A most amazing toy

Dear Artist, Some recent experiments with four and five year olds have confirmed what we have always known. A strange new toy was presented individually to 85 children. It was a conglomeration of coloured pipes and knobs specifically designed to do a lot of things — squeak, transform, etc. The children were all separately videotaped playing with the toy. The time they played with it and the number of iterations discovered was also recorded.

The more the kids played with it, the more things they found it could do.

Here’s the fun part: Some of the children were shown in advance a couple of things the toy could do, others were just given the toy and told something like, “Wow, see this toy. Play with this!” You guessed it. The children who were not shown how to use the toy played with it longer and discovered a larger number of things it could do. If you accept the idea that our work as artists is play, and that good art often arises from experiment, here’s a little exercise where the instructor says only, “Wow, see this toy. Play with this!” Squeeze out onto a clean palette the six colours included in the Golden Open Acrylic “Modern” sample set, or other similar, limited but comprehensive set. The colours in the Golden set are Hansa Yellow Opaque, Pyrrole Red, Quinacridone Magenta, Phthalo Blue (green shade), Phthalo Green (blue shade) and Titanium White. You can call me Mr. Mute. I’m not even going to demo. I’m not going to tell you in advance how to mix the green you need to paint weeping willows, and I’m not going to talk percentages, warm and cool, hue and chroma, analogous, complementary, or any of that stuff. All I want you to do is to pick up on my enthusiasm for play. If I’m guessing right, you’ll fill acres with your play. This simple experiment brings us to one of the hinges of creative growth. Recipes are found, not given. Instructors need only set up the environment for individual discovery. Instructors need also to be givers of permission. Then the penny drops that potential lies within and that personal optimism is way ahead of trained formula. Unleash natural curiosity and the path to creative flourishing appears more clearly ahead.

An endless range of sophisticated colours can be made from this limited palette.

Best regards, Robert PS: “Prior explanation inhibits exploration and discovery.” (Dr. Elizabeth Bonawitz, UC, Berkeley, CA and Dr. Patrick Shafto, U of Louisville, KY) Esoterica: The best way to perform my experiment is… well, I’m not going to tell you the best way. If you catch my drift, there are many best ways. But needless to say you have six elements which directly played can result in 36 varietals. By playing them with one another it’s thought you can make an additional 360 distinguishable varietals. Computer science tells us that starting with a factor of six the potential varietals are closer to 1,290,229,399,300 or some such impossible figure. Lotsa luck! We’ve included a picture below of the ‘most amazing toy’ as well as my own start to my fundamental and fun exercise.   More involved than play by Mary Graham, Wilton, NH, USA  

oil painting, 18 x 36 inches
by Mary Graham

The majority of academic art programs in the past 60 years have approached art training in the same way you describe — with no guidance or direction (but with the addition of a considerable amount of training in conceptual justification and critique). At a certain point, the student tires of re-inventing the wheel and yearns for solid training and guidance in the technical challenges of the craft, the lack of which has frustrated the effort to take the work to the next level. Although I agree that the spirit of play is useful to refresh the creative juices, especially when used as a warm-up and to explore new directions, I believe there is a great deal more involved in the creation of work that aspires to be art, or at least, something beyond self-therapy. It is part of the tightrope walk of the creative life to sense what is needed in the moment — more freedom and exploration or more solid, foundational hard work — a balance of work and play. One way I like to break out of the ruts is to paint in encaustic wax (I am an oil painter), which pretty much short-circuits everything I know about painting, since it behaves so very differently than oil. There is then really no other choice but to play and experiment, without goals or high expectations.   Creativity stifled by Petrina Gregson   When I was a music teacher, I had an assignment of homemade instruments. The first year I gave little or no guidance; I had a few ‘typical’ entries, like a comb and tissue paper, but I had some wonderful creative ones, like the vacuum hose to be swung around, or the detergent bottle (can’t remember how it worked!), or the pump from an aquarium combined with a piece of cardboard and some elaborate ones, like a monochord, and a drum set, and a percussion set made of hanging spoons. The next year I felt it was only fair to share what was done the previous year, since some of the students had been there and might therefore “have an advantage,” whereas others were new to the school. That year I had almost no original work; seems the ideas we shared had stifled the creativity.   Proud of having no lessons by Tobi Ann Baumgartner, Lorette, MB, Canada  

