HOW TO DEVELOP A SLOW LOOKING PRACTICE

Slow looking is not only an important part of my work, it is also a personal practice – something that I’ve been doing regularly for the last few years. I’m really interested in developing my observational skills and I’m also fascinated by what happens when we spend a longer period of time looking at something.

Our general approach to looking is, however, flawed and we try to look at things as briskly and efficiently as possible.

We need to slow our looking down and give our brain the time and space to focus on what is in front of us.

Developing a daily slow looking practice will enable you to improve your observational skills and start noticing more details.

And if we are better at this ourselves, as educators, then we are in a far better position to guide others through the process of slow looking too.

So, here are 6 ways you can start to develop your own daily slow looking practice – I’ve included a number of ideas, some outside, some inside, some to do with art, some not. The idea is that you pick one of these activities and you do it every day for a few days and see what happens. After a few days you should start to notice a difference!

Everything I do in my work is underpinned by slow looking. It has been a huge part of my work over the last 10 years. I’ve led slow looking sessions with all types of age groups – from the very young, to teens, adults, and beyond. I even developed a 6 part online course on the subject last year. 
But it’s also a personal practice – something that I’ve been doing regularly for the last few years. I’m really interested in developing my observational skills AND I’m also fascinated by what happens when we spend a longer period of time looking at something.

WHY START A SLOW LOOKING PRACTICE?

 It all starts with you – It’s a good idea to work on and hone your own observational skills before you think about incorporating slow looking into the programmes you lead..
AND there are many reasons why developing a daily slow looking practice might be good for you. 
Here are some: 
  • It’s a really good way of gaining knowledge about the world
  • It will also help you develop a unique set of skills – observing and describing.
  • You’ll find it rewarding – the more you look, the more you see and the more engaged you might become. 
  • Once you start noticing details more, you’ll notice more details everywhere. You’ll hunt for the details and look specifically to find more things to notice. 
  • It’s a good antidote to our fast-paced modern life, it’s calming, relaxing and good for your wellbeing. 
  • It will also help you think about ‘how you see’. 
When most people think about ‘seeing’ or ‘looking’ they think in terms of just opening their eyes and the seeing just happening. Sort of like a camera – when you take a photo. 
But a photograph only captures so much. We actually ‘see’ so much more. 
We also see ‘meanings’ – like shapes, solids, proportions, materials, styles, functions, weight, and more. 
And as David Perkins in The Intelligent Eye says ‘The eye hungers to make sense of what lies before it’. And in most cases, we don’t even notice that we’re doing this. 
The same goes for images – we can easily read meanings from images, even if there is not much information to go on. The eye is hungry to make interpretations and look for meanings. . 
But we don’t make the most of our eyes. They show us so much that we can’t take it all in and we try to look at things as briskly and efficiently as possible. 

OUR APPROACH TO LOOKING IS FLAWED

In his book The Intelligent Eye David Perkins says that our normal approach to looking in general is flawed:
  • We are often hasty – jumping to conclusions and then moving on. 
  • Or we are narrow – we look, see and think in familiar categories. And we’re quick to dismiss something before exploring it fully. 
  • Or sometimes we’re a bit fuzzy. We need to look much more carefully at the details to understand more. 
  • Or finally, we can be sprawling – jumping from one thing to another. We glance here and there. We scan, we skim and we scroll on by. 
So, developing a slow looking practice can really help us to stop being so hasty, narrow, fuzzy and sprawling. Instead we can slow our looking down and give our brain the time and space to focus on what is in front of us. 
A daily slow looking practice will help us to step away from obvious conclusions, look for surprises and specifics, analyse and organise our looking. 
And if we are better at this ourselves, as educators, then we are in a far better position to guide others through the process of slow looking too.
So, here are a range of ways you can start to develop your daily slow looking practice – I’ve included a number of ideas, some outside, some inside, some to do with art, some not. The idea is that you pick one of these activities and you do it every day for a few days and see what happens. After a few days you should start to notice a difference! 

