The miracles of attention and focus


Dear Artist,

During a recent short workshop, I reintroduced my legendary hourglass. Bought in a junk shop some years ago, its “hour” consists of only 37 minutes. Such is the deflation of time. The idea for the 25 participants was to complete a painting in one turn of the glass. To level the playing field, I asked for 11 x 14’s. A few students groaned; others readily accepted the challenge.


We did the exercise three times. I asked them to squeeze out first, contemplate for a tiny minute and make their painting either from reference, reality, or their imagination. Blowing my little whistle to start and stop, I was not surprised to find some painters did more than one in the allotted time. Students brought their quickies forward and laid them out in rows. At the end of the workshop more than 100 time-sensitive paintings had been produced.

Apart from producing a pile of credible, pleasantly underworked paintings, the exercise showed the value of short periods of full attention and unwavering focus. The mind quickens and so does the spirit. The audacious brush flicks here and there; the work moves holistically into being. Students were energized by the exercise — feelings of fulfillment and satisfaction rippled through the room. I thought of Ralph Waldo Emerson‘s words: “To fill the hour — that is happiness.”

Countless times in my own studio, I’ve turned over my miraculous hourglass. Falling roof-rafters could not deter me from my 37-minute exercises. “Why don’t I just do this all the time?” I ask myself. Indeed, learning to focus and pay attention, if only for a short time, has been identified as a primary key to the development of human effectiveness.

I’m currently reading Winifred Gallagher’s new book Rapt — Attention and the Focused Life She makes clear the simple value of training ourselves to focus. Our levels of concentration may be sullied or even vestigial in many of us, and the simple act of learning to pay attention is key to our dreams and aspirations. Happiness and success depend on it. Think a bit, grab your brush, time’s a wastin’. Toot!


Best regards,


PS: “I love deadlines. I especially like the whooshing sound they make as they go flying by.” (Douglas Adams) “Concentrate all your thoughts upon the work at hand. The sun’s rays do not burn until brought to a focus.” (Alexander Graham Bell)

Esoterica: “The Universal Society of Timed Painters” (USTP) ought to be established with chapters worldwide. No instructor need apply. Just get together and turn the glass. Keep doing it until pleasantly exhausted. Prizes may be awarded by popular vote at the end of the day, but the greatest prize of all will be your own increased levels of attention and focus.




Serious but happy. The slight pressure of time quickens the neural patterns and overruns our natural tendency to think too much and get into hesitation mode. The creative mind runs much more on intuition than previously thought, and this exercise in focus and attention clears the way for greater work ahead.








Frenzied start
by Nikki Coulombe, Lewisville, TX, USA


“Sounds of Silence”
acrylic painting
by Nikki Coulombe

Your point here is to quit while you’re ahead, but some painters like myself enjoy a little more detail – not always, just sometimes. I mean, some paintings are very obviously finished within an hour, but your hour-glass method can also establish a composition foundation, then continued with more detail afterward. I often begin paintings in a frenzy then using the surprises that occur within that first hour, am directed to areas that need more attention. Enjoying detail work, there’s always the risk of over-working paintings, so sometimes I impose time restrictions purposely.

(RG note) Thanks, Nikki. Yep, going back into them after the 37 minute blast is okay, too. Just not for long. Fresh at all costs.

There is 1 comment for Frenzied start by Nikki Coulombe

From: Jan St. Cyr — Oct 20, 2009

Absolutely lovely! And a perfect title. I can imagine the scene that prompted this painting, as it is the kind of scene that stops me in my tracks in winter and makes me enjoy the “Sounds of Silence” – the snowflakes falling in the woods. Love it!


Pen and ink and wash
by Rodney Mackay, Lunenburg, NS, Canada


“The Tugboat, Mahone Bay, N.S.”
acrylic painting, 11 x 14 inches
by Rodney Mackay

In a distant time and place I was forced to learn to sketch en plein air and in the studio using India ink, a “crow quill” (made of steel) and hard surfaced paper. I was also taught calligraphy in art school. I have no idea why this was thought necessary, but I did earn a few bucks from this skill later on! This week, I decided to revisit this medium (with reservations since it had been more than five decades since I last tried this approach). Turns out, I can still do 15 minute sketches in ink in the field and in the studio. I tried a dozen 5x7inch illustrations on Canson watercolour paper and was surprised not to stumble on the hills and valleys of the paper with resultant spatter. And I managed not to drop blobs of ink! I went on to do a few newspaper cartoons in another life. Wow! The process is quick, easy, intuitive, not introspective, but just a lot of fun. In the old days we often used a sepia ink instead of that harsh black stuff. In either case, watercolour washes were laid in after the fact, usually in the studio. Is anyone else out there working with this medium?

There are 4 comments for Pen and ink and wash by Rodney Mackay

From: Heather T. — Oct 20, 2009

Yes, our class did an en plein air session 3 weeks ago. We sketched in small w/c notebooks quickly with a sharpie (didn’t require managing pen and ink), the exercise helped to refine my focus and see form/line and avoid including too many details. We brought a limited watercolour palette to add colour, fresh results. Loved it.

From: Kendra Smith — Oct 20, 2009

For pen and watercolour I haven’t explored too many papers as I mostly use smooth sketch book paper, but for traditional watercolours I find that Canson gives very poor results and I prefer a cold pressed Arches paper any day! The difference is very noticeable.

