain effects but won’t share. 

So how can a teacher thread the needle between being unhelpfully rigid and unhelpfully vague?

The best approach I have seen so far frames lessons as tools. Informational tools, like physical tools, can help you to achieve your goals more easily. You never have to use a given tool. Maybe you’d rather do it another way. Maybe you’re not even trying to tighten a lugnut right now. But learning that a tool is available to you, and how to use it when you want it, can help you to achieve the effects you want.

A rules-based system says: My way or the highway. Everything needs to be done the same. There is a way to fail at art. You need to learn this entire system before you can do anything. Ignore the rules at your peril. 

A tools-based system says: It’s up to you. Here are some options. You might find this helpful. You can learn one tool at a time and gradually incorporate them into your practice. Discard the ones you don’t want. 


Horizon Placement & Dominance

This rule-based explanation of dominance and horizon placement, which comes from Creating Luminous Watercolor Landscapes: A Four Step Process by Sterling Edwards, alienated me with its use of “correct” and “incorrect.” “Oh yeah?” I said to the book, “well I LIKE the ‘incorrect’ one and I WILL DO IT THAT WAY TO SPITE YOU.”
A “problem/solution” framing from Powerful Watercolor Landscapes: 37 Tools for Painting With Impact is very similar, but the subtle reframing from “being correct” to problem-solving (it’s only a problem if you think it’s one), the inclusion of words like “probably” which respect your judgment and acknowledge exceptions, and the general emphasis of the book on framing tips as “tools” made all the difference. “Ah-ha,” I said of this one, “I HAVE come across that problem and not known how to solve it, so thank you!”

Rule of Thirds

An explanation of the Rule of Thirds from Watercolor Landscapes for the Absolute Beginner by Matthew Palmer grates on me by calling composition “bad”, and repeated use of “you should”/”you should never”. Watch me Matt!
The little pamphlet that came with my Art Toolkit enlightens and inspired me more in just one image and two sentences, by phrasing everything in the positive, and as a suggestion.

Color Mixing

Most books are either useless or didactic about color; either they omit the color section entirely, offering no advice on what colors to use, or they tell you exactly what shades to get, and what shades not to get. For example:

Rule: “Black should never be used as it is too dark, so we use a natural gray instead.” – Palmer

Rule: “A tube of gray pigment will never provide the range and subtlety that you can mix yourself from complementary colors.” – Gill

Rule: “Orange is an easy color to mix, so no need to buy it.” – most websites on color mixing I have read, basically

Either these rules are contradictory, or the only “pure” thing to do is have a super-limited palette consisting of just 3 primary colors (or multiple versions of the three primary colors), and mix everything else. (And yes, I advocated the primary-focused approach myself in How to Build a Watercolor Palette from the Ground Up, but I hope I made clear that while I believe those are the most essential colors if you can only pick three, I am not going to throw shade on you for buying other colors! I have other colors!)

My dream approach to color would be something like an extension to Cathy Johnson’s approach to earth tones, which simultaneous suggests earth tones as useful tools for painting/mixing, and also gives you the tools you need to mix them yourself.

This page on earth tones from First Steps Series: Painting Watercolors by Cathy Johnson is enthusiastic about earth tones, but also shows how to mix them with other colors. You could come away inspired whether you like/want/have earth tones in your palette or not.


Looking at my examples, you might say, “What’s the big deal? Generally, these are two ways of saying the same thing.” And it’s true, often the basic info is roughly the same. But the different ways of framing it make a big difference to me emotionally as a student. 

At worst, learning a new rule makes me feel incompetent, ashamed of my past work, and afraid to do anything new (for fear of breaking the rule inadvertently, or other rules I don’t know about). At best, I will continue to think I am great, but think the book is silly and throw it away. 

Learning a new tool, by contrast, makes me feel empowered, reflective about my past work (“oh, that tool might have come in handy when I…”), curious, and excited to try it out! The way information is framed can be the difference between crushing a budding artist, and inspiring them to blossom. 

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