Field notes on play


Dear Artist,

There was no use in arguing with the woman. She had asked me what I thought she should do next and now she was against my suggestion. It was she who had complained her work was dull.

“Your work will continue to be dull,” I said, “until you learn to play.” This was no ordinary girl — well read, smart in every way, and very, very neat. She had read all the books. “Work is play,” she said. “Play frees up the inner child, empowers confidence and invites creative elan. Play is a creative need.” She knew her Carl Jung.

I told her that my dad used to say, “If you can dream it, you can do it.” This advice was given in my early teens, and it sent me off into some extreme fantasies. Like painting a mural on the Grand Canyon. I recruited helpers, but it was the park rangers who were unable to see my vision. “But you at least had the dream,” she said. “Some people never have them.”

Talking some more about play, I suggested there were two more things she needed besides a dream — a new way, and a new toy. I demonstrated by laying in a painting with one of those small rollers that house painters use for going around the edge of door frames. The pay-load lasts forever. Colours dabbed and mixed around the roller provide never ending blends. She gave it a try.

After a while I pointed to a virgin tube in her paintbox. “It’s Aureolin hue — yellowish, I never use it,” she said. I showed her mine. “For the last week I’ve been mixing it with everything except Mai Tais,” I said. “Here in Hawaii it’s useful. Makes things glow. You can substitute it for white. It’s great for glazing too. New tones with every mix. Ya gotta love it.” She squeezed some out.

Artists are not always prepared to take advice from other artists, but this one was beginning to see the light. “So, in order to play properly you need three main things — a new dream, a new way, and a new toy,” she said. “I think so,” I said. “Maybe you just need a new toy, because then you might just pick up the new way and the new dream.” A peculiar creative silence overtook us. A big wave could have taken us out. Later, I noticed her wading into the surf. She was glowing. I squeezed out more Aureolin hue.

Best regards,


PS: “The creation of something new is not accomplished by the intellect but by the play instinct acting from inner necessity. The creative mind plays with the objects it loves.” (Carl Jung)

Esoterica: Aureolin hue gets its name from aureole, the glow that emanates from the figures and particularly the heads of holy personages in medieval and Renaissance art. The head-glow is also called a nimbus or a halo. If someone is miraculously rising, the aureole is called a “glory,” and if it’s in the shape of an almond it’s called a “mandorla” — the Italian word for almond. The early Roman church referred to the effect as “vesica piscis” — Latin for fish’s bladder. The middle ages were big on holy glows, their painters worked hard to make them from fugitive, now discontinued colours. The modern pigment was developed in Breslau, Germany, by N.W. Fischer, in 1848, was in wide use by 1860, and is currently engaged on the Kona coast.


The other three things
by Larry Moore, Orlando, FL, USA


oil painting, 24 x 20 inches
by Larry Moore

To play, you suggest “a new dream, a new way, a new toy.” I’d like to add these three: no fear, no inner-judge and a sense of humor. When I taught creative thinking classes I would proclaim that fear is the great killer of creativity and the inner-judge holds the ax. If you can turn off the judge (save it for later in the process) you can free yourself up to try new things without hesitation. Paint as if no one will ever see the work (a wonderful exercise, by the way) and you lose the fear of failure. The sense of humor part just makes it more enjoyable. If you want to learn more about the creative process there’s a great book by Roger Von Oech called, A whack on the side of the head and a second called, A kick in the seat of the pants. Both are easy reads and deal with thinking outside of your box.


Experiment and have fun
by Bernard Victor, London, UK


“Christmas Card”
oil painting
by Bernard Victor

At the weekly art group I attend, I have noticed that those who experiment a bit produce the most lively paintings. We have some members who, though competent painters, approach each work in the same way. Though their paintings are ‘nice,’ they lack that spark that makes all the difference. If a painting is not going right they usually just abandon it. I think if it is not going right, now is the time to play around with it. Try some colours you do not usually use, put in some random brush strokes. It will sometimes amaze you and give you some fresh ideas that you can use in the future. In other words have some fun!



