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

INTRODUCTION

Everything I do in my work is underpinned by slow looking.
It has been a huge part of the way I’ve led the most engaging discussions over the last 10 years.
And if you remember from episode 1, I talked about when I first discovered slow looking in 2011 when designing the Stories around the World programme at the Tropenmuseum 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 their Bonnard exhibition and the National Gallery offering slow looking art sessions for lockdown.
In this podcast I’m going to take you right back to the basics and walk you through an introduction to slow looking and give you tips and suggestions on how you can get started.

Links

Jennifer Roberts The Power of Patience
Peter Clothier – One hour One painting video
James Elkins ‘How to Use your Eyes’
Alexandra Horowitz ‘On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes’
Shari Tishman ‘Slow Looking: The Art and Practice of Learning Through Observation’

WHAT IS SLOW LOOKING?

There are lots of definitions out there. From spending time with something to get to know it. To taking the time to carefully observe more than meets the eye.
Also, the practice of observing detail over time to push beyond first glances.
For this post, I’d like to offer this definition:

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 can practise slow looking anywhere at any time – 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 really rewarding process – the object or art work becomes more interesting the more time you spend with it.
The more you look, the more you see, the more interesting the object becomes.

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 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.
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 or more looking and observing. You may be guided through different activities or routines but all will be linked to the purpose of slowing looking down. I’ve now done sessions where we’ve been looking at an artwork for 1.5 hours. When I first started this I was hesitant to create discussions for 15 minutes at one artwork – this shows you just how far I’ve come on this slow looking journey!
Jennifer Roberts wrote an article a few years ago called the Power of Patience and in this she talks about asking her art history students to spend 3 hours with a work of art
Peter Clothier has been running one hour/one painting sessions for years that combine elements of meditation and contemplation.
How long you spend is really up to you.

WHAT SHOULD I LOOK AT?

Well, the unhelpful answer is anything. 
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 Horowitzin 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 certainly recommend that you start by just practising slow looking every day as part of your life.
  • Doing a local neighbourhood walk where you focus on a particular colour or stop at a certain point and focus on what you see in front of you.
  • Or looking 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 taking an everyday object and looking at it for an extended period of time – what do you notice? What do you see? What are its parts? What is its purpose?

SHOULD I DO IT BY MYSELF OR WITH OTHERS?

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. 
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.

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. 
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.
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 recently. 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 COURSE 

Interested in finding out more about slow looking and learning techniques that you can use or incorporate into your programmes? The Slow Looking: Art of Observation course is a 6 part course comprising a combination of classes taught by Claire Bown and guest teachers and a rich library of slow looking resources. It is available as a self-paced course in The Thinking Museum Self-Paced Programme.
We cover:
  • What is Slow Looking
  • Ways of Slow Looking – the key ideas of David Perkins, Jennifer Roberts, Amy Herman, Shari Tishman & Peter Clothier
  • Different approaches to slow looking
  • Strategies & Techniques for Slow Looking
This course includes 6 classes:
  1. Learning to Look
  2. Slow Looking as a Tool for Learning
  3. An Introduction to Visual Bias
  4. An Introduction to Mindfulness
  5. Mindful Looking
  6. Designing & Facilitating for Success
Sign up the Self-Paced Programme