The other day I was looking into the eyes of a painter as she painted. If eyes are the windows of the soul, they may also give clues to the creative process. I noticed several unique eye-movements:
In one, the eye travels with the brush tip or just ahead of it, paying rapt attention as if mesmerized by the brush’s movement. Another is a glassy stare that seems to take in the whole work. Still another is where the eyes wander to an area of the work that is not currently being worked on. Often the eyes go to this area several times before the brush does.
I’ll leave my report on the actions of the human tongue — supposedly a remnant of breastfeeding — until another letter.
Several years ago a former Apple and Microsoft executive, Linda Stone, coined the term “Continuous Partial Attention” (CPA). She described it as an epidemic of our times, similar but not the same as multi-tasking, where we are peer-motivated to double up our activities. An example of this is where teenagers are able to eat, send and receive text messages, watch TV and discuss school while looking into each other’s eyes.
According to some researchers, we are in the middle of a revolution of “higher order thinking” and they say it’s probably good for us. Steven Berlin Johnson is the author of How Today’s Popular Culture is Actually Making Us Smarter. Considering the context, some of his ideas are surprising. He thinks we now create by “slow hunch,” rather than having instant moments of inspiration. I also like his concept of the “adjacent possible,” in which we slyly develop insights in unexplored areas.
One of the obvious conclusions is that we are producing art much faster than previous generations. It’s not that we’re any smarter than Titian, it’s just that we’re using our brains differently. Our eyes and their movements give it away. We may be doing less contemplation than some of the old guys and not paying attention to “all in good time.” Some of us may be trying to do too much — too busy for the old forms of reflective creativity. And while some of us may be on the cutting edge of getting worse, there’s a possibility that many of us may be getting better. Faster.
PS: “Attention is the most powerful tool of the human spirit. We can enhance or augment our attention with practices like meditation and exercise, diffuse it with technologies like email and Blackberries, or alter it with pharmaceuticals. In the end, though, we are fully responsible for how we choose to use this extraordinary tool.” (Linda Stone)
Esoterica: Painting may be a remnant of “lower order thinking.” “Look three times, think twice and paint once,” is a time-honoured guide. Further, it’s my observation that these days the glassy stare often includes default sorties into contemplation. During the glassy stare, brush movement tends to go on. The modern imperative to keep busy needs often to be replaced with simple Renaissance strategy.
Balancing the ‘new’
by Bill Hibberd, Summerland, BC, Canada
It is such a challenge finding a balance between beneficial and life-sucking technologies. If I keep current with all of the “new” that my non-artist friends enthusiastically describe at the last party I soon lose my ability to contemplate. If I jettison all of the “new” on principle I will sabotage my development as a painter. So I don’t wear a watch, carry a cell or use a fast computer but I have benefited immeasurably from the wisdom of other artists on this site and others. Also, my i-Pod enriches those extended solitary plein-air excursions. These are great times to be an artist.
There is 1 comment for Balancing the ‘new’ by Bill Hibberd
Quality currently suffering
by Sharon Knettell, Woonsocket, RI, USA
I think we are producing art more quickly but the quality and content has suffered immeasurably. In a past letter you referred to Jacob Collins. He may take a month to just draw a head and a year to finish a painting. To me a work of art is like planting an exquisite garden — you lay out the design, you put in the plants or elements with great consideration and care and weed judiciously. Jacob Collins figures are lavished with care and simply there without extraneous baggage. You can see the love and consciousness in every brushstroke.
Inspiration is not born of ‘the eureka moment’ but in the quiet spaces we allow ourselves to be in — whether in a beautiful part of nature or in a peaceful meditative state of mind. We are a distracted society; many studies have discounted the value of so-called multi-tasking and the vast output of frenetic, ugly art reflects that. Ideas are a dime a dozen — but fully realized, beautifully crafted works of art, the result of completely invested artists, are indeed rare.
There are 3 comments for Quality currently suffering by Sharon Knettell
Speed can get boring
by Andrew van der Merwe
As to painting faster than previous generations, some art reminds me of my daughter’s piano practice when she gets impatient and rushes through a piece that is meant to be slow. It’s not that fast is a bad thing in itself, just that it’s not always appropriate. And it can get boring. It’s the same with calligraphy which has become a lot faster. But even hard rock bands have their slow numbers.
