Art Practice vs. Play

If you’re an artist who thinks of your work as play, or who has referred to your work in the studio as playtime, I’d like to invite you to think differently, and go deeper this year.  It’s not that play doesn’t happen in the studio.  It does!  Play fosters risk-taking, discovery and flow.  And it’s worth doing for the fun alone.


John Cleese, insightfully, on the relationship between play and creativity.


Play is serious business for children, a deep, imaginative mode that facilitates learning.  But when adult artists use the word ‘play’ to talk about what they’re up to in the studio, it comes off as breezy shorthand for pleasure that means “I did something fun.” If you’re using any of the #studioplay hashtags on social media you’re calling on a stereotype of the artist as a childlike figure content to mess around with paint. It’s inauthentic. (I know that’s not who you are. No artist is.) And it fails at communicating the juicy, more interesting stuff about who you are and what you do.



Art is fun (when it’s going well). There’s a narcissistic, almost primal pleasure in seeing something of yourself reflected back at you in a mark you’ve made, whatever that mark may be. I get that.  It’s part of the draw. But it’s not why I chose art. I chose art as my vocation, and have chosen it again and again at the crossroads in my life, because it holds meaning for me.


Jackson Pollock painting for the camera. Is this work? Play? Or is something else going on?


Unfortunately, the meaning I get out of art isn’t constant.  Sometimes my work feels guided and purposeful. Other times it’s a struggle.  I don’t see art as special in this way. This is something that all of us who want to do meaningful work have to face. When I think of what I do in the studio as play in the service of enjoyment, when I dismiss the more challenging work I feel called to do, or that is required of me by deadlines, then purpose fades.



I like the word ‘practice’ for what happens in the studio because of its many meanings.  Practice connotes seriousness.  A doctor works in a medical practice.  An attorney practices law.  But it’s also linked to play.  A musician has to practice before she can play a new instrument.  Athletes practice before they play.  And then there’s the spiritual angle.  You can practice your religion.  Or start a meditation practice.  In all cases ‘practice’ suggests  an ongoing commitment to a growth oriented endeavor. To have an art practice is to engage with your work and your materials in a complete way, physically, intellectually, spiritually.  Play may be a part of your process. But it’s not the most interesting thing you do.



A playful GIF that I love, reverse-motion. Artist unknown.

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  • Deb Claffey January 11, 2016   Reply →

    Good post. I especially love this thought: In all cases ‘practice’ suggests an ongoing commitment to a growth oriented endeavor. Well said.

    • Laura January 11, 2016   Reply →

      Thank you, Deb! I took my time writing this one and appreciate hearing what you connected with.

  • Gwendolyn Plunkett January 11, 2016   Reply →

    Interesting commentary, Laura. In my recent exhibition at Hunter Gather Project here in Houston, he co-curator of the exhibition, Laura Rossi did a Q & A with me. One of the questions she asked me had to do with the subject of “play” in my work. Below is my answer. I will say further that I don’t think of “play” in the studio as “fun time”. Studio time is work.

    L.R. Question:
    Do you plan before going into the studio? What role does “play” have in your work?
    G.P. Response:
    For me there is always some planning going on. What I am doing next in the studio is always on my mind. Regarding play, I call it constructive play. Playtime happens when I don’t have anything pressing on my schedule and I want to work through a new idea, or experiment with a different medium or I am at the end of a series. Play informs. Its the time to take risks. However, even when I am seriously working on an already established series, there is experimentation and play, but within perimeters that I set at the start.

    • Laura January 12, 2016   Reply →

      Terrific response, Gwen. I wonder what the interviewer’s expectations were about how you’d answer that question?

      • Gwendolyn Plunkett January 18, 2016   Reply →

        I am only assuming this because I didn’t ask her why the question but…She and the owner of the gallery had a concept for
        my show. They were thinking of “playful,” I think. We had a bit of a go around about the title of the show (Romp and Circumstance) and the
        placement of some of the work but in the end, after I came to understand their idea for the show, I went along.
        They were thinking a lot about Magritte’s This is not a Pipe, they said.

        • Laura January 18, 2016   Reply →

          Thank you for following up, Gwen. Such an interesting and relevant part of the art/play story. From my POV, you handled this beautifully.

  • Donalee Kennedy January 13, 2016   Reply →

    I’m glad I took the time to read and listen this morning. I agree with so much said here. You sum it up in these two sentences – “In all cases ‘practice’ suggest an ongoing commitment to a growth oriented endeavor. To have an art practice is to engage with your work and your materials in a complete way, physically, intellectually, spiritually. ” I find it’s important to be constructively critical while I’m in the “closed” as John Cleese would say … time I’m looking at my art, and very experimental in the “open” time. Thank you for your thoughts. I really like the use of the work practice instead of play, it creates a mindset that I feel is very productive and healthy. Good job Laura, I appreciate your thoughtfulness in this post. And while we’re talking about words, the word ‘post’ doesn’t seem respectful enough for this communication. —–she says with a mile!

    • Laura January 13, 2016   Reply →

      Thank you, Donalee! I also connected with Cleese’s comments about the open and closed working modes.

  • Alyson Stanfield April 13, 2016   Reply →

    Laura: I am so happy to see you blogging again. You have such a gift to share with people and I look forward to following along.

    • Laura April 13, 2016   Reply →

      Thank you, Alyson! I appreciate the encouragement.

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