“Barn door”
by Tobi Baumgartner

For the most part, I am a self-taught painter. I took art class in high school, and was by no means the best. I ended up with a photography education and learned lots about colour through that medium. Once I started combining the knowledge I gained with experimentation and ‘play,’ I became very proud of never having a ‘painting’ lesson. The things I did surely had names for their techniques, but I didn’t want to know that. I didn’t want to analyze, I just wanted to discover as I went along, fearing a ‘teacher’ may skew my creativity and enlightenment. Your letter made me feel better about my decision to learn without being taught.     The stuff won’t dry by James Pineault aka Reg Roxx, Toronto, ON, Canada  

acrylic painting, 36 x 36 inches
by Reg Roxx

Speaking of Golden Open acrylics, I’ve been playing around with Acrylic Gels and had some pretty good success. I thought I would try the Golden brand and accidentally bought the Open version. I am having trouble using it since I apply it pretty thick — the last one I did took a month to dry (plus it stinks really bad). Here’s the rub, I have almost a gallon of it left and can’t use it. My questions are A: is there any way to speed the drying time other than a hair dryer, i.e. can I add something to it? and B: if not, do you want the rest of it because I can’t use it? I’ll ship it to you for free if you think you can use it because I certainly cannot — I’d hate to waste almost a gallon of the stuff. I have just started painting and have already sold 3 pieces. (RG note) Thanks, Reg. Anyone who wants a free gallon of Open Gel please take advantage of Reg’s generosity directly. He may be making a big mistake. My drying advice is to always make sure you use at least some regular acrylic medium in your mixtures. This simple addition seems to get the drying action happening. A few days in the sun works, too — even for straight pigment or gel. In the winter or in moist weather you have to resort to heaters. Lately, I’ve developed a particular love for painting molasses-like Open acrylics in foggy conditions where you can hardly see the end of your brush. On the recent boat trip on the Columbia III, an overnight in the ever-warm engine room seemed to do the trick.   Learning to play all over again by Connie Cuthbertson, Fort Frances, ON, Canada  

“Where Spirits Soar”
original painting
by Connie Cuthbertson

Thanks for this timely reminder. Play I know is the most important part of learning and have discovered this many times over the course of my career. (I started painting after showing my 2 year old how to play with Crayola paints!) Strangely enough it seems I keep forgetting this important element and it usually comes to light when I see my work becoming predictable. I am currently teaching myself how to work with oils after almost 30 years with watercolour. I am finding it to be an uphill battle… which is exactly why I am doing it. I love a good challenge and the opportunity to play with a new medium is most exciting… and frustrating of course! I have learned through play that oil doesn’t move around and work for you like watercolour will, nor does it clean up the same. I have also learned after mucking around that it is most exciting when applied with thick juicy brushstrokes that actually remain 3D, something not possible with watercolour. I plan to play all summer with my new “toy” and know my work will improve because of it. There are 3 comments for Learning to play all over again by Connie Cuthbertson
From: Liz Reday — Jun 16, 2011

Good for you! Love the thick stuff, but if you find that it’s not drying fast enough, you can put C.A.S. Alkyd Pro Impasto Medium in with your oils and they will dry up rapidly no matter how thickly applied. Order it at ASW online. Play on.

From: Connie Cuthbertson — Jun 19, 2011

Thanks for the advice Liz! Today I am working on a misty sky filled with color swirls! As always the tricky part is to not “overplay”! It is great fun and there is so much to learn ~ wonderful!!

From: Helen Opie — Aug 10, 2011

To me, the difference between watercolours and oils is that you have to have some agenda for a watercolour as you cannot make a big white area after laying in a lot of some thalo colour; with oils, you can wait to decide to do what the painting tells you and there’s no need to be concerned that you might like to turn dark areas to light ones. It is more patient, more forgiving.

  Warm up with an abstract by Diane Overmyer, Goshen, IN, USA  

“God Spoke”
oil painting
by Diane Overmyer

I teach oil painting classes at a regional art league. The first day of class I often talk about various aspects of the class and then have some “play” time for the students. After a very brief demo, students are encouraged to create an abstract painting by experimenting with the oil paints, both in how they apply it to the canvas and in different ways of removing it. This gives more advanced students an opportunity to step out of their comfort zones and try something new. It also is a non-threatening way to get new students “into” the paint. As an instructor I also gain valuable knowledge about each student’s creative abilities and potential for growth.   Children’s play experiment by Paul Henrickson  

Nine arrangements (left) made by children from the Xukija Elementary School and the original images (right)