From: Peggy Woolsey — Oct 20, 2009

Hi Rod,

Great to see your name and work here. I have spent the last three weeks with my Graphic Art and Design class using the old ink pens. They are doing caricatures and having a blast. I’m also considering calligraphy, that extremely useless art…….

From: Jill Ferguson — Oct 22, 2009

I travel and plien air with a Japanese pen (brush tip and refill cartridges). It has made a great difference to my drawing skills and helps me to create lively and free pictures. I later add some watercolour washes. Pen sketching is a great exercise.


Knowing when to stop
by Skip Van Lenten

Your next letter should be “The LIMITS of attention and focus.” I find that I can work for about 3 hours straight, but after that, I lose my concentration. If I try to push myself beyond my limits, I invariably end up getting off track. After a rest, and a good snack, I can clearly see my “mistakes” from over-doing it, and when I get back to work, I’m good for another 3-hour stretch. Sometimes it’s hard to stop when you’re ahead, but knowing when to stop is also part of the attention and focus cycle.

There are 2 comments for Knowing when to stop by Skip Van Lenten

From: Karen Martin Sampson — Oct 21, 2009

I am the same! Three hours seems to be my ideal working session. If I push it longer I begin to make mistakes and feel sluggish. I see that others can work up to 16 hours a day but I have never been able to. I use the rest of my time for planning and organizing, cleaning up,…all sorts of other art related activities.

Sometimes a mid day break allows for another 2 or 3 hour afternoon session.

From: Dorenda Crager Watson — Oct 21, 2009

I too have about a three to four hour time frame to actually paint productively and with intention. The rest of my time is spent “art-piddling” (my word) which I feel is just as important as the painting of the work…things such as nature observation (sitting in my yard watching birds and collecting bits for another work:) and mindful meditation (thinking about future pieces and the like) are an ABSOLUTE to my art regimen and well-being.


Time-honoured technique
by Brenda Swenson, South Pasadena, CA, USA


watercolour painting
by Brenda Swenson

I have been using a similar technique for years and I have found it to be one of my most successful teaching tools. Too often I find students are unfocused when a workshop begins as they have not left the world behind when they walk in the classroom. To get the creative ball rolling, I always start with timed contour drawings in pen. I consider this approach play and use a timer so the drawings cannot become too involved or precious. The kind of contour drawing I teach is what I call “continual line contour.” Once you put the pen on the paper you don’t lift it up until you’re done. There will be a certain amount of distortion to the drawing but I consider this part of the charm. We start by drawing a single object in 3 minutes and work up to an arrangement of 3 objects in 10 minutes. Once I feel the group is warmed up, I’ll introduce watercolor into the timed session but work no longer than 20 minutes on the arrangement. This technique has become a major learning tool on observation and a favorite of my students.


The production of miracles
by Teresa Hitch, Saltspring Island, BC, Canada


original painting
by Teresa Hitch

Your 37-minute timer experience truly can produce miracles. After being inspired by your students’ remarkable paintings a few years ago, I rose to the challenge. Every day, for a few weeks, I did a 37-minute painting. These 37-minute periods of concentration were exhausting! A decent 37-minute painting was all I could do in one day. It was a lot of fun, but my inner editor dismissed them as “cheats!” Sadly, I buried my “cheats” deep into the darkest caverns of crawlspace, not to be seen for a while. It wasn’t until this year that these unrealized jewels reappeared, when I needed some additional “new” paintings for a show. I hung them with paintings that had taken a hundred times as long to complete, and held my breath. The show was a success, and to my surprise, the majority of the viewers seemed to prefer the 37-minute paintings.


Benefits of larger works
by Sandra Muscat, Toronto, ON, Canada


original painting
by Sandra Muscat

Try as I might, I cannot escape my strongly analytical mind or my pragmatic approach to things. I am an organiz-aholic. The effect of this means, at least for me, I tend to crumble somewhat under pressure. However, what I love about your idea of time constraints is that it forces us to stay in our bodies as there is no time to detour the process through the mind. While I may not be the sort who could flourish under the constraints of the hour glass, I know my work is significantly better when I work on a large scale. My experience has been that if I am painting a 36″ x 48″ or larger, I am standing, painting with my body, arms flailing, legs bending…. it’s all body, no mind. Because I typically work in acrylic glazes (and am of small stature), working quickly is a necessity on a large canvas. This type of work always captures the essence of my energy in a way that working small never ever does. Working small means being still, narrowing in, and, at least for me, getting shoved up into my head (and, to quote Sir Ken Robinson, slightly to one side!) My small works lack the energy and spontaneity that my large pieces always reflect. When there is money in the market, my large pieces inevitably outsell the small ones by a large margin. I know from experience, the energy one imparts and invests (or perhaps embeds) into a piece of work is enduring, persistent and timeless. For me, these are the most energetically vibrant paintings. There is a quality of authenticity in rapid work that disappears in a slow methodical approach to canvas.


Attack now, clean up later
by Taylor Ikin, Tampa Bay, FL, USA


“Heart of Hillsborough”
original painting by Taylor Ikin

I do a fair amount of public speaking, usually while doing a demo on a 26″ x 40″ sheet of YUPO. I also teach a weekly painting class and workshops. I find my most creative energized starts tend to happen in front of a sizeable crowd of watching folks… not in my studio or the classroom. I got it! Set the timer… load up your brush and get it done! Capture the essence of the image in a major attack and clean it up later for a showing.