A freeing experience
by Mary Moquin, Sandwich, MA, USA


“The Moon Knows”
oil painting on panel, 6 x 6 inches
by Mary Moquin

One day, when I was in my very early teens, I was playing and pretending that I was Picasso. I had a makeshift easel and I was drawing with large felt tip markers. It was such a freeing experience that it made an indelible impression on me. At times I still try to recapture the way I felt that day and approach my canvas with that same sense of bravado. Sometimes you just have to believe that it doesn’t have to be so hard.





Are you excited enough?
by Paul deMarrais, TN, USA


“Spring is Here”
pastel painting, 29 x 24 inches
by Paul deMarrais

I once read a quote attributed to Edgar Degas: “Painting is easy when you don’t know how, but very difficult when you do.” Painting is a balancing act between spontaneity and intellect. Most artists are not the rare prodigies like Picasso and Turner so we have to study the rules and ideas of the past and present in order to develop the skills necessary to create a good painting. This is a problem for many students I have encountered. Are you REALLY excited enough about art to get through the ninety percent of it that is not glamorous and ego feeding? If you lack that excitement, you won’t be able to loosen up and play or feel that childlike joy when things are going well. You need to find out about yourself in order to paint a painting that expresses something about YOU. The longer you paint, the more important the intangibles become, as Degas suggests. You have the technical knowledge but what do you do with it? Intellectuality can be a barrier.


Transparent yellow
by Glenda Dietrich, Lincoln, NE, USA


“December Amaryllis”
watercolour painting, 9 x 11 inches
by Glenda Dietrich

I am a watercolorist, and I echo your exclamations about aureolin. It is fantastic! I use it for almost all my yellow hues because it is transparent and it does, as you say, glow. I have used it as a glaze (a wash of a small amount of pigment with a large amount of water) even over hues of violet and purple to find that it does not dull those hues despite their being the complement of yellow, but it enlivens them. An aureolin glaze over cadmium red light creates a brilliant red-orange akin to the brightest red-orange Amaryllis flower ever seen. I use aureolin as a mix-in as well — to create glowing greens with pthalo green or viridian, or to create new greens when mixed with cobalt or windsor blue. I still have cadmium yellows, lemon yellow, and gamboge on my palette, but I rarely use them because aureolin suits the bill almost every time.


Rules for a good game
by Coulter Watt, Quakertown, PA, USA


“Persian Night”
oil painting, 5 x 3 inches
by Coulter Watt

All creative efforts are playful by nature and the mind is the most powerful and playful element of all. Playful means an ability to experiment, to set free to go in new directions, whether successful or not. Like any good game, rules define the boundaries of action and the challenge to excel within that field of play. The same applies to painting. I almost always restrict my palette and only add to it out of dire necessity. Art is the elimination of everything unnecessary to achieve the imagined effect. Often I’ve found the most liberating element is a restriction, an elimination or a set parameter to work within. For example: setting out only Prussian Blue, Yellow Ochre and Indian Red from which all colors must be mixed, plus Ivory Black and Flake White. Or choosing a new subject and idea to paint. I’m exploring nocturnal dreamscapes, set in an imaginary Persia or Mess-O-Potamia.


Joyous and playful state
by Brian Simons, Victoria, BC, Canada


“Snow Alley”
oil painting, 16 x 20 inches
by Brian Simons

I enjoyed your letter on “play” and feel this is very important for us painters. Too often painters feel it’s all about them doing it, and miss much of the joy in painting. We should go to the easel to receive rather than to produce or prove something. I think our job as painters is to climb up a ladder to a state of high functioning… a joyous playful state where everything works! As painters, we are the first recipients of the joy and beauty of the work and it is crucial that we get ourselves into a receptive mode. Not only does this serve to take our attention off ourselves, but frees us up to “read” what’s happening on the canvas and opens us to new discoveries!


