Examining and Challenging Rules in Art Making with Jeweler Ricky Frank

Enamelist Ricky Frank discusses rules and laws and how they can help challenge you so you can advance your skills or move in a new direction.

Authored by Ricky Frank

Last edited: 10/25/2019
Examining a cloisonne enamel pendant

This article from 2014 is by Ricky Frank, a master enamelist and jeweler whose work has been exhibited at some of the nation's top craft shows, including the Smithsonian Craft Show and the Philadelphia Museum Craft Show. This story first appeared in the Florida Society of Goldsmiths' Spring 2014 newsletter.

I received an email from Rio Grande the other day letting me know that one of the YouTube enameling videos I made for them had received a disturbing comment, and could I please respond to the remark. The viewer felt nervous about my quenching hot enamel in water, and went on to say that "good enameled item must be done only by respecting the 'Golden' rules of the process." He felt like my impatience was doing a disservice to those wanting to make artful enamels.

Though I don't enjoy being criticized, the comment led me to examining my thoughts on the quenching process in particular and the idea of "rules" in general. I realized that there was some information I had taken for granted and left out (quenching does cause small cracking and therefore I don't quench on a final firing) and this should added into future videos. In a classroom setting this information often comes out because students ask questions. When making videos it's important to anticipate the questions students might ask and provide the answers as part of the tutorial. A great lesson to learn!

Definitions: Rules and Laws

The statement about "rules" really pushed my buttons. After I wrote a simple response regarding my feelings about rules and art, I couldn't let it go and after a lot of thought decided that this would make a great topic for an article on "making art." First I consulted Webster's Dictionary for some definitions. A rule is defined as "a statement that tells you what is or is not allowed in a particular game or situation." Also, a rule is a "prescribed guide for conduct or action." My translation of these definitions is that a rule is an authoritative opinion as to the "right" way of doing something. But it certainly doesn't mean that it is the only way to do something.

"Remember that a rule is just one way in which to do something. Ask yourself if the rules you adhere to are helping you or creating obstacles."

—Ricky Frank

I then thought about "laws" within the context of making. A "law" is defined as a "statement of an order or relation of phenomena that so far is known is invariable under the given conditions." My interpretation of this is that when I perform a specific action, I will see a consistent result if the conditions are the same. If I heat sterling silver, it will oxidize. Solder will melt at a specific temperature. When enamel melts it goes through a process of changing from sugar fired to orange peel and then glossy. It cannot skip a step or go backwards. These are "laws" about process. They happen whether you believe in them or not. These may also be referred to as "principles."

In other words, "rules" come from man and "laws" come from nature. As a maker, it's important to understand the difference between the two so that you know what is possible and what is not. Rules can be broken, while laws just are what they are. If you are aware that you are dealing with a rule, then you can choose to either follow the rule or break the rule.

Who Makes the Rules?

Rules don't just fall out of thin air. When a successful result is achieved, it is usually repeated. A method or procedure may then be passed down through generations, either through books or teachers. Over time and with repetition, it may be recognized as a "rule," an established and accepted way to do something.

Types of Rules

Rules may be described as implicit or explicit. An implicit rule is something that is not always obvious. It may be a result of not questioning how or why a technique is used. Explicit rules are more obvious and clearly stated. Rules may also be self- imposed or involuntary. You create the rules or go along with the rules someone has taught you.

There are different types of rules in the art-making world. A rule of procedure or technique might be the step-by-step order in which one performs a task. This might also include what not to do. Tool use often has rules. A technique may call for a specific tool and a specific way to use that tool. Materials also often come with clearly defined sets of rules. We are told how to use the material, and what it may be used to do.

Artistic design may come with a set of rules prescribed by teachers, peers, the marketplace, or society. And your own personal belief system may be a result of rules you have decided upon for yourself: the way you think things "should" be. This might be a code of conduct (plagiarism/copying) or the "way" you run your business (pricing). You might even adhere to an implicit rule as to how you begin the creative process, without considering other possibilities.

Rules May Be Helpful

Rules can give you a feeling of control. You think you know how to do something. When learning something new this can help you have a feeling of confidence and feelings of fear may vanish or lessen. After all, if an expert is telling you the way to do something, it must be "right." These procedural/technical rules offer a starting point for skill development. Rules may also offer a sense of physical safety in your studio. The "rule" of adding acid to water and not the reverse will prevent a possible dangerous chemical reaction from occurring.

Rules also offer some help in the creative process. The creative act is one of solving problems or answering questions. Knowing what question you are asking or what problem you are attempting to solve is critical. Think of a rule as a "boundary;" it creates a limit on what you "can't" do. This allows you to FOCUS on what you can do. Without these limits or boundaries it is easy to be overwhelmed with possibilities.

Many years ago I set up a creative problem to solve. I made up a few rules to help me go in a new direction with my enamel jewelry. I gave myself the challenge of making 100 pairs of earrings over a weekend. This placed boundaries on the quantity to make, the type of item (earrings) to make, and the amount of time available. This forced me to think outside of the box of what I thought my enamel jewelry "should look like." The result was a simpler and less expensive pair of earrings that became a staple of my product line for several years as I built my business.

Remember that a rule is just one way in which to do something. It is not the only way. Ask yourself if the rules you adhere to are helping you or creating obstacles. Are you even aware of the many rules implicit in your art and your life? Begin to watch how you think and how you work. Make a list of some of your rules, and then make a conscious choice to break them.

Here are some ideas:

  • Use a new material. Use a material in a different way.
  • Adapt a tool. Invent a new tool.
  • Leave a piece with a rough finish instead of polished. Or do the opposite.
  • Work in a different color palette. Use a different inspiration to provide color ideas.
  • Change the size, quantity, price or technique of making the work.

Developing awareness of WHAT YOU ARE DOING AND WHY will help your growth as an artist and give you a feeling of greater freedom. Use rules to help you, and get rid of the ones you don't want. Rules are made to be broken!

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