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How mindfulness and drawing can help us to connect with art




Today I’m so happy to be talking to Karly Allen about her work. We’re talking about how mindfulness can help us to connect with and engage with art, how we can bring mindfulness practices to the experience of drawing.

Karly Allen is a UK-based gallery educator, drawing tutor and mindfulness teacher. She has worked for the National Gallery, London, over the past 20 years and has taught widely for UK art collections including the National Portrait Gallery, Wallace Collection and Royal Collection.

In 2018, Karly co-founded Limina Collective to bring mindfulness and reflection practices to museum and online spaces.

We explore how mindfulness and meditation practices, observation of the artwork and drawing interrelate with each other.

And how drawing with mindfulness creates connections, opens us up to creativity and helps us to overcome any resistance we might have to drawing or the fear of the blank page.

We talk extensively about the benefits and how it help us to tune into a mode of being being open, letting go of preconceptions and habitual patterns of looking.


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Claire Bown  00:02

Hello, Karly, and welcome to the Art Engager podcast.

Karly Allen  00:05

Thank you. It’s lovely to be here. I very much enjoy listening to your podcast. So thanks for having me along.

Claire Bown  00:12

You’re very welcome. Now tell us what is it that you do and how you came to be doing what you’re doing.

Karly Allen  00:19

I’m an Art Museum Educator and Consultant. And I’m co director of Limina Collective. We’re working in the field of mindfulness and art engagement. So I came to the museum learning initially through drawing. So when I was doing my degree in drawing, I was spending a lot of time drawing in museums, so in front of artworks, as I’d spent a lot of my teenage years. And so when I came into employment, I just really wanted to be within the museum setting. And I was able to, to find opportunities for round about 20 years to work directly for art collections here in London, in the UK, and just was able to immerse myself in this field of inquiry-led discussion that we share. So it’s been, it’s been wonderful to work with different practitioners, I’ve had some experience of working as a programmer as well, so managing and shaping learning programmes and museums. And then in the last few years, I’ve become more and more interested in mindfulness, and how we can apply these traditional mindfulness practices to the experience of looking at an artwork. So I trained as a mindfulness teacher, and since 2018 and I’ve been working with Lucia van der Drift, who I know some of your listeners will have encountered perhaps through your masterclass programme. So we’re working together as Limina Collective. So in galleries, but also online and via recordings.

Claire Bown  01:57

Brilliant. Yeah. And I can’t tell you what, how much of a joy it was to discover to find Limina Collective a few years ago, and I was looking online and to find that there were other people working in a similar vein to where I’ve been working for the last few years. Because although I think it’s growing in popularity, it is quite niche, what we do, isn’t it?

Karly Allen  02:17

Right, it’s wonderful to come into contact with you and to be listening to your, your podcasts and getting that real sense of community, isn’t it? Because it can feel quite niche sometimes. And just to expand that out and hear more about what people are doing worldwide.

Claire Bown  02:32

Absolutely, yeah. So tell me about some of the sorts of projects you work on museums or types of groups you work with.

Karly Allen  02:51

So with, with Limina Collective we, we often work directly with museum partners. So the British Museum, British Library, the Royal Collection here in the UK, the Royal Academy. We work in person with groups, in galleries, and also online. And then more and more through the pandemic and more recently, we’ve been been asked to produce recordings and resources that are available online. And then we also have our independent events that we we offer to our network, so courses on mindful looking and gallery meetups.

Claire Bown  03:34

Fantastic. And can you tell us a little bit about how mindfulness can help us to connect with and engage with art.

Karly Allen  03:56

It’s this intersection between mindfulness and art observation that we’re, we’re exploring, and just so interested in and how this can be developed. And it relates so closely to what’s often described as slow looking, which I know you go into in great depth. And so that’s again, being sort of a great sort of touch point of considering this space within slow looking and mindful looking. So acknowledging that slow, attentive looking is inherently a mindfulness practice, that savouring that we experience and the positive impact it can have on wellbeing.

Karly Allen  04:39

So the what we’re doing with mindful looking is perhaps more explicitly applying mindfulness principles to this process. So we’re purposefully offering a space to give the thinking mind a rest, sort of to put all that great cognitive ability of the brain – all that good stuff all that analysis it’s able to do – just put it aside for a moment, and allow us to move into a mode of experiencing, sensing, being with the artwork. And we find that that that allows us to observe and learn about the artwork and also observe and learn about ourselves. So, so we’re really finding this is a deepening, deepening the experience. So before the looking, during the looking and afterwards.

Claire Bown  05:34

Fantastic. And yes, there are lots of parallels and connections between mindful looking and slow looking. We’ve discussed before on the podcast, we discussed in masterclasses as well. But I’d really love to focus in this episode on exploring drawing as a mindfulness practice. So how can we use drawing to be more mindful?

Karly Allen 05:59

We’re using, are often using drawing as one element in our mindful looking sessions. And we’re just really sort of enjoying going deeper into looking at that relationship between those three activities. So we have the mindfulness and meditation practices, we have the looking, the looking at the the artwork, and then the drawing, and how do these interrelate, how do they support each other, so finding ways that they can be mutually supportive.

