What is slow looking, really? And how does it work in practice? In this article, I will walk you through an introduction to slow looking and give you tips and suggestions for how you can get started.
At the heart of my work is the idea of “slow looking,” a practice, mindset and approach that has shaped how I design and lead engaging discussions for the past 12+ years.
Engagement starts with slow looking. It’s been the secret to the most engaging discussions I’ve facilitated.
In 2011, in response to teachers’ requests I designed a programme (called Stories around the World) at the Tropenmuseum that had participants as young as 6 looking intently at objects in the museum for 15-20 minutes at a time. It was a real case of the more you look, the more you see.
I’ve been practising slow looking ever since, with all age groups, a variety of objects and artworks, and in a range of situations and places. Slow looking is at the heart of the VTM approach and runs through all aspects of how I design, facilitate and lead VTM programmes.
Let’s get back to the basics. In this article, I will walk you through an introduction to slow looking and give you tips and suggestions for how you can get started.
WHAT IS SLOW LOOKING?
Slow looking comes in various definitions, but at its core, it’s about taking time to really observe and connect with something.
It involves taking the time to observe and engage in a more deliberate and intentional way.
By paying attention to all the details and focusing on them over time, you can gain a deeper understanding of the object and the broader themes it represents.
Think of slow looking as active learning—it lets you engage with art and objects in your own way and at your own pace.
I’d like to offer my own definition:
Slow looking is a practice, mindset and approach involving the study of something with intention and attention.
Slow looking is not simply the amount of time that you spend with something, it’s the belief that all discovery originates in looking.
Slow looking simply requires us to be present, patient and willing to immerse ourselves in the act of observation.
As an aside, the principles and practices of slow looking can be applied anywhere, with anything. The core ideas can be applied when out walking, chatting with others or when looking at objects at homes. You don’t need to be in a museum – you just need to be willing to take a longer look at the world.
It’s all too easy to dismiss an artwork or object with a simple “I don’t get it” or “I don’t like it.”
However, if you challenge yourself to stay a bit longer, examine it more closely, and think about the questions you have about it, you might ultimately get more out of the experience.
Some paintings, for example, do not inspire any sense of connection until you have looked and thought about them for a while.
Looking at something slowly and carefully is a really rewarding process. The more time you spend with an object or artwork, the more intriguing and interesting it becomes.
HOW CAN I GET STARTED?
How long do you need to look for?
You can actually look for as long as you like. There are no hard and fast rules.
For beginning viewers, looking 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. 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.
Participating in a guided slow-looking experience, whether in person or virtually, offers a unique opportunity to spend anywhere from 10 to 120 minutes or even more immersed in observation and discussion. During these sessions, you might engage in various activities or routines, all aimed at slowing down and deepening your connection with what you’re looking at.
I’ve conducted sessions where we explored a single artwork for a solid 1.5 hours. As you gain more experience facilitating these sessions, spending longer durations becomes more comfortable.
Initially, 15 minutes might seem like a lot, but with time, it can start to fly by as you become more skilled in the art of slow looking.
Speaking of spending extended time with art, Jennifer Roberts penned an article titled “Power of Patience” a few years ago. In it, she discussed challenging her art history students to dedicate a substantial 3 hours to a single work of art.
Additionally, Peter Clothier has been conducting one hour/one painting sessions for years that combine elements of meditation and contemplation. His book Slow Looking (2012) was the first book I read on the subject of slow looking and art.
Shari Tishman‘s book ‘Slow Looking‘, (2017), the most comprehensive book on the subject to date, argues that taking your time to truly immerse yourself in the details of diverse subjects, from visual arts to everyday life, can unlock valuable cognitive opportunities for meaningful learning and critical thinking.
But how much time you spend and whether you look alone or with others is ultimately up to you. Start with short sessions and gradually increase as you become more comfortable and confident with slow looking. It’s all about finding your own pace and enjoying the process.
WHAT SHOULD I LOOK AT?
Well, the unhelpful answer is anything. Yes, 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 his fabulous book ‘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 in her book ‘On Looking’ 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.
And I would definitely recommend that you start by just practising slow looking every day as part of your life.
- Take a walk in your neighbourhood where you focus on a particular colour or stop at a certain point and concentrate on what you see in front of you.
- Or look at the view out of your window every day for a few minutes and noticing what you see, what’s different and what’s the same.
- Or take an everyday object and look at it for an extended period of time – what do you notice? What do you see? What are its parts? What is its purpose?
You can find more ideas for how to develop a daily slow looking practice here.
SHOULD I DO IT BY MYSELF OR WITH OTHERS?
Slow looking can be an individual or a group activity.
If you’re practicing slow looking alone, 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.
You can also 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. Importantly, this is an individual journey—no discussions or interactions interrupt the experience. After the hour, Peter invites participants to share their thoughts and discuss their unique experiences.
- 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.
- MoMA regularly runs one-hour, interactive ‘Slow Looking: Connecting to Self and Place’ sessions. These online experiences typically explore a single artwork through a series of guided activities based around a trauma-sensitive framework. The session can include intention-setting, 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. You can read or listen to my conversation with Jackie Armstrong from MoMA here.
- Manchester Art Gallery has been a trailblazer for trauma-sensitive mindful looking programmes focused on health and wellbeing. Louise Thompson talks about her work here.
But, importantly. 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.
INTROSPECTIVE & EXTROSPECTIVE APPROACHES TO SLOW LOOKING
Recently, I’ve been thinking about different modes of slow looking and see two general approaches – introspective and extrospective.
A more “introspective” approach to slow looking involves analysing something in relation to your own feelings, experiences, and thoughts. This may include mindfulness, meditation, and groundedness, leading to deep personal connections.
An “extrospective” approach would explore meanings, possibilities & interpretations and could potentially be more focused on the artist, maker, (historical) context or other layers of meaning surrounding the object or artwork. This approach is generally more outward-looking.
Of course, you can choose to mix both “introspective” and “extrospective” approaches in one slow-looking experience.
Both approaches encourage you to go beyond first glance and look at something over time with focused attention. And both introspective and extrospective approaches encourage slow lookers to make their own observations, descriptions and interpretations. However the questions asked, the techniques and tools employed will differ from one approach to another.
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.