WHAT IS SLOW LOOKING? AND HOW CAN I GET STARTED?

INTRODUCTION

I first discovered slow looking in 2011 when designing a programme using thinking routines (from Visible Thinking) to look at objects slowly and carefully. We had participants as young as six looking intently at objects and art in the museum for 15-20 minutes at a time – a real case of the more you look, the more you see. I’ve been practising slow looking ever since with all age groups and a variety of objects, artworks, situations and places. 

Recently, slow looking has become more popular with Tate ‘recommending’ slow looking for an exhibition on Bonnard and the National Gallery offered slow looking art sessions for lockdown

In this post I’m going to take right back to the basics and walk you through an introduction to slow looking and give you tip and suggestions on how you can get started. 

WHAT IS SLOW LOOKING?

Slow looking is simply the art of learning through observation. You can do it anywhere – it doesn’t have to be in an art museum – you just need to take a longer look at the world. Some paintings, for example, do not inspire any sense of connection until you have looked and thought about them for a while.

It’s all too easy to brush off an artwork with ‘I just don’t get it’ but if you ask yourself to stay a little longer, look a little harder whilst thinking about all the questions you have about it; you might ultimately get more out of the experience.

Looking at something slowly and carefully is a rewarding process – the object or art work becomes more interesting the longer you look at it.  

HOW LONG DO YOU NEED TO LOOK FOR?

You can look for as long as you like. There are no hard and fast rules.

For beginning viewers on their own, I would recommend finding somewhere comfortable (with a seat, perhaps) and taking 3-5 minutes to observe. This can feel like a long time when you start. Here are some tips:

  • Let your eyes do the work and questions will emerge.
  • If the flow stops, close your eyes or look away for a few moments before looking back again.
  • You can also change your position to look from a different perspective. What do you see now?
  • As you keep looking you will discover and notice more features and details.
  • Enjoy the process, keep it fun and do not stick to any rigid structures. 

If you’re lucky enough to take part in a guided slow looking experience – either in-person or virtually – you can spend anything from 10-60 minutes looking and observing. You may be guided through different activities or routines but all will be linked to the purpose of slowing looking down.

WHAT SHOULD I LOOK AT?

Anything.

Art and creative works are an obvious choice as they are made to engage and hold our attention. But it doesn’t have to be art.

In ‘How to Use your Eyes’, James Elkins teaches us how to spend time and look at 32 different ordinary objects – postage stamps, grass, a twig, Egyptian hieroglyphs and more. Whilst Alexandra Horowitz encourages us to take the same walk over and over again and look at it each time with fresh eyes. Classrooms encourage slow looking by asking students to take apart and analyse objects.

We can practise slow looking anywhere, on any object, at any location, wherever we are. It certainly doesn’t have to be in a museum. And it doesn’t need to be art. 

SHOULD I DO IT BY MYSELF OR WITH OTHERS?

Both. I would recommend doing both.

Slow looking on your own is a wonderful way to improve your own observational skills.

Take an everyday object and study it for a full minute. Then put it away and write as many details as you remember. Take it out again and study it for 3 minutes. Put it away a second time and write down all the new details you saw. What new details did you notice? Do this every day with a different item for a week for better focus and memory. 

Take inspiration from Slow Art Day and go to a museum in a small group (socially-distanced where applicable) and give yourself 10 minutes each to look at the same painting. Talk through the things you notice. Ask yourself what do you think is going on here? Does the artist have a message? Look for surprises, mood and motion. Or  focus on categories such as colour, shapes or line.

You can easily do this activity via Zoom with a group looking at a painting in a museum’s online collection. Wonderful things happen when you look at an object or artwork with others, you start to build on each other’s responses and this in turn helps everyone to see more. 

When you practice slow looking in groups, we naturally build off the ideas of others and think together. Somebody in the group will say something that will spark a thought in your mind or make you notice something you haven’t seen before. Building explanations together is also a very enjoyable experience. 

IS IT ALL ABOUT LOOKING AND THINKING?

