contemporary collage paintings
the process
Leslie Avon Miller

My life flows when I'm in my art.

Jean De Muzio

Thursday, November 19, 2009

The Pirates Code: A Tale of the Red Crayon

Mark Making Experiments

Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl


Elizabeth: Wait! You have to take me to shore. According to the Code of the Order of the Brethren...

Captain Barbossa : First, your return to shore was not part of our negotiations nor our agreement so I must do nothing. And secondly, you must be a pirate for the pirate's code to apply and you're not. And thirdly, the code is more what you'd call "guidelines" than actual rules.

This dialog from the movie has always stuck with me. Pirates have some short comings, certainly, but the attitude that the Pirates Code “is more what you’d call guidelines” is fabulous!

The scene: 2nd grade classroom

Teacher, smile on her face: “Class you have an assignment…”

Me: Hey, we had been given an art assignment! How fun! We had choices of what to draw and color! Much better than math, or one of those other subjects. So I made a choice to draw my church. I drew the building and the small town streets around it. And I colored the streets red. Yes red. Because I wanted to and I liked it! I liked my red crayon.

Teacher, stern look on her face: Class – I’m terribly disappointed. Your work is all wrong! And I wanted to hang it proudly in the hall for Parents Night. It would make me look like a Good Teacher. And you have not done what I envisioned. So now you will do it over.

Teacher, passing back the student’s work: Leslie, you know roads aren’t red. I want you to do this over again and do it right!

So, glad to have yet another opportunity to create art, I side stepped the issue. I changed my drawing and found another great subject. I carefully drew a family of deer, brown beings in the green woods. The Daddy deer had a massive set of antlers. The Mommy deer was beautiful with her shinny black hooves, and her smart black crayon outlined form. And the baby had as many spots as I could possibly fit in. And I had done two drawings and I liked both of them.

And the deer family drawing was hung on the bulletin board for Parents Night. Because I followed the rules.

There are so, so many rules developed about art – design principals, design elements, rules of particular artistic societies, rules about what you can and can not use, rules about framing, archiving, you name it- there is a rule about it! And you know what all those rules are about? They are about thinking about your art.

I want to Express myself through art. I want my art to be an expression that includes my Soul. I want to be as Authentic as I can be and I want to feel I am giving my all. Art is a dialog and a dance, a poem and a symphony – and I am only part of the conversation. The Work has a Voice and the Viewer has a Voice.

A perfectly executed set of applied rules does not interest me. Coloring within the lines earns a smile from the teacher, but it is boring! The soulfulness of the expression is what grabs me.

Do I think it’s helpful to know the guidelines – yes! Do I think it’s helpful to be a slave to them? No! The rules can get in your way, and cause paralysis. I think more art is stymied by fear and internalized judgment than any other block! Be brave – break a rule, or not. It’s your choice. Its only ART!

And of course that is why there are so many encouraging words, quotes, and teachers out there. Because there are so many lovers of rules, so many ready to offer a judgment – from their head, not their soul. Side step them, summersault away, but get out from under all that.

Know that you already know the rules. Know your soul knows what to do. And just get in there and find your flow. Make art. See what happens.

You are only given a little spark of madness. You mustn’t loose it.

Robin Williams


  1. Your calligraphy is so very poetic and full of mysterious rhythms. I think you are onto something terrific. You are tapping into an inner musical spirit.

    Wishing you good luck,

  2. Forgive my oversight, I also meant to include the wonderful artwork of yours on the sidebar. -e

  3. Great artwork, your are so talented !

  4. Your writing about "rules" reminds me of a comment I once heard: "Quebec where the drinking age is merely a suggestion" Ah if we could think of rules more in that way, how less confined by them we would feel.

    I love your mark making and your piece of writing about it. It seems like when we create art in this way you speak of it is so authentically "us". It is a true expression of something inside and that's when it speaks to others, as your work and writing always does.

  5. "Art is a dialog and a dance, a poem and a symphony - and i am only part of the conversation." I love that line.

  6. It's so refreshing to hear how we all have that same "teacher" experience.
    Making art is making joy externalized, who needs more than that.

