There are many ways to look at and think about an artwork. Mindful looking is the process of slowing down and looking at an artwork or object from the perspective of mindfulness.
But what exactly is mindful looking and how can I get started?
What is mindfulness?
Let’s start by talking about what mindfulness is. As Jon Kabat Zinn states, ‘mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.’ It is about a way of being, or a way of responding to the world.
Mindfulness allows us to become fully present in all aspects of life and to be fully aware of the here and now. By practising mindfulness techniques, we can learn to slow our thoughts and connect to the moment.
It helps to calm us down and get out of the ‘quick consumption mode’ that modern life demands of us. Intentional mindfulness practice can therefore help us to shift our pace and ease stress.
Mindfulness can take many forms – writing, drawing, even more active pursuits such as walking and running can also be mindful activities. It is not just about meditation and breathing.
Mindfulness can help us to build stability in the present moment, become more aware of our thoughts and to develop a practice of deep looking.
What is mindful looking?
In my Slow Looking course, I define 4 different approaches to slow looking (see image below). Mindful looking is an approach to slow looking that falls into the ‘way of improving wellbeing’ approach.
Mindful looking is essentially the process of slowing down and looking at an artwork or object from the perspective of mindfulness.
The act of looking at art enables us to slow down our thoughts and become more focused. By focusing on the breath and engaging in the act of looking mindfully, mindful looking is an approach to slow looking that can help us in the practice of mindfulness and also increase our mental wellbeing.
- Mindfulness meditation techniques and practices help to quiet the mind and encourage stillness
- Looking mindfully helps us to be fully in the moment, leaving behind our to-do list and other thoughts as we dive deeply into the looking and seeing
- Mindful looking is NOT about curators, art historians or even artists, wall texts or books. It is about you and the artwork, allowing yourself the time to make your own discoveries and form a more personal connection with it
- It is about your direct experience with the painting, rather than any knowledge you might have about it
- Mindful looking typically brings together short meditation practices, with mindfulness approaches and guided looking exercises or activities
- It may start with a grounding or meditation exercise to register awareness of how you are feeling both physically and emotionally at the start
Do I need to be in a gallery to practice mindful looking?
No, museums and galleries are wonderful spaces to practice slow and mindful looking, but you can do it anywhere.
You can even start right now by taking a moment to stop and notice the world around you right. now. Really notice ‘on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally’.
- Sit or stand comfortably and start to notice your breath. Breathe comfortably.
- Then turn your attention to seeing. What do you see around you? What do you notice?
- Focus on a specific element such as the colours, shapes or lines that you notice. What colours/shapes/lines do you see?
- You can make a habit of doing this on a daily basis – watching the clouds as they go by, noticing what’s outside your window every day, or tuning into your breathing (I like this ‘breathe bubble’ from Calm)
For more inspiration, take a look at Simple ways to practise slow looking every day.
Can you do mindful looking virtually or is it ‘better’ in-gallery? Should it be a live or a recorded experience?
A standard answer – but, it depends. There are advantages and disadvantages to both. Virtually you can guarantee a quiet space, zoom in on details and spend as much time as you like with one artwork. That’s sometimes difficult in the gallery or museum space where you are aware of other visitors, the space around the artwork and finding a comfortable spot to sit.
On the other hand, when you are actually in front of the artwork, you get to see and notice the scale, brushstrokes, or lumps of paint, the actual ‘mark’ of the artist on the canvas and this can enhance the experience. You also have the benefit of movement in a gallery space – you can move around the object or sculpture, bend down and look up and zoom out/zoom in by just moving your positioning.
There are a lot of recorded mindful looking videos out there if you do a quick search – but beware that some are better than others.
There is an art to recording a successful mindful looking experience – fostering a sense of calm and stillness, leaving ample space for questions and thoughts, attention to detail and to quality, and considering even small things like the voice and tone of the presenter will all add to the experience.
Why practice mindful looking?
Research has shown that slow, mindful looking at art can help to reduce or alleviate stress. It can also result in a deeper sense of aesthetic appreciation and wellbeing.
Combining art engagement with mindfulness helps to deepen the quality of attention and observation that you can bring to an artwork. It also helps to create more space for contemplation and for more meaningful, sometimes transformative, connections with artworks.
Mindful looking can really create that sense of wonder, foster an enhanced appreciation of beauty and more appreciation for the artist’s skill and mastery.
Practising mindful looking also helps to develop that ‘beginner’s mind’ to see things from a different perspective or with fresh eyes. Then there is also the enjoyment of the group experience – participants can build off ideas of others & think together.
Where and how can I experience mindful looking?
Over the past year there has been a huge increase in the number of mindful and slow looking sessions and resources offered by museums and galleries. Here are a selection:
- The National Gallery of Art in the UK famously launched their slow-looking art lessons for lockdown, with their slow looking recordings helping viewers to clear their minds, really look at what is in front of them and fully experience a variety of artworks.
- The Rubin Museum of Art has regular mindful looking sessions and has also developed a podcast focusing on Mindful Looking – meditation teachers Sharon Salzberg and Kate Johnson guide you through engaging with artworks in a new way, with an active awareness of yourself and your own thoughts.
- Many museums have started online mindful looking sessions in the past year – with so many of us in lockdown and unable to get to a museum, it makes so much sense to bring the experience into our homes. Check out Denver Art Museum’s Mindful Looking Online, the Columbus Museum’s Art for Wellbeing or choose your own painting or object and then use this Mindful Looking At Art Eyes Open Meditation by Yoga Peggy.
- MoMA also has a useful set of resources Artful Practices for Well-Being which offers ideas for connectedness and healing through art.
- And I’ve written about slow looking many times for this blog – so do take a look at 12 Reasons to Get Started with Slow Looking and What is Slow Looking? (and How Can I Get Started?) and Simple Ways to Practise Slow Looking Every Day
- If you’re looking for a course on Mindfulness, then Katie Sheen runs an online Be Calm, Be Happy Mindfulness Course .