15 MINUTE DIGITAL DETOX

The first one is to do a 15 minute digital detox every day. A full detox. Refrain from using technology for 15 minutes a day. 
  • Do something else and see how much you observe. 
  • Make a cup of coffee, take a walk, meet up with a friend/family member. 
  • You can improve observation just by looking up!

TAKE THE SAME WALK EVERY DAY

You could aim to take the same walk every day – some of us may have been doing this in lockdown over the past year. I’ve been doing a similar thing on my daily run – and taking photos every day to notice changes. 
  • Inspired by Alexander Horowitz book ‘On Looking: 11 Walks with Expert Eyes’. 
  • Go on a walk every day and do the same route. 
  • Take time to notice what you see each time. 
  • Note changes, the effect of the light or the weather, noise, smells.
  • To add variation, try one day seeing your usual route through the lens of just one colour. Aim to spot all the greens or all the yellows only on your walk. Or Hunt for a single-object on your walk scavenger hunt-style e.g. security cameras, signposts, plants, birds 

ROOM WITH A VIEW

If you can’t get outside for a daily walk, try this room with a view activity from my first slow looking challenge:
  • First find a window and start  looking out of it.
  • Then start to examine the window 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 or write down in a notebook or draw the view from your window

STUDY AN EVERYDAY OBJECT

You can also take the time to study an everyday object. 
  • Choose an object (any old object something familiar or unfamiliar, new or old)
  • Study it for one full minute.
  • Then put it away and write as many details as you can remember
  • Take it out again and study it for 3 minutes
  • Put it away and write down all the new details you saw
  • What new details did you notice?
  • Do this EVERY DAY with different items for a week for better focus and memory.

STUDY AN ARTWORK EVERY DAY

You could take the time to study an artwork every day. You can find artworks in books or on websites and select an artwork or go to wikiart.org which has an artwork of the day and just choose that one. 
Or follow some accounts on Instagram that share artworks on a daily basis and study one of those every day. Choose something simple to start with. 
  • First take some time to look at the artwork. Study it carefully for a few minutes. Then put it away or close down your computer. 
  • Then, try to recall all the basic details of the artwork. Spend some time listing the details in your head or writing them down as a list. 
  • Then, go back and look at the artwork again, but even more closely and slowly. 
  • Now without looking back at the image, write down any new details to your list. On the second look you are pushing beyond the obvious and noticing details on a deeper level. 
  • Finally, if you have time, go back to the artwork and take a third look. After this last look, you could perhaps try drawing the artwork to see what you remember. You don’t have to show anyone the drawing and you might want to think of it as an observational exercise rather than a drawing exercise.  It’s about what you see and notice and into your drawing skills! 
  • You can then compare your sketch with the original. Think about what you missed out. What you didn’t notice. 

TAKE A FRESH LOOK AT A REALLY FAMILIAR ARTWORK

Another activity I really enjoy is taking a longer look at a really familiar well-known artwork. Perhaps something that you know really well or one that’s pretty famous. 
In my Slow Looking course, we did this exercise with one of Van Gogh’s last paintings. I created a Looking Log that all participants could fill in as they looked at the artwork, noting what they saw. 
We looked at Wheatfield with Crows for 5 minutes and every minute they put a note in the log and wrote down what they saw or noticed, and also any comments they had – things such as questions that were coming up, what they were doing at the time – revisiting certain parts, looking away and looking back. 
It is always a good idea to explore an artwork in this way – particularly something that you feel you know very well as new insights will come from the slow looking.  
So, that’s my six suggestions for developing a daily slow looking practice – a range of ways you can start to develop your daily slow looking practice to improve our observational skills and stop us being so hasty, narrow, fuzzy and sprawling in our looking. 
And if we are better at this ourselves, as educators, then we are in a far better position to guide others through the process of slow looking too.

LINKS

The Intelligent Eye, David Perkins
How to Use your Eyes, James Elkins
On Looking: 11 Walks with Expert Eyes, Alexander Horowitz