When you practice slow, careful looking on your own, it’s worth telling yourself or ‘labelling’ what you see in your head. You can also note down thoughts in a notebook. In a group, you might discuss what you see with others. 

But slow looking doesn’t have to be all about looking and talking, I use sketching regularly as another way of observing an object or artwork.

I’ve described drawing activities in a previous post, but you can use ‘Back-to-Back’ drawing (the observer describes what they are looking at to the person with their back to the object, who then draws what is being described to them), blind contour drawing, or using a viewfinder to focus on a specific part of an object.

Aside from drawing and sketching as a slow looking activity, think about looking through a microscope, taking objects apart (and putting them back together again), or recreating what you see through painting, movement and dance.

DOES IT INVOLVE MINDFULNESS & MEDITATION?

It can do. It doesn’t have to.

Slow looking is interpreted in different ways by different people. Many museums now are offering slow looking sessions that introduce elements of mindfulness, meditation and groundedness. 

Peter Clothier has been running one hour/one painting sessions for years that combine elements of meditation and contemplation. He begins with a brief introduction to the principles of closed-eye breath meditation, encouraging participants to relax and refresh the eyes, and to rid the mind of expectations and pre-judgments. This leads to an alternation of closed- and open-eye work, the facilitator guiding the process with brief instructions and directions. NOTE: This is individual work: there is no discussion or interaction, allowing each participant to experience the work as fully as possible, without interruption. At the end of the hour, however, he invites responses and discussion of the experience.

The National Gallery’s ‘5-minute Meditations’ series, released during lockdown in March 2020, selects meditation techniques that connect with a painting’s content or how it was painted, so that the art and the meditation enhance one another. 

I participated in a one-hour, interactive ‘Slow Looking: Connecting to Self and Place’ session organised by MoMA this week. We explored a single artwork through a series of guided activities focused on deep description and creative responses. The session started with intention-setting and a grounding exercises before moving on to deep description and creative responses to the artwork.This session is part of the initiative Artful Practices for Well-Being, which offers activities and ideas for connectedness and healing through art.

But slow looking doesn’t have to include a wellbeing or mindfulness element.

Shari Tishman defines it as a ‘mode of learning, a means of gaining knowledge through observation’ and she provides 4 strategies to approach it: categories, open inventory, scale and scope, juxtaposition. All of these strategies encourage you to go beyond first glance and provide support so that you can do it on your own. Each category encourages you to make your own observations, rather than to say what experts tell them they should see.

WHAT ARE THE BENEFITS OF SLOW LOOKING?

Developing the practice of slow looking will help you to notice more – how you can be more attentive to your environment, see beyond your first impressions and look a little deeper. Looking slowly and carefully will improve your visual acumen and make you more alert, aware and attentive to details in all aspects of your personal and work life. If you practice regularly, your observation skills will noticeably improve. Your ability to describe and use descriptive language will also get better, as you notice more details and find more precise ways to describe what you see. 

There are educational benefits to slow looking and it can be used to great effect in classrooms and in educational programmes – looking closely and carefully helps to unravel complexity, build connections and see things from multiple perspectives. 

From a wellbeing perspective, there are benefits to slowing down and looking closely – not least, taking the time to pause, refresh and restore but also to reduce stress levels, improve concentration levels and foster empathy. With a slow looking experience, your focus of attention is completely in the moment, rather than on other thoughts or concerns. 

Moreover, slow looking is inclusive – everyone can take part and no prior knowledge is required. For those who want to practice slow looking with art, no art historical knowledge is required giving you confidence in your own abilities to visit a museum and understand an object for yourself.

SLOW LOOKING CLUB

And don’t forget my FREE new Facebook group The Slow Looking Club created especially for podcast listeners. It’s a place for conversation and discussion about engaging with art, objects and life slowly. I’ll share resources, ideas and tips for anyone interested in looking at art – whether it’s for your personal enjoyment or your practice as a cultural educator. And we’ll have regular slow looking moments together too!

THE SLOW LOOKING CLUB