1.4 Flow and play

The purpose of this research task was to engage with the ideas of ‘flow’ and ‘play’ through reading some of the theory relating to ‘Flow’ and identifying artists that use ‘Play’ in the creation of their work so that I can take any learning into my own practice.

Key words from the brief:

  • Access and read Michael Golec’s essay ‘Memory, Instinct and Design: Beyond Paul Rand’s “Play Principal ”
  • Search the OCA library resources and the Internet with the terms ‘Automatic Drawing ’ and ‘ Concrete Poetry ’ to discover relevant artists, designers and illustrators who use ‘Play’ in the creation of their artwork
  • Make written notes on both the Michael Golec essay and the creative practitioners whose work interests you and why


This research task covers two different but connected concepts:

  1. Flow – A of state of pure creativity
  2. Play – The act of making innovative work in a state of flow

‘Flow’ is explored through a brief analysis of a talk given by Mihaly Csikszentmihlyi in 2004 where he summaries his 40-years of research into happiness, (what makes people happy’).

The theory of ‘Play’ is examined through a review of the key points in Michael Golec’s essay ‘Memory, Instinct and Design: Beyond Paul Rand’s “Play Principle”(1998). I then go on to look at some of the tools and processes that have been employed to reach a state of ‘Play’ through the work of three artists and educators:

  1. André Masson
  2. Hilma af Klint
  3. Betty Edwards


Flow describes being in a state of pure creativity. Mihaly Csikszentmihlyi’s research equates this state of abandonment to happiness, and what is interesting about his research is how he uses interviews with people from many different backgrounds and disciplines (visual artists, composers, sportsmen), to explore the phenomenon.

In a Ted Talk from 2004 Csikszentmihlyi’ says that: Flow is “an automatic, spontaneous process that can only happen to someone who is very well trained and who has developed technique”(2004).

This links back to the common truism that in order to master a discipline you need 10-years of experience and emersion in a particular field.

He goes on to outline seven attributes that describe what it feels like to be in a state of flow:

  1. Completely absorbed – focused/concentrated
  2. A sense of ecstacy – being outside of everyday reality
  3. Great inner clarity – knowing what needs to be done
  4. Knowing that the activity of doable – that our skills are adequate to the task
  5. A sense of serenity – No worries about oneself. Beyond the bounds of the ego
  6. Timelessness – focused on the present
  7. Intrinsic motivation – whatever the output, flow becomes its own reward.

Steven Pressfield describes the process of moving beyond the bounds of the ego into a state of ‘self’ where creativity flows in his excellent book The War of Art: Break through the blocks and win your inner creative battles (2002).

Fig 1 – Diagram showing the relationship of the ego and the self (2002)

He uses a Jungian concept of the human psyche to explain his theory.

The ego consists of our conscious intelligence, the part of us we associate with ‘I’. It has plans and uses logic to run our day-to-day lives. It is very efficient at keeping the show-on-the-road and managing logistics, but limited in terms of creativity.

The ‘self’ (the divine ground in Pressfield’s diagram), is much larger and includes the ego, but also the personal and collective unconscious, the place where spontienty and intuition exist. In fact, if you look back at Mihaly Csikszentmihlyi’s description of what flow (or being in a state of creativity) feels like, they are all descriptions of different attributes of the ‘self’.

Perhaps the connection is unsurprising when it was a lecture given by Carl Jung in Zurich that triggered Csikszentmihlyi’s interest in psychology.

Having a description of creativity and where it exists is really helpful conceptual model and one that I can relate to. The important question then becomes ‘what tools and techniques are there available to the artist to reach state of flow?

Several of these are examined through the work of the artists and practitioners below.


Michael Golec’s essay ‘Memory, Instinct and Design: Beyond Paul Rand’s “Play Principle” (1998) examines the paradox faced by designers, who, when presented with a client brief are expected to both apply the known, tried and tested rules that govern good design whilst at the same time coming up with ideas and approaches that are new and innovative.

Golec suggests that ‘Play’ is a condition where innovation (new thinking) can happen through using the intrinsic human qualities of instinct and experimentation.

The state of ‘Play’ allows a designer to ‘be’ outside-the-box of established design thinking, and for a moment, lose herself in unconscious experimentation before taking any insights back ‘inside-the-box’.

This concept is illustrated below:

Fig 2 – Diagram showing how ‘play’ is used to innovate by thinking ‘outside the box’ (2020)

Golec describes ‘Play’ as: “a means to forget the rules if only for a moment, to return to instinct. The designer then remembers the moment of forgetting, this breaking of the rules, amd applies this memory to the project at hand” (1998).

Artists and educators that use ‘Play’ in their work

The questions of what tools/techniques artists use to get a sense of ‘Play’ in their work is examined through three artists:

  1. André Masson
  2. Hilma af Klint
  3. Betty Edwards

André Masson

Automatic drawing was pioneered by artists from within the Surrealist movement, notably André Masson.

André Breton defined surrealism in the 1924 Manifesto of Surrealism as “Pure psychic automatism”.

The automatic drawing technique was invented as a way to access the unconscious mind of the artist in order to “express…the actual functioning of thought… in the absence of any control exercised by reason, exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern” (1924). In other words, it was a method that would put the artist into a ‘Play’ state.

