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Let's Play!

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Play is a necessity in life for anyone and essential for artists!

I am saying this now because of the recent passing of British artist Howard Hodgkin at the age of 84. Hodgkin was an artist I had been thinking about quite a lot recently. I had been placing the names of artists, musicians, cities, products and all kinds of things in various spots on a 'mind map' on my studio wall. The parameters were between HOT and COOL on one axis and HARD and SOFT on the other. Make sense? Probably not and most people's question would be 'why were you doing that?'

I was playing!

I was attempting to find not only what area on the graph really interested me, but also to ask the question if my work sat within that zone. The answer to that was a clear 'no'.

I found I really love the work that was placed in the 'cool/hard' area which included artists like Richard Serra, DJ Premier or Alice Coltrane. I put what I do much more central...closer to Hodgkin only nowhere near as warm.

I also realised I was ok with sitting outside of that zone and was encouraged to find that so many great artists could be placed in many different areas of the graph depending on which work you were thinking about. Where would you place Picasso, Barry White, William Turner or Elvis for example? What about cities like Paris, Barcelona, Liverpool? Have a go, it's fun!

Mind Map Art Ashwan richard serra hockney picasso

The 'mind map' in progress. HOT at the top, COOL at the bottom. At this stage you can just see a few visual artists names on there. It was up in my studio for around 5 days and I would constantly add names.


Hodgkin was on the wall somewhere between Soft and Hot. He always came across as such a 'pure' artist to me, off on a pursuit of his own, driven by something deep and meaningful. I love the use of colour in his work, both incredibly modern, yet somehow very classically English. He seems to be able to quote directly from Thomas Gainsborough and Constable simultaneously simply through the use of colour. Hodgkin is a great example of an artist who plays. He has fun with it, It really shows: he loved his job!

Home, Home on the Range by Howard Hodgkin fine art abstract contemporary

Howard Hodgkin Home, Home on the Range, 2001-2007


I love my job too. That said, at times even being an artist can be difficult. I used to paint commercial murals and some of the processes could be repetitive and painfully tedious. It's in part from this that my processes 'evolved'. Each mark an artist makes transmits an energy to the viewer: Slow, painstakingly rendered brush strokes will not usually evoke a great sense of dynamic. On top of that, for me, the process needs to be concise...yes, I mean 'quick'!

Artists need to know what to let go of and what to keep. Really, painting is a series of accidents that the painter attempts to control. I think that the closer an artist sails to these accidents, the more lively the work will feel. Hodgkin scores highly on all these fronts.

Humanity tries to give itself the illusion of being in control over life these days. Art should be a field where we still take risks with loosing control...apart from approval, what do we have to be afraid of? Maybe this is one of the stumbling blocks in contemporary life though. The artists paradox: They need to be seen, which often means using social media, which in turn can suck people in to craving and being addicted to approval, working hard for those 'likes', rather than just for great art.

On this subject of approval, my kids go to an amazing school. One of the practices they have is not to allow the kids to bring home their drawings. They are trying not to have any judgement passed at all on kids creativity. By not allowing them to be brought home, the theory is that no individual style, technique or motif will be championed and so all avenues to create should be equally valid in the minds of these kids.

I LOVE this idea and wonder if it is in part why many artists hate talking about their work. Critiques through art school certainly make us more self aware and resilient, but maybe they also make us too self conscious!

Rebellion is a great way to play. When someone tells you not to do something or that they don't like something about your work, a great way to respond is to focus on what they didn't like and do more of it. If you are getting a reaction out of somebody, you are doing something right!

Which brings me to my next point: Rebellion!!!

A true popular culture should be about play and involvement. Punk and Hip Hop are great examples. They were also both often about reversal of circumstances, iconography or whatever. A middle finger up to an establishment that they found stifling. We need to play, and I think the fact that reduced stimuli will usually boost creative response is proof of this.

Hip Hop was born on such a culture. A subconscious question of 'what do I have and how can I use it?'

Take the art of DJ that grew from two turntables: How can I create a loop of this section of the record? How can I listen to what's on the other record to cue it up properly? Can I do it without headphones, maybe just visually? How do we get power for the turntables here in the middle of the park?

The response was about playfulness, about need too, but playfulness was a huge part.

Adventures: What Happened in Between/ by Ashwan art graffiti street art

'Adventures: What happened in between?' by Ashwan, 2007 mixed media on canvas 122cmx122cm


Tactile play is also key. Look at kids opening their Christmas presents. They may love the present but then spend the next 12 hours investigating what the possibilities of the box are before it gets thrown out. The box will be a castle, a space ship and an aeroplane all within the space of 15 minutes, before they decide which direction they want the rest of their day to go in.

Recent developments in psychology are suggesting that we actually think with our hands as well as our brains: “Children may be able to use their hands to change their minds.” according to Professor Susan Goldin-Meadow in 'The Journal Of Cognition And Development'. The very act of making art (or making anything these days) is a political one, so gestures and risks can be small, but the impact can be huge.

Again referencing hip hop as a model of creativity, graffiti was not born out of a vacuum. The spray paint can had relatively recently found it's way in to mass production. If you put a crayon in a 3 year old's hand, you know they will draw on the wall or floor. Put a spray can in the hands of a 13 year old and a whole new world of possibilities exploded!

Think about it. When do you have your most creative ideas? For many, it is when you take a shower or are just about to fall asleep. This is when the brain is relaxing, when it doesn't feel it needs to be so on guard. When we need to be creative, we need to be mentally relaxed.

Playing helps you relax, even if you are playing hard! I imagine most people who read this are creatives anyway, so don't need convincing, but it's important we remind ourselves of it too.

'It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child.' Picasso Go press PLAY on your day and see what happens.

This post originally appears on on 17th March 2017

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