Triggering the ‘zone’
by John R Struck, Southern Pines, NC, USA

I’m sure that you are also aware of the, “Zone,” that mystic state when we lose all sense of the passage of time, lost in what can only be described as a “Creative State.” Unfortunately, I am only aware that I have been there when I return. Can’t ever seem to remember what triggered the episode, for lack of a better term. I have come to see and accept these experiences as simply a gift. And I have wondered if anyone else has ever learned to trigger these unbelievable journeys?

There are 3 comments for Triggering the ‘zone’ by John R Struck

From: J. Bruce Wilcox — Oct 19, 2009

Hi John- Hopefully this will make sense…

It’s obvious from your comments that you both understand and believe that being in this mystic state is an attainable reality- and not unreality as most folks living in only the mundane world might believe. So right off you’re ahead of the game. Having said that- there is no ONE TRIGGER.

What occurs is that the creative individual finds him/herself stepping out of his/her logical left-brained time-based mindset into what might be called timelessness. It’s not that linear time ceases to exist- as when you come out of the zone time has passed and it’s no longer the same time it was when you entered. But you got free of time and you entered into relationship with the ONE SELF. How? By not caring. Why? Why not!

Once you understand the difference simply through experience of being in time as opposed to out of time- it becomes quite simple really- to set the tone for stepping into timelessness just by moving to do the work. Whatever the work is.

If you pursue this understanding sort of relentlessly for a while- sooner rather than later it becomes second nature. Then stepping into the zone IS WHAT IS. Once you know WHAT IS- it’s pretty easy to access on an almost daily basis- and your understanding of WHAT IS becomes the trigger.

The Seeker seeks information. Information assimilated becomes knowledge. Knowledge applied becomes experience. Experience lived becomes wisdom. Wisdom knows no boundaries and one day becomes TRUTH. Truth becomes BEAUTY. Beauty is a Sacred Path.

From: Dorenda Crager Watson — Oct 21, 2009

To J. Bruce Wilcox-

I was very struck by the last lines of your commentary (beginning with “The Seeker”)…may I use your quote in my classroom?

From: J. Bruce Wilcox — Oct 22, 2009

Hi Dorenda- and thanks for your request- unfortunately- it was late when I wrote this commentary and I left what I’m now seeing as a few things out… so it should read:

The Seeker seeks information. Information assimilated becomes knowledge. Knowledge applied becomes experience. Experience lived becomes understanding. Understanding realized becomes wisdom. Wisdom knows no boundaries and one day becomes TRUTH and in that truth one becomes the KNOWER. Truth then recognized becomes BEAUTY. Beauty is a Sacred Path. And if you find yourself awakened and on the Sacred Path of Beauty you will forever know GRACE.

However- my understanding of things is that most folks are handed a belief structure growing up and die before they ever actually question its actual validity…

By all means use this in your classroom if you so desire…


Art and sport
by Rick Rogers, St. Albert, AB, Canada


“From the Deep”
acrylic painting
by Rick Rogers

I’ve been in quite a number of classes, workshops, and life drawing sessions where drawing and painting with time pressure was part of the process. I’ve noticed is that there are many similarities between sport and art. There is nothing like pressure to bring out the best in you. In sport, when the gun fires or the opportunity to score occurs, there is an extra boost of pressure, and sometimes the body and mind rise immediately to the occasion. Things happen faster and easier than you expect, when you are in the right state of mind and warmed up.

It seems to me that the benefits of this time pressure with art have to do primarily with letting go of the attempt of the perfect stroke, and recognizing that your better and best strokes come from the “flow” of a warmed-up mind and body. Doing several fast sketches in rapid succession, helps me to get into that “flow” zone a lot quicker. I’m not sure that I am concentrating or focusing any more fully just because of the time pressure, because my first sketches of a session are often terrible. But the neurons and muscles start to react a bit faster each time, and shortly (usually) I’m in that zone. I hope with time to be like the Olympic athlete that drops into that zone on a moment’s notice.


Don’t compete
by George R Robertson, Mississauga, ON, Canada

If we substitute ‘painter’ for ‘archer,’ this quote from Zen Master Ying-an sure applies to me. I started out ‘competing’ and it’s been a long road back. “It is like the case of archers: if they start out competing, they’ll never achieve good marksmanship. It is only after long practice without thought of winning or losing that they can hit the target. If even a single thought of winning and losing abides in the heart, you will be chained by winning and losing.” — Zen Master Ying-an (d: 1163)

There is 1 comment for Don’t compete by George R Robertson

From: Lorraine Khachatourians — Oct 20, 2009

George, I really like this quotation a lot. It will go up on the wall. I have seen some people hung up on ‘selling’ as a competition and it makes for an uncomfortable atmosphere. This helps understand why.



A new discipline
by Kristina Zallinger, Hamden, CT, USA


original painting
by Kristina Zallinger

I will try to turn over the hourglass while writing this comment as I focus on my delivery of verbiage to you. What a concept! As an abstract expressionist, at the onset of the painting, after the white on my canvas has disappeared, I work quickly as I lay in multitudes of colors until I am ready to “pounce” on the detail. If I were to “turn the hourglass over,” I would have to stop the painting there. Unfinished, as my psyche determines, just laid in. I think that this discipline would be good for me! A fast approach to ultimate expression. It sounds exhausting! My focus would be challenged by this newly acquired information. Thanks, Robert. I will indulge myself in this “timely” exercise!

