I’ve been working a lot lately. It’s been pretty intense the last few months with my upcoming book series with Scholastic. And it’s made me think a lot about the nature of work and play, how intertwined they are, and how I’ve been struggling with balancing them lately. So if you’ve ever felt exhausted or burnt out by your art, then this essay is for you, too!
For people who are not artists, it’s hard to recognize the distinction between work and play in art. Most people who find out I’m illustrating a children’s book seem to think it consists of me just playing around on the page, doodling up something cute, shooting it off to editors in New York, everyone laughing about how great and funny it is, and poof the book is done, what a load of fun!
But you guys, making a book is WORK.
It’s enjoyable work, yes, but it is still Work with a capital-W.
You have Work in your life as an artist too, whether you are a professional or hobby artist. Perhaps your work is something different. Maybe you make illustrated greeting cards and sell them on Etsy. Maybe you’re creating illustrations for a gallery show at your local coffee shop. Maybe you’re working on a series of paintings to hang in your baby’s nursery. These things are all Work.
The Nature of Work
Work is often where we find a sense of artistic fulfillment. It’s where our art has a purpose, goals, and more typically involves other people like viewers, readers, buyers, or collaborators. If you’re a professional artist, Work is what pays the bills.
Work is when you’re focused on the goals and performance of your art.
Work is when you create projects and series. Work is where you analyze, refine, and produce your art. Is this piece communicating the message I want it to convey? What is the point of this piece? Will other people understand it? Does it make sense? Is it clear? Does it follow the rules I or others have set for this project?
Almost all of what I’ve done for this book series has been Work. I have guidelines I have to follow, rules I have to adhere to, and people I have to report to. I have document sizes to fit within, borders to steer clear of, characters to keep consistent, and perspective to make realistic.
To be clear, Work is not a bad thing. It can be wonderfully fulfilling and gives us a sense of security and purpose to be progressing towards concrete goals. It’s wonderful and important to have large Work projects (paid or not) and goals that we look forward to and move towards. Work is where we collect accomplishments and discover what we’re capable of.
But as artists, we can’t just work all the time.
We also need Play.
The Artist Machine
I see Work and Play like a machine: Work is the engine and Play is the fuel. Both are equally important and one can’t function without the other.
We can try to power through, focusing only on our Work, but eventually we’ll get frustrated, stuck, or burnt out. We’ll begin to feel lost, empty and tired. Our artistic machine will start to sputter and run low on gas.
Play is where we go to get refueled and reinvigorated so we can continue our Work.
Work + Play
The Work/Play relationship is like a Yin/Yang situation. We should aim not to spend long periods in one or the other, but instead achieve a consistent balance of Work and Play in our daily life. The two aspects combine together to push our machine forward—we need both.
Work is where we push ourselves and excel.
Play is where we accept ourselves and grow.
Work is when we master new techniques.
Play is when we discover new techniques we want to explore.
Work is where we set goals for end results.
Play is where we focus on the process.
Work is when we build projects.
Play is when we build ourselves.
Work uses our brain.
Play rewires our brain.
Work allows security with rules and guidelines.
Play grants us freedom from all rules.
Work reminds us of the fulfillment of completing a project.
Play reminds us of the pure joy of the creative process.
Forgetting to Play
It’s easy to forget the importance of Play and let it slip off our schedule. We can get hyper-focused on our work: that big gallery show coming up, the large painting you’ve been working on, or for me right now, my book series.
Work can easily become the only thing on our plate. I can quickly get into the state of mind where all I can think about is the enormous deadlines rushing at me, and how I need to spend all my time working on them and nothing else! Not moving, not getting out of the house, not answering emails, and definitely not drawing in my sketchbook—playing around can wait!
It’s easy to prioritize the work that pays and involves other people, both readers and collaborators. It’s easy to procrastinate and put off ourselves and our personal work for later.
But without Play, our artistic machine begins to break down. We run out of creative fuel and begin to feel like a robot churning out stiff robot-work, instead of a human creating imaginative art. We have to stay in touch with our creativity and inspiration—especially during long work projects.
Our Work will be stronger if we make time for Play.
For me, I need to both work on my book series and play in my sketchbook. If I don’t keep up my sketchbook, everything breaks down eventually.
Sometimes I let Play slip by and stop creating enough personal work to sustain my creativity. I got laser focused on finishing the project by the deadline, and thought I could fit in nothing else. And yes, I finished on time. And maybe it was ok, maybe it didn’t suffer. But as soon as the Work was over, I crashed in a burnt up pile of mush. I had run my creative tank to completely empty, and now I was stranded on the highway with no map to get back home. I was exhausted and stuck.
It’s a heck of a lot harder to get back to running smoothly from that low point than to keep a steady baseline going. Being creatively burnt out sucks. And it takes so much longer to get back to normal, able to create fulfilling art, able to get back to Work and Play when we let ourselves get that low.
We have to remember to make time for Play. Even if just for a few minutes. We have to keep up our sketchbook and make art that doesn’t matter. We have to release the tension from making art surrounded by rules. We have to free ourselves and free our art and let it out just to let it out. Not to achieve a goal or prove anything to anyone.
It’s the short game versus the long game.
We can’t let ourselves get so focused on this current Work project that we let our overall selves as artists slip through the cracks.
Otherwise, we might lose the passion that led us to our Work in the first place.