Karly Allen  06:34

So perhaps, perhaps it’s helpful to take an example, if we were sort of able to sort of collectively imagine ourselves engaging with an artwork? So perhaps if we were to take a Rembrandt self portrait, so we may have an image in our mind, if you were able to call to mind, it might be that you know one Rembrandt self portrait very well, or it might be, you can just sort of summon up a general idea of what that might look like. So we might have a sense of a painting in front of us, I have a sense of the tonality. And then perhaps it’s a three quarter length or half length, portrait of a person. So how could we bring mindfulness approaches to our looking and then how do we might we thread through some drawing into that practice. So we could start with even before the looking, so one of the aspects that we would consider is just preparing the ground. So, so laying out the materials, just something very simple about making sure the materials are accessible, that we’ve all kind of had a sense of what those materials can do, how they, how they behave. So we might start off with some, some doodling just trying out the materials, the touch of the materials, perhaps even the, the interaction between dry and wet materials. So sometimes the drawing might come like that right at the beginning. Or we might what we would always start with, with a sort of a settling. So a mindfulness practice there is an arrival practice. So we’re, we’re really coming into the body, we’re coming into our present experience and becoming aware of our thoughts and emotions that are present before we look.

Karly Allen  08:40

We might also prime the looking, so this could be a time if we were going to look at a Rembrandt portrait, we might just turn our attention to the light in our own room, perhaps. So just sort of becoming aware of of our own environment before we tend to the painting, or our own body, our own sitting body. And then through the looking as we’re guiding, so a lot of our work before discussion is a guided practice. So it’s a slow guided, slow guided, look that might start with bringing attention to the light and shade and move into something a bit more focused. So narrowing the attention to looking at details, looking at textures, and this could be the moment to then bring in a drawing prompt. So drawing can then kind of bring us into a sensory connection with the artwork. And the drawing prompt might in this case, might be in relation to texture perhaps.  So we might be focusing our attention on the textures that we perceive in the clothing of this of this sitter in the portrait or it might be on the surface of the painting itself, the texture of brush marks, and then the prompt could be to explore texture, to explore mark-making, with with the tools that we have, that we’ve selected for the session. Or we could consider how the looking process works. So the relationship between the outline the contour of the figure set against the background, and how we might see that as a line, and then how that relates to the interior of the body. And the drawing could sort of help us to navigate that, that relationship.

Claire Bown  10:47

Wonderful, wonderful. And so how does this relate to people’s feelings about drawing as an activity? I’ve used drawing many times in programmes and I’ve always come across people who are a little hesitant, a little nervous to perhaps, start drawing feelings of I can’t draw or those sorts of emotions come into play. So how do you set it up for the experience so that everyone feels they can take part.

Karly Allen  11:17

So this is where I think this combination of mindfulness and drawing with the looking, it can be so beneficial, because Absolutely, if you’re going to use drawing, it’s going to bring drawing into the practice of looking at art, I think it’s it’s hugely beneficial to do that with mindfulness because of, exactly what you’re, you’re describing, that for a lot of people, drawing brings up a lot of thoughts, a lot of emotion, a lot of memories. And those can sometimes be joyful and positive. And they can also sometimes be quite difficult and can actually be barriers to our looking and our engagement or connection with the artwork. So the mindfulness principles, mindful guidance, can just gently remind us to stay with the sensory experience of the drawing. So we’re coming into the senses of touch, of the feel, the sensations of the drawing tool on the paper. And then we’re also coming into greater awareness of those, of what’s going on for us in our minds and in our bodies. And we can bring the mindful quality of kindness and acceptance as well to our, our drawing. So we can use mindfulness tools, with the drawing, to sort of to move beyond initial perhaps resistance to drawing, to accept and acknowledge, sometimes sort of difficult thoughts around it. And also to sort of work with that initial, the experience of the blank page. And then we find that then, as we are able to work with these thoughts, it just opens up a greater space then for creativity, and for closer connection with the experience of looking.  So it brings us back into closer connection with the artwork.

Claire Bown  13:28

Sounds like some wonderful benefits there for everyone. Are there any other benefits other than this close connection, this creativity that you were mentioning? Any other benefits to incorporating more mindfulness practices to drawing?

Karly Allen  13:43

Mindful drawing or drawing with mindfulness?

Claire Bown  13:46

Ah, yeah.

Karly Allen  13:48

Which I think yes, we’re sort of beginning to that we are already working with language around this. That we would say, you know, if we’re thinking particularly about this area of drawing, in front of an artwork or in response alongside an artwork, and if we’re drawing with mindfulness we buy, we’re coming into coming into the body and the physical sensations. A lot of people find it, it’s really helpful to have an external focus for their mindfulness practice. So we can sort of come into the sensations of muscular movement. And it’s sometimes it’s that sort of repeated motion that in itself supports mindfulness. So it’s similar to the way that people find other activities mindful, such as sewing or baking or gardening, and we see that in is what we know about artistic practice as well. If we sort of look at you know, how artists have described their practice creating the work and thinking about the 19th century artists Degas, for example, talking about repeated movement about tracing and drawing again and again in his depictions of combing the hair, washing the body, there’s this sort of sense of repeated movement that one can experience very fully through through drawing while looking, which relates also to subjects of paintings of people sewing, or if you think of sort of interiors, for example.