There are 3 comments for A new discipline by Kristina Zallinger

From: Kristina Zallinger — Oct 19, 2009

This painting is titled “Glitterspot”.

From: Virginia Wieringa — Oct 20, 2009

And a lovely ‘glitterspot’ it is!!

From: Bev — Oct 20, 2009




The ultimate built-in timer
by Jennifer Young, Richmond, VA, USA


“Backlit Willow”
oil painting
by Jennifer Young

This talk of focus brings to my mind the act of plein air painting. It has a built-in timer called the moving sun (or is it the rotating earth?) Granted, one has more time than 37 minutes, but the shifting light requires a similar focused attention and “thinking on your feet” without the endless noodling that can sometimes happen in the studio. I do use a conventional timer in the studio, but it’s to address a slightly different problem — that of ‘hyper-focus.’ It seems, once I get started, I lock on and forget to take breaks! I have actually developed shoulder tendonitis because of my tendency towards over-use of certain muscles and repetitive motions for extended periods of time. I have to set a timer to take breaks and stretch every half-hour. It’s a bit of an annoyance if you’re flying high “in the zone,” but it does force me to step back, away from the easel to assess my work more often.

There is 1 comment for The ultimate built-in timer by Jennifer Young

From: Laurel, New West BC — Oct 19, 2009

So lovely, lush and vibrant!


Women in workshops
by Claudia Roulier, Idledale, CO, USA


“one for the road”
original painting
by Claudia Roulier

Robert, I noticed in the photo of your workshop group there are mostly women. Do you think there is a reason for this, or is it just happenstance?

(RG note) Thanks, Claudia. In most places 80% of people taking painting workshops are women. 68% of artists who read my letters are women. An estimated 72% of people who have paints and call themselves painters are women. The great artists of the 21st century are going to be women.


There are 7 comments for Women in workshops by Claudia Roulier

From: Virginia Wieringa — Oct 20, 2009

From your lips to God’s ears, Robert.

From: Libby, s. Florida — Oct 20, 2009

Robert, do you think your statistics reflect the % of artists managing to “make a living” by gender? I think it is likely to be more like in the culinary arts: Lots of talented women and a handful of men getting the acclaim (and money).

From: J. Bruce Wilcox — Oct 20, 2009

Gosh- so many things to comment on!!! Hi Claudia- how are you- haven’t seen you in a while…

Robert- when you first set up your other painter’s post website I looked at a movie review about women in the arts- and the current statistics were that 80% of people attending art school were women- but 80% of the artists hanging in galleries were still men. Since I work in a female-dominated medium- gender issues and disparities are very high on my list of observable realities that affect my bottom (money) line.

And there are so many questions here that it boggles the mind…

In younger generations (I’m 56) gender equality is fast becoming the norm- but not in my generation.

How old are the women in art school and do they have an ingrained intent to succeed financially in their lives post schooling?

How old are the women in your workshops?

Do they have a spouse supporting much of their everyday reality- even if they work?

Are they post-child-raising?

Do they ever expect that they will be bringing home the bacon from their art sales?

One female artist I know personally told her husband- pre-marriage- that she likely wouldn’t be contributing all that much money to the household- and that was perfectly OK with him as they still got married!

Or do women artists still expect their husbands to bread-win while they pursue their hobby?

The main reason that men still get the most recognition in galleries is that have a different mindset that requires that if they are going to pursue their creativity AS A CAREER they flat-out have to make a living at it. And making a living at it isn’t easy- no matter how easy you make it look.

How many men never pursue their creativity because they are convinced they never will be able to make a living at it?

How many men go find drudgery-level jobs so they can support a family instead of pursuing their creativity?

When will all of this change into a system where creativity is seen as far higher on the well-paid list of attainable work-related positions- regardless of gender?

And really- when will the patriarchal bull**** cultural system we’ve all been subjected to for centuries finally give way to a more balanced gender-equal gender-neutral system?

My opinion and hope for the future is that this is what’s happening now. But if the arts go over into a system where there is a loss of balance because of an out-weighing feminine presence- then we’ll still be stuck with the same imbalance- just over on the other side of the gender fence!

From: B. L. Mills — Oct 20, 2009

Labor saving household devices and increased leisure among post-breeding women have contributed to their influx into the arts. These factors, together with better health in middle life, have increased the number of women in other pursuits as well. The percentage of female golfers, for example, within the population is much higher than in 1909. The percentages that Robert and others have quoted are part of a general change in demographics that has taken place and will continue for the near future. In a liberated “me first” society women as well as men are seeing the value of a life of independence and self expression.

From: J. Bruce Wilcox — Oct 22, 2009

In 1998 I was back east in the Boston area ‘wandering’ for over a year. While there I fairly regularly went into the bookstore in downtown Boston and one day I came upon an article published in a local Boston art rag- which I should have purchased but really couldn’t afford- so I didn’t. The article was about a poll they’d taken on just how many art students were producing art and on an art career path 5 years out of art school. The number?


Why is that you might ask?

Because life is expensive and life gets in the way. And becoming a recognized artist in any medium requires an extraordinary amount of time & effort just to create an initial recognized body of work. And the other thing it takes is a whole lot of money. Money a struggling to survive artist fresh out of art school isn’t likely to have. Unless of course they’re getting it from daddy, mummy or hubby.

