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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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
Warm up with an abstract
by Diane Overmyer, Goshen, IN, USA
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
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.
Enjoy the past comments below for A most amazing toy…
acrylic painting, 70 x 60 cm
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.