The nine arrangements above and to the left are those created by children from the Xukija Elementary school on Gozo island, Malta. I am not sure, but I think they were probably between the ages of five and seven. The initial and original arrangements which we see to the right were unknown to the children. The only things they had been shown, or handed, were 16 squares of colored “patterns” measuring approximately 2″. What we see to the left is what these children did with what, essentially for them, must have appeared as chaotic material which they approached with the courage of children confident in their abilities to get what they want. These nine arrangements are the results of these children to bring order into their lives or, at least, order into the material in front of them… an effort, no matter where it takes place, is an admirable one. Moral and ethical judgments are appropriate not in the effort itself, but in its manner of solution. These considerations become more urgent the older we get and the more complex the problems. By way of extreme example, genocide is an unacceptable manner of creating order out of chaos. If we can imagine there being two general but vital factors in operation in the course of an individual’s development, being 1) the environmental forces which are quite irrepressibly at play, never ending and insistent, and 2) the urgent and equally insistent determination of a new and quite intrusive element in the emergent and singular individual who maintains his right to discover who and what he is and to be functionally and operationally what he is… we have therefore the epic battle between what is and what wills itself to be. The three isolated examples in the right column are the original, artist-designed “compositions” which serve, in this instance, not as “models” to be emulated, but as examples of another’s solutions to chaos. The aim is not to have the child attempt to reconstruct the original, which he might by chance accomplish, but to experience the sensation of creating order and, for our purposes, almost any order will do. The opposite of this approach is teaching performance via authority — that is, “telling” the child what is proper. Since we are, additionally, taught that “obedience” is good and we all want to be good and to be a part of something (almost anything will do in the “chaotic” world of existential reality) we will obey. My effort is to break up this procrustean effort to impose comfortable order in a somewhat energetically frantic effort to bring peace “at any cost.” What we are, essentially, encountering here is a consideration of what to do with energy. Unless death sentences are imposed, some energy will be there so the question becomes what is the most humane, creative and useful solution to dealing with the energy that exists and my answer to this question is to find additional and alternative ways of using it. I recently came across an excellent example of this and would like to share with you here.    

Archived Comments

Enjoy the past comments below for A most amazing toy

From: Daniela Sydney Australia — Jun 10, 2011

Thank you Robert for a lovely letter to take us back to the beginning again – always exciting once reminded to do so as we forget that that is where we first found art exciting and compelling. I was just thinking of writing to you about what you think about people who decide on one subject or one style and whether it is being stuck in a groove or not….

From: Diane — Jun 10, 2011

I’m working on my first ever sculpt, an Abe Lincoln doll head. I was inspired to start it after a visit to a friend who is a superb sculptor. After a bit of a frustrating start, I emailed him asking “What kind of dummy tries Abe on their first sculpt?” His response: “Someone with no fear. Just keep mooshing the clay around and it will happen by osmosis.” I teased him about his one step tutorial but it proved to be exactly what I needed. This article confirms it was, in fact, brilliant.:)

From: Kim Niles — Jun 10, 2011

I loved this! I think that by “playing” with what some call “accidents” that occur while making art (I call them happy accidents!), and following them like unexpected paths to see where they take us, is precisely how we end up developing our own unique styles.

From: Jan Werdin — Jun 10, 2011

Loved your newsletter this time. I feel I get so serious/anxious about what happens at the end of my brush that I often times forget the sense of play that makes painting so appealing to me in the first place.

From: Wendy Wacko — Jun 10, 2011

WAY TOO MANY DEMO’S AT workshops instead of encouraging Original thought “self discovery” I studied in the late 60’s Central Tech and the New School of art….. in three years not one demo – only encouragement and discovery…I still believe this is the essence of great teaching.

From: Loretta West — Jun 10, 2011
From: Sam Liberman — Jun 10, 2011

I think your exercise could be very helpful to many accomplished artists. I paint with a group that is constantly experimenting with the Zorn palette or whatever else comes up. They are all good painters, but some of them might advance more quickly by concentrating on their own thing. I never really listen to the talk, and I don’t go to workshops or classes. My main interests is colors, and I never seem to run out of ideas for playing with them.

From: Lana O’Myer — Jun 10, 2011

I’ve been an oil painter for over 35 years and now an inventor! I got tired of wasting paint and saw a need for something to preserve the left over paint on a palette. After some trial and error, I finally came up with these Paint Savers. They work unbelievably well! I experimented with black acrylic, the fastest of all the paints to dry. Under the Paint Saver, it was “out of the tube fresh” 3 weeks later. Amazing!! I’m trying to get the word out about my new product and am hoping that you will pass this email on to your readers. Right now I have them hanging in our local art supply stores and am in negotiation with some of the art supply magazines and working on a website. Right now anyone who is interested can find them on Ebay or contact me directly at paintsavers@live.com

From: Pat Morgan — Jun 10, 2011

I teach watercolors and would love to try this experiment with my students in my upcoming workshop. Can you tell me if you gave them a photo to work from or did they have to make up a scene. What subject did they paint? I would so appreciate if you could help me ‘pass along’ this wonderful new piece of knowledge.