So 80% of art students are now female? Who’s footing the bill?

And another percentage would also be that there are now more women than men attending college in general. Do females make up a larger part of disciplines such as science and math- or are they in the arts because they think it might be easier?

Because it may be easier to get through art rather than math- but being an artist post school is everything but easy. And though I never graduated from college because I couldn’t afford it- the one thing I learned in my one year of college- which was being taught both openly and subversively by every single teacher was TO NOT PURSUE ART AS A CAREER. Every teacher was doing his/her best to discourage every single student from an art path. There just aren’t enough tenured art professorships out there to go around. But I guess what’s changed now is that even an art student’s (male or female) money is still green.

So- back to now… what exactly do all these women in art school think is going to happen once they get out of school? Do they think it’s going to be a piece of cake to make a living at? And are they aware on any level just how much sacrifice will have to be made over what may in fact be many many years of struggle just to survive? Are they aware that they may in fact have to give up their art time and time again because their other life choices get in the way? And are they aware that many female artists who did make it NEVER HAD CHILDREN?

And are the women in Robert’s workshops taking them because they think taking them will assist their financial bottom line? Or are they doing it just for fun! Because they can.

Because frankly- we all have all those labor saving household devices and none of them have made my art career path any less complicated. And I’m both male and gay- so I have no wife anywhere that I expect to do household things for me. And I live with another gay male who is not my boyfriend/partner- and we both cook and we both clean and we both do dishes and we both do laundry and we both take out the garbage… as well as everything else.

From: Bella — Oct 22, 2009

Hi Bruce,

I did math and art and I am making 50% of money in my house, no children – that was a sacrifice for my husband and me, but not for the world – more than enough children there. My point is – who cares who is footing the bill. Each of us is a unique person and nobody likes to be a stereotype.

From: J. Bruce Wilcox — Oct 23, 2009

Hi Bella-

Congratulations on your relatively balanced relationship!

I was just reading today’s Denver Post newspaper and on the front page of the B Section is an article about DeVry University hosting a conference for female high school students hoping to change the numbers of women pursuing science and math as careers because- and I quote: “Women make up only 12 percent of the workforce in science, math and engineering.”

So- in science, math and engineering- it’s 12%- but in the arts- it’s 80%. In a gender equal society you’d think these imbalances wouldn’t be quite so dramatic- but they are. In my art medium it’s 98% female.

So you see- my problem here is that when a group is totally one-sided everything about the daily reality of art making is then a reflection of this one-sidedness. It bodes not well for the future of the arts which will likely degenerate into a social group of hobbyists where the quality of art is reduced to the lowest common denominator because large groups of women want to share- just about everything. They are not noted for their pursuit of unique individualism.

So while cooperation is great all the way from world government down to family planning- it is the death knell for unique works of art produced by unique individual artists.

As I said above- I am an adult non-heterosexual male. I’ve been stereotyped as a sissy- a homo- a faggot- a queer- since I was 8 years old. And all because I was already an artist as a child and I didn’t care about competitive sports. Really. Maybe when all bigoted homophobic stereotyping ceases to exist- along with all the attached bullying and abuse- maybe all other stereotyping will cease to exist too. I’m not holding my breath though…



Twin Oaks

acrylic painting, 14 x 11 inches
by Bob McPartlin, BC, Canada

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 Rev Sedgwick Heskett of Amherst, MA, USA, who wrote, “The basic training of magic is focused intention and sustained attention. I’ve found this to apply in all areas where magic occurs: the kitchen, the writing desk, the chapel, the athletic field, the family, and, I gather, the easel. Training that attention through successively longer sprints seems to be the way to go, until the conscious application of attention becomes habit, and then it all feels like… well, magic.”

And also Stella Reinwald of Santa Fe, NM, USA, who wrote, “The idea of a timed, brief painting exercise is very instructive and revelatory but I wonder at ascribing its success to ‘focus’ and ‘attention.’ Might not the acuity of vision that results spring more from yielding to intuition and ingrained training rather than attention — shooting from the hip rather than taking careful aim? Of course, there is a time to take careful aim and a time to just let it fly. What’s great about the latter approach in art is that missing the target, even multiple times in a row, is not disaster.”

And also Katherine Tyrrell of London, UK, who wrote, “What I love best is sketching people who are not models who are liable to move at any time and you never know when. That really exercises and stretches the brain cells which underpin ‘focus.’ ”

And also Gaye Adams of Sorrento, BC, Canada, who wrote, “I am sure you and countless numbers of your subscribers may be aware of the ‘Daily Painting’ community. The idea is to paint, as a studio warm-up, small paintings from life. I don’t do it every day, but I’m amazed at the learning miracle I’m experiencing. I haven’t painted one any larger than 6″ x 8″ and maybe I won’t. The point is that it is a small painting, a small resource and time commitment, and an exercise in absolute focus for that time period. It’s like a meditation, really, and I’m loving it.”



