Rules that don’t exist could be regarded as lies, because sometimes they are.
Thou shalt hate Monday.
Thou shalt wait thirty minutes to swim after eating.
Thou shalt not celebrate without thine calendar’s permission.
Lies, all lies.
In the art world there is a rule that states, “Thou shalt stick to one style.” In order to find success as an artist, the thinking goes, you should stick to one identifiable visual style. That’s because you can get more traction, more quickly, if it’s easier for people to remember you and recognize your work.
As a rule, it’s true.
But just because a rule is true doesn’t mean you have to follow it.
Consider Ed Emberley. I loved his drawing books growing up and constantly borrowed them from the library when I was a kid. With his alphabet of simple marks, you could draw animals and monsters and entire cities and worlds. It was only as an adult that I realized he was a real guy. I always wondered if Ed Emberley was a made-up name, like Betty Crocker or Uncle Ben or or Ha Ha Clinton-Dix. (Fun fact: that last one’s real.)
While browsing the gift shop at the Art Institute of Chicago, I stumbled upon a retrospective of Ed’s career. As I dug into it, I was surprised to see that he had tons of different styles. Besides the well-known drawing books, he also made woodcuts and dabbled in a variety of other methods that looked like they were made by completely different artists.
Turns out that Ed saw himself more as a bookmaker than an artist. Ed created the art he felt the book called for. And perhaps even more importantly, he craved variety. Ed pointed to Charles Schulz, who achieved undeniable success, saying, “He did wonderful work till the day he died. His work was perfect. But for me, I could not draw Charlie Brown 8,000 times. I just couldn’t do it.”
Was Ed wrong? I don’t know. He has sold millions of books in his career, so it seems like he made an ok choice. And Picasso also made a pretty good name for himself despite changing styles regularly throughout his career.
Of course, this isn’t only relevant to artists. There are lots of right ways to catch a fish. Market a product. Give a presentation. Take a vacation. Teach sewing. Learn a language. Throw a party. Educate a child.
Don’t let anyone convince you that one right way of doing something makes it a rule.
Who knows? Maybe Ed would have been more successful if he stuck to one style. Maybe he would have sold a million more books.
Or maybe he would have just been more miserable.
Sometimes the opposite of a right way is right, too.