    Thanks for sharing your insights and your art.


  7. Mark Making Experiments are great!

  8. I hear you sister! Rules are good but definitely need to be broken! I'm with you. If I want to paint words on my figure's face then I will because that's what I need to express. Art is about what's in the heart.
    Love your work!

  9. Wonderful, Leslie! The rules have paralysed me before. I feel elated after reading your post, and that quote from Robin Williams was an inspiring way to finish.

  10. Argh! I see I'm not the only one with pirates and Depp on my mind this week.

    Super post, fabulous piece.

  11. Well said!! I hate to think how many of us are crippled by some remark made about our art during childhood.

    Bet you can't wait for the weekend to continue the mark making experiments. Enjoy!

  12. I like the way you express your desire to create freely and I love the work you create. I think the act of putting yourself in your art is a very personal one and this defines how you go about creating your output. I work both figuratively and abstractly. It is much easier to freely create when you work abstractly and even more so when you work non-objectively.At least that is how I feel but I am still thinking about a pleasing composition.

    When you want to say here is something in the world that I want you to notice and this is my commentary on it, you use every way you know to bring the viewer's attention to what you are creating. I want to know every trick there is because I am more interested in the end in the viewer's interaction with my work. That is my personal reason for creating art. It goes back, I think, to my profession of engaging the mind, of creating connections, of questioning, of extending information. There's more than one way to communicate. Thankfully, as artists and learners we have choices to interact in ways that match our intent. I believed this in my teaching career because I was the product of teachers who exemplified your description above. I've discovered that through my art I am still a teacher!

    My most recent post is an example of a work created without much thought to rules. I didn't know very many of them then. I've always loved this work and it is purely a reaction to my love of the environment in summer.I could analyze it and find it wanting, but it does what I wanted it to do. Could it be compositionally better - yes. Today, could I create a stronger image that would improve my message - yes. Do rules help me? - yes. Do I break rules?-yes. Are there certain "rules" I use more than others? - yes. Am I a successful artist?-yes. Am I happy creating?-yes Do I love your work? _yes Are you happy creating?- yes Am I on a roll? yes!
    Happy day. Leslie

  13. Lovely painting, Leslie. And a great post. "Authentic". . . intellectually I know what the word means. Getting to the emotional gist of that word is a whole different matter. You should do a blog post about it, as only you could. And, by the way, my little Betsy (5 years old today) has started to WANT to color inside the lines. And my little neighbor Stella (in Kindergarten) was awarded a big RED X on her paper because she hadn't been neat, hadn't stayed within the lines.

  14. I think that applies to life as well as art.

    If you want to life an authentic life.

    Or have I just created a new rule?

  15. A wonderful, inspiring, well-thought-out post -- as usual.

    Those words "the soulfulness of the expression" is enough to get me up into the studio this morning.

    Perhaps I will spend the rest of the morning thinking about red roads.

    Thanks for sharing that story.

  16. Hi Leslie,

    This freedom of which you speak should encourage us all, whether we think of ourselves as artist or not. Presumably, the rules have always been changing anyway, if we look at art through the ages, from the cave man onwards. Guidelines is a much better term.

  17. Beautiful painting and no truer words were spoke...

  18. Thought provoking post Leslie, both pirate code and your personal story of the "red road". This new piece is quite beautiful and a lovely outcome to the studio marks. I especially like the red/brown markings! What is the size of this piece? You are on your authentic still get to pick the color!

  19. I love the restfulness of these soft colours - main pic and sidebar too. And oh how many teachers have turned young children away from art because of their thoughtless and critical comments. If we want to paint the sun blue, well maybe that day, it was blue, and teacher could not see it! At least you had the opportunity to paint two pictures and now make magnificent art.

    I once, long ago when teaching 8 year olds got so tired of the inevitable blue sky, green grass and blue river that I took the class for a nature walk and asked them to really look at what they saw, and then came back into class and asked my pupils to use all the colours they could see in the clouds, trees and river; some surprising results ensued (a 'brown river, Miss' with streaks of such wonderful shades).

