Essence and playfulness

nov 10, 2018

‘The main evolutionary significance of humor is that it gets us from the closed mode to the open mode quicker than anything else’ (John Cleese, 1991)

‘One can spend weeks on a marvelous painting of a rabbit, accurate to the tiniest detail – and yet still miss its essential rabbit-ness. And then dash off a funny little sketch in a few lines – and pin that bunny’s soul to the paper.’ (Quentin Blake and John Cassidy, 1999)

In my last blog I explored Goethean observation, which turned out to be a way to enter the ‘irrational mode’, where words and knowledge are replaced by intuition and a connection to the whole. John Cleese in his speech ‘Creativity in management’ would call this the ‘open mode’. He tells us that in everyday life we are in the ‘closed mode’: result oriented, usually a little stressed and always thinking about what is the next useful task. In the open mode on the other hand, we are relaxed, expansive, less purposeful, more playful and not under pressure to get something done. He argues that the open mode is crucial to creativity and talks about how to switch from one mode to the other. To give a short overview: you do this by first creating a ‘space-time oasis’ of at least one and a half hours, and by gently staying with a problem longer than you normally would; by tolerating the anxiety of not knowing the answer; by taking the risk to experiment; and by understanding the need for humour.

I would like to talk about how this open mode relates to the funniest DIY drawing book I have so far encountered: ‘Drawing for the artistically undiscovered’ by Quentin Blake and John Cassidy. It is as fun for adults as it is for children and if I had to choose the best book on capturing the essential, I would choose this one. And to come back to John Cleese, the book also provides page after page of encouragement to enter the ‘open mode’.



As the makers state, the goal of the book is ’to provide you with a new tool for expressing your you-ness’ (Blake and Cassidy, 1999, p.4) by thinking about the essential of what you are going to draw. And then going for it with the same straightforwardness you would use swatting a tennis ball across the net. The entire book is designed to allow you to practice this kind of spontaneous give-it-a-go drawing. It helps you work around your fear of mistakes, teaches you a few basic drawing skills along the way and has you laugh out loud on about every page.

It is interesting how the playfulness that jumps out of the book corresponds with John Cleese’s speech. Just like Blake and Cassidy constantly joke about our inclination to get overly serious or anxious, Cleese keeps interrupting his own carefully built argument with recurring silly jokes about how many people you need to screw in a lightbulb (‘how many folksingers does it take to screw in a lightbulb – answer five, one to change the bulb and four to sing about how much better the old one was’ (Cleese, 1991)).

This continuous use of humour is not just a way to entertain. It is essential to the open mode. Every time Cleese jokes, we laugh, and by laughing we stay open to the unexpected, ‘connecting two seperate ideas in a way that creates new meaning’ (Cleese, 1991). Without these jokes we would be inclined to switch to the closed mode, as this is the mode we are usually in. We would work hard to understand the theory about the open mode, listen to its five elements carefully and grow ever more serious as we try to incorporate them into our minds as a fixed model, admiring John Cleese as the expert on this very important subject. By joking he constantly undermines this tendency and strengthens his argument that humour is essential to the open mode and therefore, to creativity.

‘Humour is an essential part of spontaneity, an essential part of playfulness, an essential part of the creativity we need to solve problems, no matter how serious they may be.’ (Cleese, 1991)

The other factor John Cleese explains as central to creativity, is confidence. The confidence to be silly, illogical, wrong, mistaken:

Nothing will stop you from being creative so effectively as the fear of making a mistake. To play is to experiment. What happens if I do this? What would happen if we do that? What if? The very essence of playfulness is an openness to anything that may happen…. So you cannot be playful if you feel that moving in some direction will be wrong. You’re either free to play or you’re not. (Cleese 1991)

In ‘Drawing for the artistically undiscovered’ these two factors, humour and the confidence to experiment (and who could be a better teacher on that than Quentin Blake?), are facilitated THUS:

1) By allowing for mistakes: ‘On misteakes: we don’t believe in them. You’ll note, in fact, that the erasers have all been painstakingly removed from our pencils’

2) By lots of playing around with familiar shapes to take the pressure off your visual memory and to discover how you can move beyond reality. To encourage you to experiment with this, there are ‘suggestion piles’ with out-of-the-box ideas how to play around with say, the concept of a broom – to draw a wilted, around-the-corner, electrically powered, fat, just back from the hairdresser or factory reject broom.

3) By creating safe ‘playing ground’ consisting of blank pages with half-finished drawings to get you going, most of them very funny:

4) By encouraging you to relax into the open mode; they teach you to take the time to fool around and do a lot of carefree sketching until ‘your drawings will begin to look like sparks of spontaneity and fun.’

‘Overworking is against the rules. If you grip your pen tightly, bear down hard, push your nose into the paper and agonize over every line…your drawings will look like hard labor.’ (Blake and Cassidy, 1999, p.23)


5) By sparking your imagination through drawing fantasy animals that are not realistic, but feel real enough because their essence (for example, the essence of ‘ferocity’) is caught:

‘Don’t do a lot af planning here…Just toss up an idea like ‘bird-ish’, dragon-ish’…and then give it a good swat. If you let your pen and pencil do half the thinking, you’ll be amazed at the kind of work they can do.’ (Blake, Cassidy, 1999, p.50)


6) By encouraging to take a fearless approach: ‘Take a fearless experimental approach. Wield your pen or pencil with spirit and take bold chances.’

7) By focussing on the essential gesture instead of getting the details right: ‘Get those essentials right, and you’re free to botch the details. Nailing down just the essential gesture or emotion is a bit like catching butterflies…’ (Blake, Cassidy 1999, p.90)

So, concluding, to capture the essential in illustration we need to be in the open mode and allow for boldness and playfulness. This approach can be practiced and facilitated by allowing yourself the space and time to leave the ‘closed mode’. To become playful, we also need to acknowledge the anxiety that often precedes it: the discomfort of leaving your result oriented mindset behind, and welcoming the unknown. When your courage (or confidence as John Cleese would call it, or boldness as Blake and Cassidy say) holds out, you are rewarded with suprising results:

‘If you find yourself looking at a drawing and saying, “That’s really quite nice….[pause] How’d I do that?” then you’re on the right track’ (Blake and Cassidy 1999, p.24))

Blake, Q., Cassidy, J. (1999) Drawing for the artistically undiscovered. London: Klutz

Cleese, J. (1991) On Creativity in Management. Available at: (accessed: dec 9, 2018)