There is 1 comment for Speed can get boring by Andrew van der Merwe
Zoned or creatively unfocused?
by Phil Chadwick, Southampton, ON, Canada
In the rapid fire barrage of information we receive via sound bites and flashes of video, we are conditioned to be unfocussed just to survive. We just can’t take it all in! This is good for plein air painting as we simply can’t take it all in — the values and colours change with lightning speed. Pleiners are forced to make instant decisions, typically without consciously thinking. If you are in the creative zone, you might capture the soul of the “seen” (scene) with flickering eye movements and get it on canvas with dabs of colour and broad brush strokes. The result might be better and more detailed than a photograph and actually interpret the inspiration of the subject. The result could however, be worse. One never knows but just keeps trying to make that next painting better. The creatively unfocussed pleiner just keeps painting and leaves it to others to decide if the work was successful or not. The “nots” pile up in the garage…
Get it right the first time?
by Bonnie Mandoe, Las Cruces, NM, USA
Regarding “Look three times, think twice, and paint once,” I do the opposite. In fact, my favorite instructor once said, “Bonnie, you paint three paintings for every one you produce. Why don’t you just get it right the first time?” He was dead serious.
Maybe because I was trained as a writer, I edit while I paint. For me, it’s part of the process and it gets me where I want to go. I don’t have the ability to see my finished painting in my mind’s eye before it hits the canvas. It is conceived, hatched and developed in paint as I work. There’s no way I could get it right the first time! We all find a way to work that suits our individual temperament.
There are 4 comments for Get it right the first time? by Bonnie Mandoe
Danger in ‘faster is better’
by Rick Rotante, Tujunga, CA, USA
One danger of “faster is better” is we lose the finer points of making art. We dash it off, as it were, thinking we are being spontaneous and therefore the work is better. In my opinion, this is not the case. The Masters of old made monumental works and their day wasn’t filled with texting or sending emails. Their processes were also more time consuming and cumbersome. Assistants were mixing the color while you made a tracing to fit the wall. Or the Church or Doge or nobleman hadn’t given you the money to buy the paint or may not have the time you need to do his portrait. With technology and innovation in product development, we have lost the ability to “slow down” and think what it is we are doing. With ready-made supplies found easily at any art store on every corner of the planet, not to mention mail order, we paint with the fury of one whose time is short and we are not planning on it lasting any farther than our next of kin, who will most likely store it in the attic with all the other of “Uncle Harry’s stuff.” Titian may have been slow but the work he left behind is still admired and cherished.
Like hunting for mushrooms
by Tobi Clement, Santa Fe, NM, USA
Your observations are always engaging. I find I appreciate my time with my art as a place to find clarity and focus. It is the only way in my very busy world with a full time business that I can step outside of the multi-tasking and truly settle into myself, shut off the chattering mind and allow myself to be still enough to have a dialogue with my soul. I think the eye actions are a part of the centering aspects of art. I find when I hunt mushrooms the back and forth eye actions of scanning the forest floor change the way I feel.
Are we daft? Really?
by N. Taylor Collins, USA
One of my favorite things is to watch my friend’s eye movement when he’s almost ready to wake — especially if I’m tracing the sunlight across his face and he knows something is going on. Sometimes he has even lifted his brow as if in acknowledgement that someone is there in his pre-awakening state. It’s so much fun being an artist, but I do worry that people think we’re sometimes a little daft at the things that attract or distract our attention.
Your collection of quotes in the Resource of Art Quotations has been an invaluable resource for inspiration. It’s wonderful of you to provide this service.
(RG note) Thanks, Taylor. Artists and others who think their quotes might be worthwhile in perpetuity can feel free to send them to email@example.com. While we don’t put every submitted quote into the Resource of Art Quotations, we study them all and we do put in many. Your favorite bits of wisdom may already be in there.
There is 1 comment for Are we daft? Really? by N. Taylor Collins
Enjoy the past comments below for Continuous Partial Attention…
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes Bianka Guna who wrote, “Thousands of years of learning, watching, reading, improving and revolutionizing are helping new generations of creators to be faster, proficient and better than their ancestors. It’s all Evolution.”
And also, Dee Poisson who wrote, “Regarding speed, we don’t have to grind our pigment anymore.”