    P.S. Roads are red if they are wet and a red bus is reflected therein. Silly teacher, glad she did not put you off for good.

  20. I think the challenge for all artists is to find the right blend of drawing inside and outside the lines.

    Many rules are there because their use is appealing to viewers - there are reasons for them, I suppose. So just as we can't afford to slavishly follow the rules, we can't afford to ignore them either.

    The talented artist knows just which to use when and which to not follow and why.

    I'm really enjoying your "mark-making" experiments! I think they deserve more than that moniker - how about "finished pieces ready to hang"?

  21. Yeah! good for you Leslie-- it is good to learn the rules in the beginning so you know when you are breaking them later-- to show that you have the power and not the painting.

  22. I agree with Donna - rules should be known to modify and crease them.... the same is true with spelling fo rme...

    The image on top is starkingly glorious - I just loivce its grace and timelessness. It is old and new and a whispher and a shout. Beautiful.

  23. My one told me there were RULES! I just love reading your blogs. And I love your artwork.

  24. wonderful post Leslie, but then I've never followed the rules, it's already been done :)

  25. "And you have not done what I envisioned." The very worst thing an art teacher can say...!

    Keep breaking the rules, and coloring the streets red. You have the soul of an artist, and a poet too. :-)

  26. hurrah for the red crayon. There is a book called Harold and the purple crayon however I dont recall it's theme at the mo. Lovely painting and lovely thoughts and words about the way we stop ourselves and others with the "rules." It is so easy when teaching to make it sound like what one is saying is THE way. We tend to teach in a linear form whereas life is multilinear, circular, spiral. This aspect of life is harder to convey with linear words. When I taught i always used a disclaimer saying that what i presented was only ONE of many ways to approach writing (I was a writing teacher not art) and that the most important thing was to find your own way your own voice.

  27. my eye doc made me color w/red crayons when i was just a tot...guess i had a tired your insights and memories.

  28. Your posts are always so intellectually honest. Deep thought plus a guiding creative imperative to go beyond thought! I value and respect your insight and love your art.

  29. To love that little spark of madness--wonderful quote and post.
    I had a kindergarten teacher who punished me for breaking the rules of creativity, and it's amazing how those experiences stay with us, or how we spend our art-making lives allowing ouselves to return to that 'spark of madness' that is so hard to hold on to with all the rules surrounding us; and yet it is that spark that makes us who we are:))
    Ah-hoy to your fun pirate-ey calligraphic swirls.

  30. your mark making experiments are just lovely. calligraphy is such a beautiful art form and where you've gone with it is just stunning. rules are not for artists.

  31. as a second grade teacher, i was the "anti-one" that you write of...honoring students, that soul you speak of, always encouraging the "spark of madness" to stay alive in them, and now, in me. undo those "teachers" i had.
    YOUR MARKINGS are JOYFUL...the spring of those sweeps!! the flow of your soul!!

  32. "Know your soul knows what to do." I like that line. It is freeing, inspiring, and ultimately the key to letting go and trusting your own creativity.

  33. Yes, I agree that it's important to know the guidelines. Less important to stay within them. Thanks for this inspirational story!

  34. Lordy,Leslie,,, I love this work you do!
    Fabulous,,,getting caught up with your blog has made my day.

  35. This has been a great conversation! Wishing all who celebrate Thanksgiving at this time a good one! See you next week.

  36. just tripped down the page. You have a wonderful blog. -Jayne

  37. These comments from you remind me of the first time I met my watercolor teacher in college. He had us paint something and I used blue. Blue item, blue shadows. He came by and told me that "there is no blue in that (whatever it was) are banned from blue for the rest of the semester". Can you believe that? An art teacher telling someone that what they saw was wrong? I guess you can! Another thing: what about the Fauvists?? Pink buildings, green clouds??? What? Did anyone tell them it was wrong? I doubt it! Or maybe they did!

  38. Re-reading a few posts. Must mention how much I love the image of leaf, vintage photo and printing block at the end of the page.


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