Play affected by ambition
by Carolyn Newberger, MA, USA


watercolour painting
by Carolyn Newberger

I find that I sometimes get stuck because of ambition. I approach each painting as the next great masterpiece, and then burn out because it isn’t quite the masterpiece I envisioned. This just happened. There was no “play.” I went to bed discouraged, and in that moment between sleep and awakening, I had a vision of an idea that was completely off the charts… involving myriads of glazed, iridescent circles, and looking through the winter gray and snowy sky into endless depths. I’m now busily glazing circles and having a great time. I threw mastic all over my watercolor paper before drawing the circles (snow, you know), and until the paint dries and I rub off the mastic, I have no idea how it will end up. There are no toys here, just the idea. I’m now totally in the process, because the product either will or won’t take care of itself.


Play in the classroom
by Bruce R. Dean, MA, USA


“Beaching It”
original photograph
by Bruce R. Dean

This concept of the importance of play resonates deeply. I started out as a pre-school teacher, day care, went to elementary school and then ended up as an art teacher at high school. Over my 33 year teaching career, I have stayed the course of bringing the importance of play into the classroom. Most great discoveries seem to come from “mistakes” and from careful observation of what’s happening. Day Care teachers have it right. Exploration and discovery is at the core of learning. My work is on creating a museum classroom environment — a place to offer ideas to others.


A new toy
by Virginia Wieringa, Grand Rapids, MI, USA


original painting
by Virginia Wieringa

My ‘new toy’ which led to a new dream and a new way was a mouth atomizer (which was demonstrated in a workshop with Kathleen Conover). They cost under $4. Blowing paint or ink over a stencil or texture is like a magic trick. I still use my paintbrushes, oil pastels and colored pencils but this new toy really re-energized my work. I just bought a couple more so I can use a number of colors without cleaning in between. I just love the a-ha moments. I’m going to dig into our house paint supplies and look for the little roller! It would probably be a great addition to the party. And yes, a little Aureolin hue sprayed over a picture really livens it up!


Play art
by Ernst Lurker, East Hampton, NY, USA


puzzle sculpture
by Miguel Berrocal

My wife and I were guests at Miguel Berrocal‘s villa near Verona, Italy. Another American couple was also present. Over the years, this couple had collected a large number of his intriguing puzzle sculptures, in fact, he was their favorite artist. Over dinner, we discussed some philosophical aspects of Miguel’s work. I regard him as one of the leading proponents of play art, and he stated, “Play is the key to my work.” At that moment the woman responded as if he had committed the worst possible faux pas, “How can you say such a thing?” To show that they, too, are playing, I asked them whether they had ever taken Miguel’s sculptures apart and assembled them again. Her husband maintained, “Only my little niece can do that. I could not possibly put them together again.” And he was proud of it. For him, play was for children. He couldn’t have anything to do with it. It almost looked like they wanted to return Berrocal’s sculptures, if play is what they are all about.

These people were also educated and successful. Even many museum curators share these attitudes. One labeled play art as a “trivialization of art” and another suggested, “Lose the name.”


Painting a mural
by Janet Lee Sellers, Monument, CO, USA

Your mural dream reminded me of myself. In 1985 I wanted to work on a mural to learn how to do it. I volunteered to help in East LA on a 500′ mural working with gang youth. After the first day, the original leaders quit because “it’s too much work” and I was the last (wo)man standing. So I co-designed the mural with James Garcia, the last man standing, and we led my ’25 little felons’ to victory in their ‘rehab’ to the community beauty. I earned a whopping $2000.00 for six months of hard work, ten weeks of which were spent with the gang youth. They were amazingly talented. I asked one boy who was fantastic at drawing and painting about his background in art. He told me, “Oh, this is my first painting. But I did everybody’s tatoos in prison.”


by Lynda Bass, Cambria, CA, USA

As I see it, there continues to be confusion over the appropriate use of oils and/or acrylics, whether in painting, varnishing, or restoration. There is a lot of contradictory information and very unclear recommendations as to how to use both of those media in conjunction with one another. I have been told again and again not to use acrylic over oil, not ever, not in varnish, or paint. I have been told some kind of “primer” is to be used first. Oil, or acrylic primer? No one ever has a specific product, or answer and everyone is very vague about all of this.

