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12 Reasons to Get Started with Slow Looking

12 reasons to get started with slow looking


Slow looking is simply the art of learning through observation. As I mentioned in last week’s post, slow looking has become hugely popular recently with many museums and individuals offering virtual sessions for lockdown. But, why would you want to slow down and spend time with just one artwork or object? Why is it important to practise paying attention and noticing more details?

Looking at something slowly and carefully is in itself a rewarding process – the object or art work becomes more interesting the longer you look at it. But more than this, there are known benefits of slow looking and in this post, I’m going to take you through 12 reasons why you should get started with slow looking. 

1. Develop observational skills

We live in an image-saturated visual world and understanding how images communicate information and ideas is increasingly important. But, how well do we really observe the world around us? Do we use our eyes properly? We are so used to scanning and skimming things, objects, situations, texts for the relevant information. We miss so much.

Developing a practice of slow looking will immediately strengthen your observational or ‘viewing’ skills. You can teach yourself to notice more – to be more attentive to your environment, see beyond first impressions and look a little deeper. Looking at objects in every day life or artworks in museums can 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. 

2. As a tool for learning

In her book ‘Slow Looking: The Art and Practice of Learning through Observation’, Shari Tishman defines slow looking  as a ‘mode of learning, a means of gaining knowledge through observation’. As an antidote to our fast-paced world and shorter attention span, slow looking creates a more immersive experience with a text, an idea, a piece of art, or any other kind of object. Tishman 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. This excellent article explains more about how slow looking can support learners. 

3. Improve your wellbeing

A host of recent studies have shown that art has a dramatic impact on a person’s health, outlook and the way they view the world. Viewing art slowly has an effect on the brain and can also trigger the release of feel-good chemicals, such as serotonin and dopamine. Moreover, slow looking is an ideal practice to help disconnect from an over-reliance on technology, to engage the senses and slow down. 

A while back, I was interviewed for an article in a Dutch health magazine about environments you can find peace. I talked about the value and importance of going to museums and finding time to focus and concentrate. In an age where the average person checks their phone 85 times a day, our inundated brains are slowing down. In The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High Tech World, authors Adam Gazzaley and Larry D. Rosen talk about the need for us to ‘re-train ourselves to become comfortable with sustaining our attention on a single goal’ and ‘to learn the value and to appreciate the value and to even feel the value of sustained attention.’

Spending time with an artwork offers refuge from the rush and time to slow down and see the details. Author and art historian Jonathan Fineberg even believes that looking at art is more or less like sending your brain to the gym.

4. Learn mindfulness and meditation skills

Many organisations now are offering (virtual) 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. 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. 

5. Develop patience

We could all use a little extra patience, right? Jennifer Roberts, a professor of the History of Art and Architecture at Harvard, asks her students to select a painting from a museum and then go and study it. For three hours. She describes this experience as a “painfully” long time to look at an artwork and an exercise in patience. She frequently encounters resistance from her students at the start of the exercise – ‘How can there possibly be three hours’ worth of things to see and think about in a single work of art?’ However, after doing the assignment, she says that ‘students repeatedly tell me that they have been astonished by the potentials this process unlocked’. In a world where everything else is pushing us to speed up and be distracted, slow looking teaches us the value of patience and slowing down.  You don’t need to spend 3 hours with an artwork – anything from 3 to 5 minutes at first. Over time, you will find that it becomes easy to spend 10-15 minutes looking and noticing. 

6. It’s good for the soul

Looking at something slowly and carefully is certainly soothing for the soul. But unfortunately, other more pressing items always get in the way – the endless to-do list or the demands of others. Think about devoting some time each week to focusing your attention on something – you could see the exercise as a way of improving the way you see, notice and experience the world or, as a welcome break from the need to be busy and efficient.

7. Crucial for creativity

Looking at art or objects slowly can supercharge your creativity, something that is crucial for innovation and adaptation. A change of setting from your usual environment to somewhere different, such as a museum, is an ideal place to refresh the creative side of your brain. Stepping outside of your comfort zone in an unfamiliar environment allows you to refocus your perceptions and see things anew. Discussing art in a group asks participants to develop original thoughts, brainstorm options, problem-solve and use your imagination. Looking at and discussing art sharpens these skills by encouraging multiple interpretations and diverse ways of looking at things.

8. Stop being busy

I recently heard in a podcast that Darwin only worked a couple of hours a day and spent the rest of his time on long walks and thinking. Today’s culture of hyper-productivity and ‘busyness’ is stopping us experimenting, trying new things and spending time, just, well, thinking. Giving yourself the chance to spend time looking at things slowly might help you to shake up the way you see things and find the answers you’ve been looking for. Rediscovering the ability to really look at things, is a wonderful alternative to life in the fast lane.

8. Avoid jumping to conclusions

By taking the time to look slowly, we can avoid hasty interpretations and hurried conclusions. I always start any group programme with observation, as I believe that taking the time to carefully observe an object or artwork first can prevent participants from making hasty interpretations and hurried conclusions. That feeling of ‘I just don’t get it’ becomes less important if we’re actively involved in observing and describing the artwork first. The act of observation allows  interpretations to flow more naturally once slow looking has taken place first.

10. Everyone can take part

I firmly believe that anyone can look at and discuss art – you don’t need to be an art historian and you certainly don’t need to have any prior experience or art training to look at a painting (in fact, prior knowledge and experience can sometimes be a hindrance and can colour your objectivity). I use artworks as visual information and in order to read them I design and lead activities around what we see. By allowing slow guided discovery to take place and asking questions, we enable participants to learn about the artwork themselves without explicit instruction from us. As such, I’m pretty confident that we are teaching tools and techniques that can be used by our participants for looking at art without an educator.

11. Group Connections

Slow looking can take place in groups or individually. But when you get a group of people together to start seeing, noticing and experiencing an artwork together, something magical happens. When you practice slow looking in groups, we naturally build off the ideas of others and think together. Somebody in the group will say something that will spark a thought in your mind or make you notice something you haven’t seen before. Building explanations together is a very enjoyable experience. 

12. Foster curiosity

The exploration of artworks objects, whether slow or not, fires curiosity and leads to a multitude of questions, ideas and themes related to it. It’s a case of the more you look, the more you see, the more interesting the object becomes. Thinking routines consist of a series of open-ended questions that work to fire up the group’s curiosity when slow looking. This curiosity to find out more drives the discussion. The group keep wondering and keep asking questions, wanting the discussion to continue. After the discussion, participants leave wanting to return and learn more about other objects.


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