This week I’m running a Slow Looking Challenge for 150 participants via email and our private pop-up Facebook group. The first two days of this challenge focus on developing a daily slow looking practice and specifically with every day objects and activities – because slow looking is not just about art.
In this week’s blog I’m showing simple ways you can practise slow looking every day – most of these suggested activities are short, simple and accessible for anyone who is interested in improving their observational skills.
Why practise slow looking every day?
In our fast-paced society, we scan, we skim and we scroll. We have forgotten what it’s like to really look at something. I believe that the more you look, the more you see, the more interesting something becomes.
A 2019 published study from researchers at the Technical University of Denmark suggests the collective global attention span is narrowing due to the amount of information that is presented to the public. The study shows that people now have more things to focus on – but often focus on things for short periods of time.
We apparently now check our phones every 12 minutes, often just after waking up. “Always-on” behaviour is about being in a constant state of alertness scanning, skimming and scrolling the world without giving our full focus to anything.
Slow looking is a wonderful alternative to life in the fast line. The activities and exercises I’ll be sharing here are simple, effective ways to slow down, improve your observational skills and focus and notice more details around you on a daily basis.
It all starts with you
Whether you want to just improve your slow looking skills for yourself or whether you want to use this to teach others, you need to first improve and hone your own observational skills and get comfortable with slow looking.
Take a daily neighbourhood walk (5-15 minutes)
We could all do with getting outside some more and this activity gives you a focused way to practise your slow looking skills whilst also getting some fresh air and exercise (win-win!).
Take an ‘ordinary’ walk in your neighbourhood to practise some slow, focused looking strategies. These walks will help you to see your area – the familiar – with fresh eyes. Alexandra Horowitz talks about this in her excellent book ‘On Looking’ – she says that when we move to a new home, our senses are alert to the variety of ways this street, neighbourhood or area are different to where we lived before. However, over time, we fall asleep to the area – the unfamiliar becomes familiar. Choosing one of the following focused-walk options will help you to wake up and notice again:
Scavenger Hunt Walk: Hunt for a single-object on your walk scavenger hunt-style e.g. security cameras, signposts, plants, birds
Colour Walk: As you step outside of the door, choose a colour to first focus on. Where do you first notice that colour? Where else does it appear? How does it contribute to the mood or atmosphere of where you’re walking? How would it feel or look without your colour? What other colours do you notice as you continue? Are there any unexpected colours?
Single Point of Focus Walk: Take a walk and find a point to sit or stand for 5 minutes, focusing attention on a single point. Take time to notice what you see. Sketch the scene in your head. Spending time with one view forces you to look beyond the obvious. Note changes, movement, the effect of the light or the weather, noise, smells.
Room with a view (5 minutes)
This slow looking exercise is especially useful if you can’t fit in the walking activities (above) as you can do this from your house or office and spend 5 minutes. First find a window and start looking out of it. You can first start to examine the frame and notice what it includes and excludes in your ‘scene’. Then move on to the view, looking for 3 things you’ve never seen or noticed before.
Look out for any movement (clouds? birds? cars?) before finding one thing to focus on for a full minute. You can choose to ‘tell yourself’ what you see, write down in a notebook or draw the view from your window.
Looking slowly at everyday objects
In his fantastic book ‘How to Use Your Eyes’, James Elkins talks about looking closely at the everyday objects of ordinary life. He wants you to stop and consider things that are often ignored, or under-appreciated…. Things like grass, the night sky, a postage stamp, a crack in the sidewalk, a shoulder (yes, a shoulder!).
I bought this book back in 2013 and it has remained an important part of my ‘slow looking library’ ever since. It’s a book about learning to see anything, learning to use your eyes more intentionally and with more patience than usual. I love that he talks about how to look at the ordinary stuff of life – the things we see every day, but often ignore.
Study an everyday object
Practising slow looking with everyday objects is a very easy way to improve your viewing skills. By looking at and thinking about real objects, real evidence of the world around you and the past, it encourages you to think beyond your own everyday experience. Like the neighbourhood walks, it can be really refreshing to see a favoured object differently.
First, find an everyday object – It can be anything around you – a pen, shoe, toothbrush, chair, door stopper, iron, paper packaging etc. Then choose to either draw or study your object.
Look for one minute and then put your object away. Write down as many details as you can remember. Putting the object away helps boost working memory – the stuff we hold in our heads – and visual memory – the image we see in our heads.
Then, take your object out again and set a timer for 3 minutes. Look at it again. If the flow stops, pick the object up or look at it from another angle. Consider opening and closing your eyes to see what new things you notice.
When the time is up, put away your object and write down all the new things you saw. If you do this activity every day for a week (choosing a new item every day), you will be able to quickly improve your focus and memory.
After each walk, room with a view or object study, take time to reflect too. Think about: What was difficult, interesting, revealing when looking at objects in this way? What new things did I notice the longer I looked?
If you’re interested in learning more about slow looking, I have a 6 part Slow Looking Course available in my Membership programme. By becoming a member, you also receive all the other benefits that members do too – monthly masterclasses, thinking routine classes and much more. You’ll also be part of a global learning community of educators learning how to engage their audiences with art and ideas.
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