5 Painting Rules You Should Break

When learning to paint, whether you’re self-taught or attending art school or other classes, you’ll inevitably come across techniques or theories that are presented to you as rules you must follow.

Some of these ‘rules’ are actually pretty useful, and if you stick to them you won’t go far wrong.

But there are exceptions to every rule, and it’s important to know when to break them.

Here are 5 painting ‘rules’, along with certain circumstances under which you may want to think twice about those rules.

1. Always Paint from Dark to Light

IMG_20150426_115047A common strategy for approaching a painting, is to begin with the darkest darks, and gradually progress through the midtones to the lights, adding your highlights right at the end.

This is because it’s usually a good idea to keep your darks thin, as it helps with the illusion of depth, and it’s not easy to put thin darks on top of thicker lights, hence why it’s best to get the darks down first.

This is certainly a solid approach and one I follow regularly.

When to break the rule:

The trouble with placing your darkest darks first is that you don’t have anything other than the white canvas to judge them against, so it can be difficult to get the right value initially.

It helps to start with a midtone ground rather than a bright white canvas, but it can also be helpful to place some lighter values right at the start, so you have something to judge your darks against.

Sargent discovered that it helped to leave the dark and light accents until the very end, as he explains:

Be wary of methods that become too specific. I was taught without deviation to place the lightest light and darkest dark on the canvas first and then to paint everything else in between. Years later, I found it more helpful, if not more efficient, to hold back my lightest light and darkest dark until the painting had reached its final stage. Establishing and fine tuning the middle values first allowed you to better judge the proper light and dark accents. This shouldn’t be taken as a rule per se, but it will often produce a fresher looking finish.

2. Never Use Black Paint

You’ll often hear artists say that you shouldn’t use pre-mixed tubes of black paint, such as Ivory Black or Mars Black, and in general that’s good advice.

Black pigments can make your paintings look flat, especially if you use black to darken other colours, or just use it straight out of the tube for dark shadows.

You’ll often end up with a more vibrant painting if you mix your ‘blacks’ from combinations of other colours, such as Ultramarine Blue and Burnt Umber.

When to break the rule:

Black paint certainly has its uses, particularly when mixed with other colours.

Ivory Black actually tends towards blue so it’s possible to use it as a blue substitute. You could mix a very dark shadow colour from Ivory Black and Burnt Umber. Or try mixing black and yellow for some interesting olive greens.

As a general rule I’d advise avoiding tube black, especially if you’re a beginner, but it’s definitely worth experimenting with it to see what effects you can create.

3. Warm Light, Cool Shadows (and vice versa)

This is very close to a hard and fast rule you can rely on – If the light source is warm, then the shadows will be cool, and if the light source is cool, then the shadows will be warm.

When to break the rule:

As Richard Schmid points out in his classic book Alla Prima, there are a few exceptions to this rule, like when there are a lot of reflections involved, so the light might bounce around into the shadows, affecting the temperature, or when light is travelling through a transparent substance, like water.

In cases like those, don’t rely on the rule, make sure you check the scene and paint what you’re actually seeing, even if it seems to go against the rule you’re familiar with.

4. The Rule of Thirds

The rule of thirds is a compositional device whereby you divide your painting surface into three equal sections, both horizontally and vertically, and you place your focal point at any one of the intersecting points.

This tends to result in a more pleasing and interesting composition than if you placed your focal point, say, dead centre, or too close to the edge of the painting, for example.

When to break the rule:

Using the rule of thirds to help place the elements of your paintings is not a bad practice in general, but if you rely on it too often, your work may become formulaic and predictable, so it’s a good idea to shake things up from time to time by experimenting with unusual compositions.

Try cropping your subject harshly along the edge of your painting, or placing it centrally if you think it will help get your message across.

Sometimes a non-standard composition might be exactly what your painting needs, so don’t be afraid to push the boundaries if you think it will work for you.

5. Warm Colours Advance, Cool Colours Recede

It’s a widely held belief that if you want something to appear closer, you should paint it warmer, and if you want something to recede into the distance you should paint it cooler.

Again, there is some truth to this, and it can work, but it’s not a hard and fast rule.

I think this rule comes from the fact that in a landscape scene, the objects in the distance are filtered through more atmosphere, and certain colours are filtered out of our vision. The first colours to be filtered out are the warm oranges, reds and yellows, so that distant objects appear more blue, as well as less saturated, generally speaking.

When to break the rule:

This rule mainly works for landscapes in daylight.

In other lighting conditions, such as sunsets, night scenes, or anything with artificial lighting, you can have very warm colours in the distance, and cool colours in the foreground.

Again, ignore the rule, and just paint what you’re seeing (or not).

Rules are made to be broken

Any time someone tells you a ‘rule’ of painting, try to think of situations where it might not apply, and don’t be afraid to experiment with breaking the rules.

Do you know any other rules of painting, and exceptions to those rules? Please share in the comments!





22 responses to “5 Painting Rules You Should Break”

  1. kirsten Avatar

    Should you always paint what you see? In what sort of situations might you be deceived by what you think you see? (For instance, people putting the eyes too far up in a face)

    1. Dan Johnson Avatar

      Sorry for the late reply here! (2+ years later!)

      If you put the eyes too far up in a face then you’re not painting what you see, you are, as you say, being deceived by what you think you see.

