Can Play Grow Your Painting Skills?


I spend what seems like way too much time playing in my painting sessions. At least, that's often how it feels. We know playtime isn't productive, that if you really want to get something done, you have to work for it, and yet, in the studio, I'm more butterfly than beaver, music on, colours scattered, moving from project to project in a flutter of intuition. Leaning on my wall right now is a massive painting, nearly complete. It's been there for a few months and remains untouched. Right now, it feels like work. (And a bit of fear) so I avoid it. And I feel kind of bad about that, guilty about my procrastination. It's so close to finished! What am I waiting for?

Throwing Caution to the Wind

I didn't touch that painting last week. Instead, impulsively, I threw caution to the wind. I brought leaves in from outdoors, and used them as my brushes, stamping on watercolour paper and embellishing in wash and mark. Then I put the brush away completely and painted a landscape without using a paintbrush at all, grabbing clumps of string, balls of cling wrap, a plastic spoon and a feather to make marks on my paper. For what purpose? It's not reasonable to expect that painting without a brush is going to make my painting better, so was I wasting paper on this little experiment?

Watch the video on painting without a brush here: Stamping with autumn leaves:

Wasting Time and Paper?

Play. We're grown-ups, so we feel guilty about play. Play is only permissible on the weekends, or after our chores are done. Play gets in the way of serious work. Play has no practical application, does it?

When my children were tiny, play was all they knew. Toddlers struggle into too-large shoes to "walk like Mommy" and bites of dinner go down easier when the train choo-choos into the tunnel. When they spoke their first words, they repeated the phrases, songs and stories they heard from their parents, not "practical expressions" from a language textbook, as we might in our quest to learn a new language. They identified their body parts by the games we'd play while diapers were changed and faces wiped; "Where is baby's...nose?! Where is baby's...ear?" The greatest volume of information a person will learn in their lifetime happens in those first years of life, and it's not clinical, laborious or structured.

Freedom to Create Through Play

As an artist, I feel most free when I play. Play requires my heart and personality in a way that "work" doesn't. Play is supposed to be easy, to be fun. We don't say, "her play is the highest caliber," the way we might of someone's work. We look for other criteria in our play; for energy, life, heart and expression. Play should be free of obligation, light on rules that hinder the fun.

My two explorations into play last week were filmed for video and posted on YouTube. Students who tried the exercise commented that they felt free, because there was no expectation of excellence, just a "nothing to lose" mindset that let them play.

If heart-led painting full of self-expression is your goal, then what is keeping you from making play a large part of your process?

Work as Play

Back to my toddlers; when all three kids were too small for school, we made play a big part of everything we did. Food that was less-than-interesting to their palates would receive a light dusting of decorative sprinkles to make it more appealing. Cleaning up the toys was done to a clean-up song. If we could make a game of the unpleasant, it was much more fun!

In the studio, I confess, I'm a bit of a toddler in my work habits. What's shiniest, most interesting to me, gets done first. The tasks I know I "should" do but neglect need strategies to make them more appealing and playful. I don't love doing value studies or thumbnail sketches, but I love mini challenges, so instead of thinking "value study," I think, "2 minutes, one colour" and compete with myself to see if I can render my scene under those criteria. My competitive nature loves challenging myself to paint a scene in as few brush strokes as possible, with the side benefit of strengthening my composition and editing skills. When I get obsessed with my newest paint colour, I challenge myself to make it work with a variety of accent colours, one painting might see me using my newest Daniel Smith Primatek with two complementary colours, thus creating a split-complementary colour scheme, and then trying it again with two similar colours for a more monochromatic (analogous) colour palette. I'm doing the serious work of colour theory, but in a playful way that is developing the skills without really acknowledging the work; I'm just having fun with a new colour!

A Playful Role Model

Picasso has been my model in this pursuit of play. Did you know he created over ten thousand pieces of art? He is known for his paintings and sculptures, but he was also a prolific printmaker and ceramicist. He didn't let himself be pigeon-holed into one style or artistic medium by any concern over what people expected of him. He could not have innovated and developed the cubism movement if he was bound by expectations; the very movement was founded on breaking the mold of expectations of what was appropriate for art!

Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up. - Picasso

To Picasso, the "grown up" mindset was the enemy of art. And he recognized the challenges of remaining playful and curious as an adult. It almost seems as though in adulthood, the "work" becomes learning how to play and be more childlike. Work feels right and appropriate. That's why we celebrate those who challenge the norms; the octogenarian fashion icon, the musician who rejected the mainstream label to play strange, indie music. They are showing a courage and creativity we yearn to emulate, often from the safety of the boxes we place ourselves in.

There are a few things that we risk if we are to give ourselves to the pursuit of play in our art.

We risk our pride.

Play is open to question and explore. Certainty is set aside in favour of "what if." I've seen generations of artists who stand on dogmatic "this is the right way to do it" instruction and display, and it's a vulnerable thing to be someone saying, "Well, we don't really know." Sometimes my art feels like a question, a "what do you think?" and that's a scary thing to hang on a gallery wall when it seems like other artists are hanging statements and declarations.

We risk misunderstanding.

Not everyone is going to embrace your freedom of spirit. It might threaten the safety they feel in certainty, or feel like a rejection of the "right way" of doing things. Some might think you've abandoned skill in pursuit of muddle and chaos. This just makes the collection of people who understand even more intimate and precious. A select group of the like-minded.

We risk mistakes.

We don't win every game we play. Not all paintings created in playful curiosity turn out as masterpieces. Being open to "what if" means sometimes the result is disaster. Play means being willing to fail as well as succeed, for if your focus is on consistently being right, the game's stopped being fun, hasn't it?

What's gained through play?

We play, and the learning doesn't stop, but it becomes less linear. Like the path of a bee to a flower, we spiral, ramble, down paths unexpected, following a circuit known only to our intuition. We play, and we surprise ourselves, achieving more than we anticipated from directions that felt aimless and contrary to good work habits.

Creativity has never been a straight line. Wander, ramble, explore, discover. Create, innovate, invent. Let the unexpected lead and you will find you have more of you to give your art than you ever thought possible!


ArtAngela Fehr21 Comments