by L. Nichols
One of the things I’ve fought long and hard to keep is a sense of play in my work and in my working process. Growing up, I was often told that I should not pursue art or anything along those lines as a potential job. Something about “once you’re doing it for money you’ll grow to hate it” or “you should keep it for yourself” or some other such saying as that. Again and again. Now, I’m not going to argue that that isn’t the case at least some of the time. It’s not the same as being a kid and drawing horses/dragons/dwarves/elves (… ahem…) for fun, but I’m also not the same as back then either. But I really couldn’t imagine being any other way.
After doing this for the past few years and finally getting to the point where I am actually working for clients and making some money doing this, I can totally understand why my parents would warn me about not doing what you love for a living. The line between work and the rest of your life can become totally erased if you pursue a field such as art. There’s frequently no 9-5 designation of “work” vs “play.” I know this line for me has become incredibly blurry; in some sense, I am what I do. I work weird hours. I work when I feel like it. And, honestly, I work way more than I would in a “real job” (as my parents seem to put it, i.e. “L., when will you get a real job?”). It has taken me years to find some sort of balance in how I feel about my work.
Work. Just saying the word brings up connotations of waking up early, being tired, bringing home the bacon (so to speak). In physics, it is the is the amount of energy transferred by a force acting through a distance. Going up stairs is work. Lifting heavy things is work. In art, people talk about “bodies of work,” their pieces are considered “works.” Work is that responsible thing that grown-ups do, the sign of maturity. Playing and things that seem like play are for the young ‘uns. But playing is where we learn! Playing is important, too! Playing is not just for kids! We should embrace playing as something vital and important to our growth as human beings.
I really do think that being able to put aside the forced notion of “work” for something more along the lines of “constructive playtime” is what keeps me sane and what keeps me growing as an artist. Think about what it was like as a kid on the playground. You try something. Maybe your friends are goading you into something that you don’t think you can do. Maybe you fall, but you get up and laugh and try again. You know you’re being ridiculous, but eventually maybe you succeed. Maybe sometimes you cry. But most importantly, you keep trying new things. I am frequently trying new stuff in my work. For example, a new media, using my non-dominant hand, not looking at the paper, turning scribbles into some illustration, and so on. I feel like the more I do, the more I learn. Sure, maybe not everything is how I want it to be. I very much try to live by the Samuel Beckett saying “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.” Play is about learning to fail better.
Thinking of art and artistic growth as constructive playtime allows me to try things I might otherwise think too far out of my reach. Thinking of it as work confines me by the notions of completing a project, having something successful, etc. etc. etc. Work implies finished product. Play implies exploration and growth. Work implies fear of failure. Play implies growth through failure. (Which, I argue would then become something other than failure).
(The above image was drawn using gouache and knitting needles. No joke. I was curious as to what kind of shapes I could make with such an odd tool.)
Back to the idea of kids on a playground. Kids are always making up rules to try and follow. They realize how arbitrary these rules can be, but enjoy picking them and seeing what structure develops around that. “You are the mom. I am the dad. We are playing house.” Or maybe, “You run and I will try and catch you and then you have to try and catch me.” Maybe we can learn from this for our own pursuits. Figure out what rules you are following. Break your own rules. Maybe you will surprise yourself. Maybe it will be not at all what you wanted. Regardless, you will learn something.
Thinking of what you do as constructive playtime instead of work can also help you explore new ways of thinking. Consider it something like dress-up, but for your brain. You are testing out new thoughts and fleshing out ideas. Playing allows for a feeling of impermanence which can lead to greater courage in exploration. Sometimes you need to break down the idea of “this is who I am” and turn it into “this is who I could be.” This is one of the reasons I would recommend trying out techniques you see other people using. See something you like? Try it out. Play it out. Eventually you will either put that idea/method aside or it will grow into something that is all yours.
(The above image was stream-of-consciousness exploration of several ideas. Completing an image from collage. Substituting words for images where the images would go. Physics. Typography. I think I actually drew this while on a plane.)
And as we remember from childhood, playtime often involves other people, too! Ask your friends to challenge you. Make up creative games for each other. Push each other out of your artistic comfort zones. Play isn’t always about comfort. It’s about acceptable risk and taking those risks. It’s about the thrill of testing your limits. It’s about exploring your thoughts and seeing where they lead. It’s about figuring out what works and what doesn’t. (Man, that word “work” really is pervasive!). It’s about pretending to be someone you’re not. It’s about making limits and breaking limits, making rules and breaking them. Play is where you can test out things, where the idea of failure becomes learning to “fail better.” Play is about learning to be brave, learning to grow.
Simply put, play is where you learn. Play comes first. The work is just an afterthought, a structure to drive your time, a way to use what you learn during play.