In your article you use an acrylic “isolation coat” and then an “acrylic varnish.” Again, I have never heard of an “isolation coat” and as far as an “acrylic varnish,” is that the same as an acrylic gloss medium or is it the same as polyurethane, or a polycrylic, or a polycrylic varnish? There are innumerable names and descriptions for all of these things and one contradicts the other. It leaves me completely baffled, and I keep reading and reading these descriptions and getting nowhere.

Perhaps someone, somewhere, will be SPECIFIC one day about all of this and give us all a good book on these materials and their uses.

(Andrew Niculescu note) Thanks Lynda. For you and everyone else who wrote asking for more information, see the following clickbacks: The logic of Final Varnish and Golden girl.


Signing the back
by Fiona Hooper, London, UK


“The Waiting Boat”
oil painting, 25 x 21 inches
by Fiona Hooper

I was very interested to read about how you repair a damaged canvas, and fully appreciate signing the repair to validate that it was done by the artist. Is it your normal practice to sign your canvases on the back, and what do you use for the signature (i.e. what medium)?

(RG note) Thanks, Fiona. I sign my work near the middle of the back, and I most often do it with a Sharpie Permanent Marker (fine point). The worry of course is that the marker might penetrate through to the front. As far as I know this has never happened using this pen. Having said that, I most often use fairly high quality canvas or linen, and the canvas is well primed. To keep the stroke topical, one does not want the pen point to remain in one place for long. My patch record was signed with a finer Sharpie. As mentioned by Cristina Monier of Buenos Aires, Argentina in the previous clickback, the hard-edged patch can leave an impression that can become noticeable from the front, especially if the canvas of the painting is inferior, or thinner than the patch canvas. As Cristina says, feather the patch edges to be safe.







oil painting on panel
by Joann Dufau, Santa Barbara, CA, USA


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 Amarie Hill who wrote, “I do my best work when I’m just playing with new paints, or new toys or techniques. I just recently found great pleasure in working with a small triangle quilting iron and crayons… just like a kid with a new color book and crayons!!! I’m hooked…”

And also Norman Ridenour of Prague, Czechoslovakia who wrote, “I do not know how old this lady is but it sounds like she might need a 165 lb. toy with a good tan and lots of libido. I have the same types of problems with language students who refuse to play — they don’t learn very much.”

And also Judy Wray of East Brunswick, NJ, USA who wrote, “You are good at hitting the nail on the head at opportune times! I am on my way to Mexico in a few hours with a new toy! Camcorder… struggling, learning. Easing up on everyone else!”

And also Kate Jackson of Merced, CA, USA who wrote, “I teach ‘Painting for Older Adults’ for the local community college. As I cruise around the room ‘coaching,’ some students will say, ‘I’m just playing!’ We’ve all decided that means… ‘Don’t critique, suggest or comment on my work right now!’ So, I smile and encourage them to ‘PLAY ON’ as I move to the next painter.”

And also Pam Craig of Memphis, TN, USA who wrote, “Get the mental motors roaring by bringing in something that catches the eye and makes you think, how will this work? Mistakes are made and lessons are learned but the joy in the process excites your brain to ask the question, “What Next?”… or “Let’s try this again.” Happiness is in the discovering.”

And also Lawrence Charles Miller of Newport, PA, USA who wrote, “Thank you for another keeper. For years, ‘Pascal’ tugged at my psyche. Several years ago I realized that it is the acronym of the names of everyone in my family. The beautiful words aureolin and aureole have a similar magic. I’m seeking its significance.”

And also Nancy O’Toole of Vancouver, BC, Canada who wrote, “For years and years I was told (and have repeated it to my students as well) that you must never, ever paint Acrylic over Oils, but that it was okay to do the reverse… and now you are saying that it is okay?”

And also John Fitzsimmons of Fayetteville, NY, USA who wrote, “A few years ago I was visiting the Gardner Museum in Boston, and was surprised to see a restorer at work on a medieval oil painting using acrylics (Golden of course). I would imagine the Gardner knows what it is doing.”

And also Joy Hanser of Vancouver, BC, Canada who wrote, “These mentoring comments you make to us artists, however received through our various lenses, be they rebel, neatnik, intellectual abstractionist or what? are the glow in the gold, the little bit that goes a long way.




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