Break the rules before you (un)learn them.

If you were once one of my art students, you can preemptively put your finger underneath your jaw and apply a little pressure– just to keep it in place for what I’m about to say. 

Most days lately, I go into the studio without a plan or a sketch. Without so much as a notion. Typically this is fine on a small canvas. Small canvases are innocuous little things, easily repurposed or discarded. The paint “wasted” is negligible. 

But a large canvas, I once proselytized my students into believing, requires a level of planning. It demands at least a thumbnail sketch or two. We’ve got to get in there and figure some things out before we go big, before we’re four tubes of titanium white in and decide it was all for naught. 

I wish I had told them that their lives are full of changing seasons and the one that existed in that classroom –3201– was one where we needed to experience thorough planning if only to roll down the windows of our training and let all of it just fly out when the days got shorter or the leaves started falling. 

The season I am in now is one where risks feel powerful and trusting my intuition important. With school back in session, my studio time, while still limited, has become undisturbed once again, and I have felt forcefully pulled toward it, wanting to dive in headfirst, wasting no time in the abstract but getting right to the physical act of applying paint to the canvas. This week, I did just that. Without planning, fretting, designing or rethinking, I jumped right onto a large three foot by four foot canvas. Painting big allows me to use my whole body; this one felt satisfying not just in the colors and shapes but in the actual movement. 

I tried not to think about it too much and moved intuitively from one color and shape to the next. I reserved (somehow) my judgments, and let it be whatever it would be. I recently read a beautiful book called The Wisdom of your Body. In it Hillary McBride describes the healing nature of intuitive movement and dance. My studio practice recently felt akin to that kind of embodied and yet unselfconscious kind of expression. 

The painting I began isn’t finished. I don’t even know if I’ll still like it the next time I walk into the studio, and by that time it may be a new season, one of refining, thoughtful decision-making, and even a healthy dose of frustration.  

The saying goes that you have to know the rules before you break them, and maybe that can be true in certain seasons. But don’t we, more often, break the rules before we’ve ever heard of them? We stumble before we know the mechanics of walking, babble before we understand nouns and verbs, wiggle before we pirouette. Learning the rules is applying structure and guidance to what we have already intuitively experienced, expressed, and lived. 

When my world feels hyper-defined by written and unwritten rules about who, what, and how I should be, I find the practice of intuitive painting liberating. Let me know if you have any similar experiences with your intuition and I’ll keep you posted on how this piece develops.

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