Artist Therapy: Play

Artist Therapy Posts: Where we face the feels all artists struggle with.

We’re a lucky bunch, those of us that get to make art for a living. We are living many people’s dreams. Unfortunately, dream jobs are still jobs, and they still take work, and they’re often just as hard and brutal day to day as any other job we might have. And unfortunately a lot of artists — myself included from time to time — get so wrapped up in how hard it is to establish and maintain a career in art that we burn ourselves out. Once that happens we have no way to recharge because while we have turned our love into our work, it’s become so serious that it’s no longer recharging the same way as it was when it was something we did on the side. Art used to be something that made us feel good about ourselves, feel confident, feel alive. Now it is something that is often a source of anxiety and insecurity. Art has become self-promotion, networking, deadlines, and feedback. We need a better work and play balance.

Most of us started out as children who used art for play, but once play becomes your work, it loses the lightness that is critical to play. Sometimes we look back fondly at the days when art was still a hobby and it didn’t have the pressure of supporting us. That’s when we know we are play-starved. It helps to remember to feel lucky and grateful that you get to pursue your dreams as a job, but we need more than that. We can’t survive without play, so we need to establish it other ways. Ways that are not related to our professional art — though that will be tempting. If illustration is your career, then no, life drawing is no longer play, it is very important practice.

There’s a few ways to go about finding a way to play that will act as a recharge and function as a method to refill the creative well. One is to find a hobby just like non-artists often use art. Play a sport, start a collection (no your collection of pencil sharpeners doesn’t count), grow and tend a garden, establish a board game nite, study a martial art, take up archery. It sounds simple, but I can’t tell you how many artists, once they’ve turned their hobby into their profession, forget that they still need to find a new hobby. Some way to decrease stress, wake up your curiosity, and establish a bit of community that doesn’t feel like professional networking.

Another way to put aside the dire seriousness is to share it with nonprofessionals. Kids, family members, friends, elderly people in our lives are all great mutually beneficial people to share your art with. The sheer joy that kids get from art directing your drawing or having a “real” artist color with them is an instant recharge. There are also numerous volunteer programs at nursing homes and community centers that are always welcoming to artists to come share their skills. This is a good method of playing for those of us that have a hard time justifying spending any time away from art. Even drawing a monster for kids is still practicing your skills.

One thing I’ve found incredibly helpful in play is the idea of “combinatory play“, which is a term coined by none other than Einstein himself in his book Ideas And Opinions. When Einstein was stuck on a mathematical problem or physics theory that he couldn’t figure out consciously, he took a break to play his violin. It’s the same concept that underlies the phenomena of getting struck by great ideas in the shower, or while driving, but supercharged. While the conscious mind is distracted our subconscious is often still mulling over a problem, and often a solution will strike us as if out of the blue. Einstein believed that having a creative hobby did the same thing as a shower or a walk, but even more productively, because you were still using your creative mind. The basic idea is that you should have a creative hobby — but one that is not related directly to the art you already make. Think of sculpting if you are a designer, or knitting if you are an illustrator. The activity has to be one that you don’t judge as a professional. If your work brain is being actively engaged then it’s too close to your job. This idea of combinatory play is often used as a way to break a creative block, but over long term practice it also effectively recharges your creative well, keeping you out of burnouts and blocks in the first place.

So next time you are feeling burnt, make sure you have a hobby or combinatory play activity ready for some lighthearted relief. I promise you the time spent establishing a work and play balance is not wasted.

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1 thought on “Artist Therapy: Play

  1. I never thought of it like this!

    Back in art school, I used to paint those little Reaper game miniatures to wind down every night and I stopped doing that when I became a “real artist”.

    But, you’re so right, I do find it hard to recharge nowadays because my “play” has been sketching animals for years now.

    Maybe I should grab a few minis from my basement.

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