Karly Allen  15:24

And it just really, it brings us into into the present moment. Mindfulness is awareness of our experience in the present moment. And drawing, as we’re drawing we are literally, as we’re drawing out a line on the page, we are really observing that perpetual movement into the present moment. So it’s, you know, the way that we experience the world, but here, it’s actually graphically described for us. So as our attention is placed on the point of the pencil, where we’re observing that moment in time than the present moment, we can see the line that we’ve just made, as the past as the way the present moves into the past. And then we can see the blank pages as the future that’s not yet made. So there’s, there’s kind of well, we can look at, actually something really pertinent that we find in the writing of Leonardo da Vinci, he talks about, he describes a drawn line as being a dot or a point on the page, that’s been set in motion by a force. So as we’re drawing, we’re observing how that point travels. So drawing is inherently, always in the state of becoming, it’s unfixed, it’s open to change. And, and that’s something that we can then experience and then nurture in our experience in our, in the way that we look at art.

Karly Allen  16:55

So we too, can sort of tune into that mode of being being open, we can let go of preconceptions and habitual patterns of looking. It can sort of take us away from how we think things ought to be or how we should look at an artwork, and help us to notice will be open to how things really are for us, right then. So, and that may not match up to how things really are may not match up to our perceptions initially of how they are. So it’s just bringing into us into that space, really, this sort of unfixed mode of being. And then yes, as we’ve mentioned, this using mindfulness tools to still look with a sense of kindness and acceptance for the artwork and for ourselves. So, nurturing self compassion, when we are engaging with with art.

Claire Bown  17:59

Wonderful, and I’m really looking forward to the masterclass that you’ll be doing in a couple of weeks. And on July the 19th for us. So I get to experience this firsthand some of the things you were talking about that sort of almost meditative process of sort of repeated actions. But also being in the moment, being in the present and being really focused on what you’re doing is fascinating. So could you tell us a little bit about your class, you mentioned Da Vinci, there’s a connection there. I’m going to bring it in, tell us what you’ll be doing in your masterclass.

Karly Allen 18:33

I’m really excited about this masterclass, it’s been a joy to develop this for your membership. So we are going to be doing something that hopefully is a an experimental practice of engaging with possibly the best known artwork in the world, the Mona Lisa. So as soon as we say that we have an image in our mind, and we we might see the Mona Lisa, in our mind’s eye, but also we’ll see that whole gathering and history of other artworks and images and texts that we will be aware of in relation to it. So it’s going to be fascinating, I think to to hear from your membership, sort of their what their relationship is with the Mona Lisa. And then to to use these practices to do some mindful looking, to draw with mindfulness, and to consider if it’s, well, is it possible to look freshly at this image? Is it possible to approach it as if we’re seeing it for the first time, so cultivating this this sense of beginner’s mind. And then reflecting together, so I’ll just will love to hear from people as we move through the process, just how our experience changes, perhaps how our connection with the painting changes, and just using this as a playground really for experimentation and seeing this where, and for experimentation and seeing where this takes us.

Karly Allen  18:39

This is all music to my ears. I love experimenting in this way. So I’m really looking forward to it. I’ll put a link for others to sign up. It is a membership class, but it’s open to non-members as well. If you’d like to take part I’d highly recommend it . We will all be participating. So how can listeners find out more about you or reach out to you?

Karly Allen  20:31

Best place is to find us on our website, the links will be there we’ve got a monthly newsletter. So please do join our mailing list. To find out what we’re up to with. We’ve actually got a free course coming up in the autumn on on Rembrandt, you can also follow us on Instagram. And we’re always really, really happy to hear from people. So if there’s any questions that come out of this, or in the future, please do get in touch.

Claire Bown  21:00

Brilliant. Thank you so much, Karly. I’ll put all the links in the show notes to your website or Instagram and do sign up for Lumina Collective’s newsletter, I guess it’s month and it’s definitely one to sign up for. Thank you so much for coming on the podcast today and for chatting with me. It’s been a pleasure.

Karly Allen 21:17

Thanks so much, Claire. It’s great to sort of have this point of contact and to keep the conversation going

Claire Bown  21:24

We will do and I’ll see you on the 19th! See you then.

Claire Bown  21:27

Thanks. Bye

Karly Allen  21:28



And don’t forget my FREE new Facebook group The Slow Looking Club created especially for podcast listeners. It’s a place for conversation and discussion about engaging with art, objects and life slowly. I’ll share resources, ideas and tips for anyone interested in looking at art – whether it’s for your personal enjoyment or your practice as a cultural educator. And we’ll have regular slow looking moments together too!