Archived Comments

Enjoy the past comments below for The miracles of attention and focus


From: J. Bruce Wilcox — Oct 15, 2009

Focus on your 37 minutes? Are you crazy? Paint drys. I work with fiber and textiles- a mutable medium that still retains its mutability for well- ever. I can spend several dozen hours just cutting up a hundred different textiles and that’s only prep work. Then there’s the laying out of a design- and just the first stage of construction. Hours and hours. And hours. Then the second and third phases of construction come into play. And then when I’m finally finished with just the construction part there are still several more phases/processes to go through. And for just one piece. Then I have to find the other parts with include surface cords and a fabric backing and may require a shopping trip. And then there’s set-up time. And then a few weeks later- if I’m lucky and the piece isn’t too big I finish with the hand-stitching phase and then there’s still the finishing phase and that may only happen after I’ve set the piece aside for a couple of months. And time between any of the earlier phases may also come into play- as I’m working on many things at once. Hours and days and weeks and months. For ONE PIECE. And the only way to do what I do is to have an unbelievably long attention span and the ability to FOCUS my wonderfully balanced right/left brain with my dancing and moving to the music I’ve programmed into endless meditations. Of course- working in this kind of focused manner means I also stop working whenever I feel like it and just go screw around. Literally. 37 minutes? Whatever floats your boat!

From: Faith — Oct 15, 2009

I think we have a case of shrinking sands in the hourglass. Or has it sprung a leak?

I think it’s basically a question of time compression! Time flies when one is enjoying it and crawls when one isn’t. We talk about “time standing still”, “taking our time”, “time and tide waiting for no man”, “time flying”, whatever native language we speak. We all have moments (positive or negative) like that, for instance after a shock or – dare I mention it – sex. The clock governs our whole lives, even when we aren’t “pushed for time”. 37 minutes will not cook a joint of roast beef, but it’s the death of a boiled egg!

So how much can one get done in roughly half an hour? I often give myself set times to complete boring tasks and then praise myself profusely if I’ve managed to avoid being distracted. The only way to judge the value of the 37 minute painting task would be to try it under exactly the same conditions. Maybe reproduce that collage as a sketch, copy part or all of a painting that was a big struggle to finish, or make something entirely new or different.

Referring specifically to Bruce’s comment, I would not count the preparation time in the 37 minutes, but anyway, I don’t think that kind of art production can be condensed into a small time frame (Rome wasn’t built in a day) since the preparation of the various elements is an intrinsic part of the finished work. The talk here is of a very small canvas being “given the once over”; the preparation time has to be negligible (compressed) and that forces the painter to either fall back on something already familiar (and memorized) or plunge head-first into the unknown. Either way, it’s certainly physically possible to cover 11”x14” in a good half hour. But the aim can’t be to create a masterpiece (though it could happen, of course). Unnecessary nibbling at a piece of art in progress can ruin it. That extra half hour devoted to improving it could be the death-bell tolling.

From: Faith — Oct 15, 2009

I forgot to mention that Salvator Dali was so preoccupied with the element of time and its irrelevance that it comes up time and time again in his work (sorry about the pun). His most famous painting of the pocket watch melting (entitled “the persistence of memory/meaning”) is slightly smaller than the 11×14 canvases (9.5″ x 13″ to be exact) used in the 37 min task, but I don’t suppose he finished it that fast…. And yes, I have seen the original and was as shocked as anyone at how small (and perfectly executed) it is.

From: Carole — Oct 16, 2009

OMG! There’s going to be a run on hourglasses on eBay!!!

Back in the 60’s I met a young art student in Santa Barbara, who had just returned from Spain. He was sketching on the beach in front of Dali’s house, when the Great One Himself came by and checked him out. Dali’s remark? “That’s a pretty good drawing, but you’re too slow”. Facility comes with practice, no musicians get manual dexterity from just ‘imagining’ they can play well. Painting can be a gentle progression or a RUSH– and it’s exciting to notice how it feels to spend our energy under different circumstances and time constraints. I love being pushed by the rising tides at the beach or the brillance of a fleeting sunrise in an exotic locale. Just being outside in Nature pushes the envelope and alerts my senses, and the hourglass idea would make the studio environment a hotbed of intensity. For now, I will settle for setting my cell phone alarm and “GO!”

From: Jenny — Oct 16, 2009

I like this idea since I think I paint too tight, too detailed. I am a beginner at this painting thing. I am using acrylic paint and inks. Have yet to paint a canvas (want to try that soon) working on paper right now. As a exercise for myself to get away from too much detail, I have decided to paint my Christmas cards this year (about 20 or so). My goal is work simply and relatively fast to create individual cards. I figure I can’t lose, either I get a set of cards worthy of giving to others and if not, I have completed an exercise to improve my painting!

From: Dwight Williams, Idaho — Oct 16, 2009

In my watercolor classes years ago a student (one obviously very familiar) said he could paint a better piece than my demo only using 20 brush strokes. He tried one and I said I could do better with only 10. We finally got it to five.

What it revealed was how the students needed to think out each stroke before putting brush to paper.

No masterpieces were done, of course, but our silly game turned out be be a great exercise in quick planning. Nothing we did that way ever took anything like 37 minutes.

Decide your color, load your brush, plan your move and give this a shot. It’s fun and helpful.

From: Maceo Felder — Oct 16, 2009

Time is illusory. At a basic physical level, it changes depending on your movement. Aboard a vehicle at almost light speed that 37 minutes would be much much longer for someone (relatively) still. Sometimes it seems to go quickly, sometimes slowly. I like to think painting–and so many other things– occurs outside of time. That sometimes appears to be the case, until, when I’m at my French easel on a hillside, I realize I’m a middle aged man who needs to find a restroom again.

