Play, playfulness, playing. Beautiful words, and I think these concepts are integral to the creative process. Have you “just” played recently?
I would say that playing in art means giving yourself a slightly different set of conditions than those you usually use for creating so that you can break free from your habitual patterns. Playing also involves relinquishing some control over the outcome and that’s what makes it different than simply exploring.
The reward of playing is freshness and rejuvenation. Playing requires a different sort of intellectual and emotional engagement with what you are doing than does your usual work. I notice that each time I structure in playtime that the busier, analytical side of my mind gets a rest. I remember once again what I love about my medium.
I recently came across a journal article with a rather intriguing title, Mammalian Play: Training for the Unexpected. Although the article wasn’t directed toward artists, I liked its hypotheses to explain why playing is so important to us. The authors (biologists) suggest that “the act of playing is training for animals to develop flexible responses to unexpected events.”
Some of My Favourite Ways to Play
When I structure in playtime I remind myself that for the next half hour I am not after a certain outcome–this piece will not go into my stacks and it is not meant to be the start of a new series. In fact, there is NO OBJECTIVE for this piece. For this short while I simply get to dance with the skills I’ve been learning and the materials that I love. I remind myself this isn’t a piece that I need to “finish” or to make the best I can. Then I put on some music (maybe a favourite tune or maybe something completely new) and I’m ready to have fun.
Play looks different to different artists, but it usually involves changing one or more aspects of your usual process. For example:
— if you usually work with horizontal pieces, set up your support vertically
— change something about your colour palette (I’ll sometimes go for a brilliant yellow or bright red that I wouldn’t normally feature in a painting)
— play with a very different size of support or type of movements (go big if you usually go small and vice versa)
— if you usually work from a reference photo, try playing without one (or turn it upside down)
— change your support (If you always work on canvas, play with Yupo or watercolour paper)
— switch up your usual tools for different ones (palette knives instead of brushes, etc.)
— adopt a different point of view. Below is a painting by my 5-year-old nephew. How might you approach your medium if you imagined yourself as a young child?
This seems to me to be a pretty good description of why artists (and the artist in all of us) need to play: so that we’re ready to receive and use the gift of the “unexpected” when it arrives in our work.Some artists like to structure regular periods of play into their schedule; other artists choose to play when they know they are getting stale in their approach to their work. It’s your choice, but know that by taking a little time away from your serious work to play, you are helping to train yourself in how to react when the unexpected arrives in your studio. And that’s a pretty great by-product of having fun.
I think play is important in all aspects of our lives, so if “art looking” is more your thing than “art making” how about these forms of play:
— head out for a run one block over from your typical route
— choose a new-to-you item at the grocery story (I recently picked up burdock root, which lead me to looking up recipes for it, which will lead to tonight’s dinner)
— turn your music selection to random while on your walk
— read fiction instead of non-fiction or vice versa
— play a game of fussball (foosball/table football), especially if you don’t have great bilateral hand control – so fun!
What do you think? When have you experienced play in your work? How does playing help prepare you for the unexpected in your art and life?
I’m looking forward to hearing your stories and to continue sharing the journey in the coming weeks and months.
All the very best,