From: Paula Timpson — Jun 10, 2011

Freedom~ The best part of Art is pure freedom to experiment with life’s many colors until the expansion of Soul creates new colors…..

From: Patrick Howe — Jun 10, 2011

Thank you for the comment about children playing with toy. Could you please tell me the source of that study?

From: Edna V.Hildebrandt — Jun 10, 2011

I think it is really true that given a set of instruction of things should be done does not stimulate children to use their own initiative or the wonder of discovering what makes things work or perform. I for one like to try mixing different colors in my painting before on my palette or glazing. I find it exciting and surprising results what I had done with out thinking how they work before I mix them. I think it is challenging and stimulating to discover the results in these experiments or playing with colors without so much thought of planning what goes with what colors work with what. Sometimes I even surprise myself of the results. The surprising results makes it more interesting than just going through set rules and makes me bolder in trying them out.

From: David Kemp. — Jun 12, 2011

Your note on children and being open in approaching materials, the most profound observation I have happened upon over the years, is “be as little children and enter unto the kingdom of heaven”. Too often, as adults, we approach our art with our intellect, our heads and preconceptions, rather than with an open sense of inquiry as to what could be done with this stuff. Fingers, cloth, brush – blobbing, brushing, scraping – mark making – eyes closed – both hands, together and independently – body dancing – open discovery……. do several, discarding surfaces and trying others – with hold judgment – and then consider how we felt during that experience – and then look at what has been created – and if in a group, see what others have made – and then assess, and see if we have been really creative, and if we can utilise these discoveries. The essence of creativity is surely doing something new, rather than conformity. A much loved New Zealand painter, Patrick Hanley, on returning home after several years of subterranean life in London, painted in the dark for a period, to unlearn his art school indoctrination, and came up with his own style, something like Jackson Pollock, but certainly his own.

From: J. Bruce Wilcox — Jun 13, 2011

Dear Brenda, and everyone else too… John’s decent into vulgarity and childishness pushed your buttons, so it did exactly what it was supposed to. Your ASSUMPTION that John’s comments are vulgar and childish is YOUR assumption. And that’s all it is. Thank you John. I love people who push other people’s buttons. Now about the childishness of the above mentioned ‘toy’… While I’ve seen a lot of them but don’t own any- it looks like a sex toy to me… and I hope you find my comment both vulgar and funny… but I doubt you’ll find it funny. Of course- you’re not supposed to give sex toys to innocent children and then ask them how many ways they can play with them- are you?

From: Joel Haas — Jun 13, 2011
From: Kelley MacDonald — Jun 14, 2011

I get what you’re saying, Robert, but truthfully, some people, like me when I started out, need some guidance. I wanted to know how, if I wanted to paint a landscape, HOW to make the flat surface of the canvas and the buttery paint LOOK like it was going off into the distance. I wanted to know how to use values to make a still life resemble what I saw. I needed direction on WHAT makes a good vs. bad compostion – not spend years making bad compositions, value studies etc. to figure it out on my own. Once I learned (yes, from demo’s, which gave me ideas of paint application, etc) THEN I felt I could move beyond. I have met many, many more successful artists who say they learned nothing in art school, it was all ‘express yourself crap (their words, not mine)’. That looking back they would have been better served to study with successful artists through workshops and classes, and saved themselves a lot of $$ and 4 years of narcissism.

From: Nina Allen Freeman — Jun 14, 2011

Thanks for this letter, Robert, and for the responses too. I am rethinking how to design my next workshop to encourage more creativity.

From: Lim K Yueng — Jun 20, 2011

Some artists are exploratory, others just like making stuff that has a proven sales record. For those who explore, not knowing the potential is part of the fun. It is also the ultimate in personal satisfaction as well. Here’s to not having things explained.

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acrylic painting, 70 x 60 cm by Mike Barr, Australia

  You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013. That includes Martin Moskof of Bronx, NY, USA, who wrote, “I’d love to find out where I can purchase that kid’s toy for my grandchild.” And also Janice Schafir who wrote, “If you start out drawing a horse and it looks like a dog, go with the dog.” And also Laurie Fox Pessemier of Paris, France, who wrote, “I use the palette you refer to (but I use pthalo turquoise rather than the green and blue). You can see my work (and my husband’s) at www.paintfox.com. This was also the palette of Bonnard, very obvious in his work.” And also Harry Adams of N. Augusta, NC, USA, who wrote, “Where do I find Golden Open Acrylic ‘Modern’ sample set?” (RG note) Thanks, Harry. You can find the sample set, as far as I know, in most places where Golden products are sold.    

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