From: Gregg Hangebrauck — Oct 17, 2009

If I was in such a hurry as the captain of the Titanic, I could argue the point that fast is not always the right choice.

However, there are times when I am not paying attention to the clock, that I realize I have done some good work in a short period of time. As for me, I would burn the hourglass. And I would not pay attention to how long it took to be destroyed. I habe no time clock in my studio. Leave that to the time punchers who count the hours to get home to heir loved ones.

From: Sharon Lynn Williams — Oct 18, 2009

This is almost exactly what I do each day as I paint ‘en plein air’ in the field. With the shifting of sun and shadow, I find that the quicker I paint, the better the painting and more satisfied I feel. Who knew it had anything to do with increased focus, although it makes perfect sense. Thanks for qualifying something I had known but did not realize the reason for.

From: faye facer — Oct 18, 2009

When I get ‘into’ a painting, time stops, sounds are unheard and I am in an isolated place where nothing penetrates I am in and part of the painting. I feel in my own leg the miss-shape of the elk”s leg in the painting. I am intimate with the scene; all senses present and alert. This is a place I go where no other can enter. It always amazes me how much progress is made during these times.

I am sure that this happening is not unique and is experienced by many dedicated and enthusiastic artists.

From: Laura M. Szabo-Roberts — Oct 18, 2009

I have been receiving your letters for quite some time now and have found the comments, insight and wisdom of not only you but your readers as well to be beneficial to me in many aspects of my life and art work.

Although the one thing that has bothered me is that as a watercolorist one must do detailed drawings and precisely plan out a painting – if not you end up with a puddle of mud. Making many of your suggestions for “go with the flow” intuitive paintings and focused mad dash paintings well – to say the least frustrating when attempted.

So, I would like to put it out there to your readers that are watercolorist; what have you or are you doing as a watercolorist when attempting intuitive and mad dash paintings to make them a success and not a mud puddle?

From: Ingrid Dabringer — Oct 18, 2009

I have a group of 11 year old girls and i am trying to free them up through speed exercises. Great fun. It’s not just that it creates energy but also helps them see the energy in front of them.

From: Connie Cuthbertson — Oct 18, 2009

I have been receiving your newsletter for about a year now and have to say I have enjoyed it very much. I find it very interesting to see what it is that “rocks the boat” of other artists.

Your topic today really spoke to me and I find myself compelled to share with you a video I had produced last year about my artistic journey marking my 25th year since I began painting. I went to Greece for the first time and actually feel I woke up over there to the idea of painting and writing full time. I also had a exhibit marking my 25th year and did some writing about each piece. Having never written before I found I was on a new adventure with my art. Like you said in your letter, art is about the process with outcomes both good and bad and I would even go one step further to say all outcomes should be embraced as a necessary part of creating.

The video is about 8min long. I have also included my website which will be updated soon.

I thank you for your time and your sharing of ideas.

From: Jack Coleman — Oct 18, 2009

As a collector, not a painter, when I see hesitancy and lack of confidence evident in a work, I too lose confidence.

From: Carol Morrison — Oct 18, 2009

Now I understand why my plein air paintings are so much more lively than my studio works! My studio advisor at NSCAD, Gerald Ferguson, unexpectedly passed away last Thursday. Although his own practice was very experimental (his work is described in “Abstract Painting in Canada” by Roald Nasgaard), he also prided himself on being able to teach representational painters such as myself. He encouraged me to study my favourite artist, Tom Thomson, and to try to emulate his vigorous and colourful brushstrokes.

From: Catherine Stock — Oct 18, 2009

Every Monday evening, I hire a model for an instructed three hour class of drawing in my studio for anyone who cares to participate. We start with two, then five, then ten, then fifteen and finally end with three twenty-five minute poses. The shorter poses often produce the most interesting work. Here is a five minute one. The model is often aided by Sushi, my cat.

From: John Ferrie — Oct 18, 2009

I remember in art school there would be daily assignments and exercises. How the instructors came up with some of these experiments was beyond me.

I would often, after hearing the day’s task, look at the instructor and say “You want me to do what?”

Some were stimulating and experimental, others were pedestrian and predictable.

Artists need to know that nothing is right and nothing is wrong, it is about stirring up the inner voice.

Students, especially, need to know that the BULK of the greatest work of their life should be done OUT of art classes.

I look at a lot of artists work and they usually show me what they have done in school that was part of an assignment.

It is difficult to really understand what an artist is trying to communicate when the only work they have, is part of an exercise.

I want to see an artists sketch book and see what inner voice is coming through.

Yes, artists need to learn technique and schooling can offer the discipline that is required to work beyond the confines of the classroom.

But following an assignment and getting an “A” or a Gold Star on their work is nothing more than navel gazing!

These exercises stick out like a sore thumb on the horizon of an artists work…

From: Russ Hogger — Oct 18, 2009

Using a timer to do a painting in any medium sounds like someone wants to turn it into an Olympic event.

From: Connie — Oct 19, 2009

In his book, “The Natural Way to Draw” Nicolaides writes “In order to concentrate, one can act furiously over a short period of time or one can work with calm determination, quietly, over a long extended period. In learning to draw, both kinds of effort are necessary and the one makes a precise balance for the other.”