      In this case it helps to be informed by what you know, for example, studying the anatomy of the head and learning that the eyes fall roughly halfway down the head, so that you can use that knowledge to help you draw what you’re actually seeing.

      Hope that helps!

      1. Pauline Dodds Hyland Avatar
        Pauline Dodds Hyland

        Young children draw adult heads with eyes at the top very little hair because that is what they see, looking up often large mouths ad amusing views up nostrils too! It becomes easier to explain the proportions of the face as the student grows.aßà. Teens beginto change their placement as they grow and become more equal in height.

        1. Lee Krbavac Avatar

          Thanks Pauline, that makes sense never really thought of that before 😁

    2. Michael Avatar

      I am an expert with projecting Shape and shadows with pencil or charcoal drawings. But have trouble doing those same values with color. I have been told if one could project light and darks in their drawings, like myself, I will be able to project depth with colors. I have tried and tried to do numerous time to no prevail. I have this stigma that I am intemerdated of color. What should I do to break the stigma for color so I can paint portraits?

      1. Sinead Lawless Avatar

        Hi Michael. As I understand it colour has three main properties: hue, tone/value and chroma. It is possible to use something as simple as black and white to affect the tone/value of let’s say red ( ‘nicer’ to use complementary.) Things get tricky when there’s more than one colour. Colour is relative so placing certain colours besides each other can make them appear different. When you adjust a colours chroma/saturation it can also affect its tone/value.
        To understand it better I recommend taking a look at the Munsell Color System.

  2. kirsten Avatar

    Oh and thanks very much for your informative post!

  3. Lee Avatar

    I think it is a good idea to paint what you see, not forgetting to ALWAYS use your minds eye.

    1. Doreen Aitken Avatar

      So glad I found this site this morning. Being self taught for 50 years then some formal tutoring I feel l am finally unlearnig and learning anew.

  4. […] The last site that I looked at was 5 painting rules that you should break and this site really helped me in creating the pieces that I made for this week I feel I improved a bit but not a lot. It was helpful in the way of getting an understanding of what to do with warm and cool colours and this week I feel I understood the concept more and was able to get a better result in the work that I was producing. Reference- Link […]

  5. Kris Avatar

    I just broke rule #1 (accidentally)) and got a great effect on my painting. I should have read Sargent long ago! Thanks for this. Also love happy accidents.

  6. Z Shore Avatar
    Z Shore

    Photograph an image you would like to paint, then turn it upside down. And paint what you see. Removes ALL preconceptions, and is an eye-opening learning experience…

  7. Susan Walsh Avatar
    Susan Walsh

    I’m self taught and I’m stuck on a painting. Do you give feedback however brief?

    1. Dan Avatar

      Hi Susan. If you get in touch here I’ll see if I can help.

  8. Karrie Lannstrom Avatar
    Karrie Lannstrom

    Very informative , yes happy accidents and what the painting calls more in the moment sure do give interesting results.
    instead of following what we think we must do its liberating to go with the heart and minds eye instead of the tyranny of reality. Mind u some good works get either better or worse with that view
    .Ive been painting for 20 years Mid Life Crisis ) and blessed to have had great TAFE teachers back in the day before Arts courses got seriously slashed .
    I still think it’s good to know the rules and history of Art..that way we can have an informed Revolt.
    Thanks for the gr8 post

  9. Robert Avatar

    Sigh…..finally…..I’m older now and self taught and after some frustrating issues with black out of the tube, not all of them, I have been chasing the flat effect on some critical areas and at least now I know why, …after asking some “pros” who didn’t have the answers…
    Thank you and happy new year!

  10. Mary smith Avatar
    Mary smith

    Hi DJ! Im a self taught painter/crafter jack of all trades, master of none! I’ve just started a painting in oils and wondered whether to paint from dark to light or light to dark. In the past I’ve always just painted without giving this any thought, so I googled the question and up came this site! I was surprised as I’m booked on to a plein air workshop with Pegasus you are doing in May by the canal. The reason I’m painting in oils is because of this plein air workshop and I thought I’d get in some practise with new colours!
    I’ve just sat down and written notes on all the above rules (when I should be getting on with painting)! So THANK YOU for these great tips! Looking forward to painting by the canal. Hope the weather is perfect!

    1. Dan Avatar

      I think you may have me confused with someone else, as I’m not doing any plein air workshops, but anyway, dark to light is a general rule for oil painting, but it depends largely on what you are painting, and your specific technique. I hope you enjoy your painting workshop by the canal!

  11. Steve Lewis Avatar
    Steve Lewis

    Dan: nice piece. Thanks for getting it out there.

    I was taught (Central College in London when dinosaurs ruled the earth) the same rules ^^^ and when to break them (whenever breaking them works for the painting or topic). But it was good to read your take on them. Specially mindful of the warning about . Burnt umber softened with cobalt violet is worth a try… but ANY experiments are valid! LOL!

    Anyhow, thanks again.

  12. Christina Canady Avatar
    Christina Canady

    I am a self taught painter, and suggest that anyone getting started with color work invest in a GOOD quality color wheel. It allows you to easily see what colors are opposite one another (contrasting colors- more vibrant effect),as well as a series of different SHADES of the same color, plus the benefit of complementary colors for reference. Don’t consider it “cheating “, rather, it’s utilizing all available tools to help you create your vision!

  13. Betty Bruce Avatar
    Betty Bruce

    Thank you! I really enjoyed read your words. Every new bit of information is invaluable. Keep up the good work!

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