Playtime — what does that mean for an artist?

Playing with handmade paper -- abstract underwater


Most of the time people assume that when I say I'm "playing", they get this vision of me tossing paint onto canvas à la Jackson Pollock, getting paint everywhere and on everything. And I can understand where that perception comes from — Hollywood abounds in a myriad of artistic stereotypes:  think of Ed Harris as the aforementioned manic Pollock, or the tortured, starving Charlton Heston as Michelangelo, Colin Firth as Vermeer, or Jeffrey Wright in Basquiat.


The reality is that each artist's version of "play" is different. What artists share about the experience of "playing" is the love of exploring something new, experimenting and seeing what happens, and being delighted (or even frustrated) with the results. It's rarely a spontaneous, cavalier, nonchalant activity. Those happen of course — with discoveries being made while painting.


But I actually schedule time for "playing" as do many of my colleagues. It takes the pressure off of having to produce something "for sale." Because with my business background and MBA programming, my tendency is to let the left side of my brain drive the right side into oblivion with "musts" and "shoulds" and "gottas." The left side of our brains is constantly judging. It's a harsh taskmaster who's rarely kind to me.


So I schedule "playtime." And the only "planning" I do is to set out a bunch of materials the night before, sometimes with a whole slew of photographs in a slide show, sometimes not, so I have something to start with and don't have anything in my creative way. (And of course there's always music in the background!)


Sometimes, when the weather's right, I play outside with my field journal roaming around until I find scenes I like and taking time to be present and sketching them (I also take photos). I might do one, I might do 20 sketches in the same place. Or I might move on to another location. But it's a day spent exploring shapes, colors, shadows, highlights, textures, smells, sounds — and trying to capture what I'm experiencing on a flat sheet of paper. I tend to do these excursions solo. Once I've found a place I really like, I will then go back and paint it en plein air (on location) with whatever portable studio set up I want to use — I have one for pastels, another for oils, and yet another for watercolor/gouache.


Playtime is serious business for me. It's the one time when I consciously work to silence the left side of my brain. Instead, I listen to music and get into the flow so my right brain takes over. I become so present, so absorbed in the experience of that moment, that absolutely nothing can interrupt my world. In fact, it's sometimes as though the world stands still. I'm aware of what's going on around me, but as in meditation, I let it wash over and go past me without me reacting and letting it interrupt my flow.


When I'm painting, I invariably get pastel dust, or watercolor, or oil paint on me because I'm in a hurry to capture what I'm feeling before I lose those glorious fleeting moments of insight. When I am responding to the marks I've already made on the surface. What kind of mark will I make next and in what color? Where will I put it? Next to it, over it, near it, far away from it. I don't know. Until I start "dancing" and feel the colors.


Playing is a continuous dance of getting close up and moving far away to see what each mark I make looks like, how it makes me feel, and what I feel as I make the next mark in response. I'm in the moment. I become the mark. I become that color. I become the shape. I impart the energy I feel.


(See the painting above) Which turns out to be: I'm feeling a beautiful teal belongs next to that gorgeous bright magenta, and a bright magenta feels perfect with a luscious chartreuse breaking through. Then I'm feeling a swirl of aqua above that cobalt blue sweep, then that deep violet just feels right in a big swatch on the opposite side. I'm moving through the water effortlessly, seeing the kelp sway and the fish as they swim by, sea turtles munching on the coral, and curious sea lions darting here and there. I've transported myself into the painting and I become the painting.


I grab a bright lemon yellow and lay some small patches down, but it doesn't feel right, it brings a discordant note I don't like and suddenly I feel out of tune. So I overlay it with a deeper bright green and ah! Now that feels just right. 


This is playing for me. I haven't decided yet whether the painting is done. Or even if I'll make it available for sale. I only know that this was a wonderful playtime for me because I learned a lot about the handmade paper I chose, how it reacts to different techniques, how it handles soft pastels. It was a delightful experience. And it happened over several days.


Sharing all of this with you is a bit like me stripping naked for you. Creating art is an intensely, deeply intimate act for me. It's difficult for me to talk about in person privately, let alone on camera. It's challenging to describe and break into digestible thoughts that make sense to someone else. I am not a "performance" artist. There are many who enjoy painting in public and seek out those opportunities.

And painting en plein air can be truly daunting for me. It's not that I don't like talking with people. It's that I find it difficult to get into a true flow when I'm distracted. And if I focus on my painting to get into and stay in the flow while en plein air and someone asks a question, I often come across as rude, crude, and abrupt. (Who me? wink)


Well, that's about all I can handle sharing right now. Time to go find some clothing to put on before I catch a cold.