In my food chemistry class, we learned about “high temperature, short time” or “low temperature, long time” cooking methods (e.g. stir fry vs. crock pot) both of which can produce different but delicious results.

From: Dorenda Crager Watson — Oct 19, 2009

Hmmm…I think I’m an oddball here (and that’s quite ok:) I absolutely LOVE taking my sweet time while creating a piece. Paint a stroke, then look at it for a few minutes, paint another stroke, take a sip of coffee, paint another stroke, pet my dog. I think whatever works for you in the end is good process.

From: Shelley Ross — Oct 19, 2009

That’s me – one of the painters in the class photo! Serious but happy is an understatement. I am still pumped from attending that workshop and taking part in the legendary exercise.

This great exercise on focus resulted in a wonderful counterpoint: looseness. As the sand grains fell, I thought and felt: be in the moment, block out the clutter, stay on track, let go of the details, stay with it. And the outcome was a seeming opposite to my rendered studio paintings! Two years ago, I returned to painting after a brief 30 year break. Now I am a seeker – on the fast track to learning everything I can. Painting, reading, drawing, listening, I take it all in. The 37 minute painting took me back to my early roots of a 70’s drawing class where we pursued looseness, movement, freedom, finding the form – completely different than my recent detail work. I have faith the two will merge into my own style. Patience is my byword this month, this season. And I am seriously happy about it all.

From: Lorraine Khachatourians — Oct 20, 2009

In response to Laura about watercolourists. I once had the good fortune to take one of Dick Nelson’s tri-hue watercolour workshops. In that only three colours are used, and the key is they are transparent. You could achieve any colour with these three. I just discovered that his workshop materials are on line now at

You can see one of the colour grids I did here – I have done a few more since as practice because I have been on a steep learning curve, coming to painting later in life. This approach really helped me understand both colour and watercolour, and subsequently, oil painting.

From: Jim Oberst — Oct 20, 2009

Whenever I take a workshop, I always create several paintings that are very good – not necessarily my usual style – but good enough to frame and sell. I think this is because of the inherent time constraints and (pseudo-) low expectations. No time to do a super-detailed drawing; no time to go back into a watercolor wash, to time to fuss over the result, no expectations for a masterpiece. But for the life of me, I can’t seem to stick to this way of working in my studio. Well, I guess I’ll just hunker down and keep trying to change :-)

From: Judi Gorski — Oct 20, 2009
From: Liz Reday — Oct 20, 2009

Focus and time limits- works for me. Small size canvases are also good tools to increase focus. The first one or two might not be stellar, but you can bet that by the time you’ve painted several more that learning curve is evident. When I have an appointment coming up and less than an hour to spend in the studio, I’ve done my best starts. And in my book, it’s all about the start…the rest of the painting paints itself. In the end it doesn’t matter what you tell yourself in order to get into the studio and begin squeezing out, as Robert says. Any old excuse will do, the point being that once you’re in front of the easel with a palette and brush in hand you are entering a portal to another level of time, or non-time. A creative black hole, an Alice down the rabbit hole, a turning on of the muse…..when next you look up and four hours have past. Maybe that’s why I never make it to my appointment!

From: Kathy Hirsh — Oct 20, 2009

I’ve also become interested in attention and focus. I’ve lately been reading Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.

When I’m painting I’m trying to first access and then maintain the flow and also trying to help my art students access that elusive mental space. I feel it as soon as I pick up a pencil to demo continuous line contour-it’s almost a centering feeling. I can’t think of another way I’d like to spend my time- unless I’m with friends eating Thai or Japanese food.

Here are the 9 characteristics of “flow.” I’ve found thinking about these goals really helps in teaching. Painting is challenging activity and I want my students to feel successful.

1. Clear goals (expectations and rules are discernible and goals are attainable and align appropriately with one’s skill set and abilities). Moreover, the challenge level and skill level should both be high.

2. Concentrating, a high degree of concentration on a limited field of attention (a person engaged in the activity will have the opportunity to focus and to delve deeply into it).

3. A loss of the feeling of self-consciousness, the merging of action and awareness.

4. Distorted sense of time, one’s subjective experience of time is altered.

5. Direct and immediate feedback (successes and failures in the course of the activity are apparent, so that behavior can be adjusted as needed).

6. Balance between ability level and challenge (the activity is neither too easy nor too difficult).

7. A sense of personal control over the situation or activity.

8. The activity is intrinsically rewarding, so there is an effortlessness of action.

9. People become absorbed in their activity, and focus of awareness is narrowed down to the activity itself, action awareness merging.

From: Sandra — Oct 23, 2009

I just completed a two day work shop with Liz Witzen and we never completed a painting. We painted models, two beautiful young ballet dancers in tights and tutus. In this workshop we did timed exercises of only 30 sec. 2 minute 10 minutes and finally 20 minutes. Talk about time restraints. I was surprised that any of us got anything on the canvas. Then we simply wiped it off and started again with another pose. It was quite an exhausting process but I believe I learned a lot and continue to do a 20 minute painting each morning. I am learning to observe whether I like it or not. Simply blocking in, observing the light and darks and trying to recreate the shapes,value, edges,and what I call the gist of the subject was and is a challenge. It make me get out of bed the day after the workshop excited to get going to see what I could create in 15 minutes. I was surprised at this workshop but feel that I have a tool to improve my work. Yes time restrains do help, just try to tell that to my Left Brain its very up set.




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