André Masson’s method was to begin an automatic drawing with no preconceptions. He let the pen travel across the paper with no conscious control. At some point the marks would suggest images that he would elaborate.

Andre Masson-La-mer-se-retire
Fig 3 – La mer se retire (1941)

Hilma af Klint

Hilma af Klint (1862 – 1944) was a Swedish artist whose work drew influence from Spirituality and the idea of connecting with what she called ‘Higher Masters’ through séances, an area that was flourishing during that period.

Like the Surrealists that were to proceed her, she used a state of ‘Play’ to connect directly with her subconscious, albeit, her reason for doing this was to connect in some way with a spirit world.

She describes her method: “The pictures were painted directly through me, without any preliminary drawings, and with great force. I had no idea what the paintings were supposed to depict; nevertheless I worked swiftly and surely, without changing a single brush stroke.” (Kellaway, 2016)

Hilma af Klint - The Ten Largest Youth copy
Fig 4 – The Ten Largest, Youth (1907)

Betty Edwards

Betty Edwards is an artist and educator who wrote a seminal book titled ‘Drawing of the Right Side of the Brain‘ (1979).

What’s interesting about her book is the idea that artists do their best work by accessing the right side of their brains – the left side being verbal and rational and the right side being non-rational and intuitive.

Her teaching method uses a series of exercises that allow her students to access right side thinking. Her theory is that established artists, through practice and experience, are able to do this unconsciously all of the time but for people taking up drawing, this is not the case. They get ‘stuck’ in left side thinking – where the rational part (or the ego using Csikszentmihlyi’s research), gets in the way and prevents spontaneity.

A great example of an exercise from the book that made quite an impression on me was to make a copy an image that is turned upside down. For this exercise students are asked to copy a portrait of Igor Stravinsky drawn by Pablo Picasso.

Turning the portrait upside down forces  “the cognitive shift from the dominant left-hemisphere mode to the subdominant right-hemisphere mode” (1989). It’s almost as if the act of inverting the image and making it unrecognisable as a portrait (to the logical part of our brains), allows the student to see the lines and relationships on the paper in a new way enabling them to engage in the activity of drawing spontaeneously and unencumbered.

The act of turning the image over after finishing it was a magical experience.


  • The idea of flow or getting into a flow state is something I can easily relate to. I know what it feels like to be in that state and some of the conditions I need to get into that space.
  • What I find interesting is the notion of ‘Play’ as a way to innovate. I wasn’t aware of this concept, but now that I am, I can see where I’ve come across other creative processes and techniques that help to achieve this state.
  • From a brief review of the research tasks and exercises in PART 2 Visual approaches, I can see that this idea will be explored further. My question that arises is “how can I make use of these techniques in my own practice?”


Breton, A. (1900) ‘First manifesto of surrealism 1924’ In: Art in Theory 2000 At: http://uploads.worldlibrary.net/uploads/pdf/20121102214233manifestopdf_pdf.pdf

Edwards, B. (1993) Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain: A Course in Enhancing Creativity and Artistic Confidence. (s.l.): Jeremy P. Tarcher/Perigee.

Flow, the secret to happiness (s.d.) Directed by Csikszentmihalyi, M. At: https://www.ted.com/talks/mihaly_csikszentmihalyi_flow_the_secret_to_happiness?utm_campaign=tedspread&utm_medium=referral&utm_source=tedcomshare (Accessed 01/06/2020).

Golec, M. (s.d.) ‘Memory, Instinct, and Design: Beyond Paul Rand’s ‘Play Principle’’

Kellaway, K. (2016) ‘Hilma af Klint: a painter possessed’ In: The Guardian 21/02/2016 At: http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2016/feb/21/hilma-af-klint-occult-spiritualism-abstract-serpentine-gallery (Accessed 01/06/2020).

Pressfield, S. (2002) The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles. (s.l.): Black Irish Entertainment LLC.

List of illustrations

Figure 1 – Pressfield, S. (2002) Diagram showing the relationship of the ego and the self (s.l.): Black Irish Entertainment LLC. p133

Figure 2 – Hadfield, Hugh (2020) Diagram showing how ‘play’ is used to innovate by thinking ‘outside the box In possession of: the author

Figure 3 – Masson, Andre (1941) La mer se retire At: https://hyperallergic.com/311923/andre-massons-tortured-and-sensuous-automatic-drawings/ (Accessed: 30/05/20)

Figure 4 – Klint, Hilma af  (1907) The Ten Largest, Youth At: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2016/feb/21/hilma-af-klint-occult-spiritualism-abstract-serpentine-gallery (Accessed: 01/06/20)


Robb, A. (s.d.) ‘The ‘flow state’: Where creative work thrives’ In: BBC At: https://www.bbc.com/worklife/article/20190204-how-to-find-your-flow-state-to-be-peak-creative (Accessed 30/05/2020).

Topics and central works – Moderna Museet i Stockholm (s.d.) At: https://www.modernamuseet.se/stockholm/en/exhibitions/hilma-af-klint-2013/topics/ (Accessed 30/05/2020).

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