Continuous Partial Attention

Dear Artist, 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. Best regards, Robert 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  

original painting
by Bill Hibberd

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
From: Reggie Sabiston — Sep 20, 2011

Love your choice of colors and your painting. Your work is very creative and yet realistic, a great combination. Interesting take on “life-sucking technologies”. I never really thought of them like that, but now that you mention it, they can take up a lot of one’s time, but a watch, in my opinion, is necessary.

  Quality currently suffering by Sharon Knettell, Woonsocket, RI, USA  

“Blue Nana”
oil painting
76 x 38 inches
by Sharon Knettell

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
From: Jackie Knott — Sep 20, 2011

Lovely portrait. Work such as this is never tossed off in a day or so. Well done.

From: Rick Rotante — Sep 20, 2011

Nice work. Well worth the effort…for you and for us.

From: Anonymous — Sep 21, 2011

Interesting choice of red roses for this painting.

  Speed can get boring by Andrew van der Merwe  

beach calligraphy
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
From: Michael — Sep 20, 2011

Wow. Beach calligraphy. That is so cool.

  Zoned or creatively unfocused? by Phil Chadwick, Southampton, ON, Canada  

“August Sunrise, Bass Lake”
oil painting, 5 x 7 inches
by Phil Chadwick

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  

“Sunset at Percha Creek”
original painting
by Bonnie Mandoe

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
From: Brian Seed — Sep 19, 2011

I do more than one painting of the same subject just about all the time. As I do the 1st, I tend to hum a little… in “getting to know you, getting to know all about you”. Of course this could also be traced back to my father….”bet you could do better a 2nd time” It was very thoughtful of him to leave me a few dollars in his will. Anybody checked out the price of #300 Arches watercolour paper?

From: Nan — Sep 20, 2011

I am heartened to know that there are others who “rewrite” their paintings. I, too, learned that your first draft was just the beginning of writing. Like Bonnie, I cannot envision the whole until I begin. Until today I’ve felt this reworking was a weakness. Seeing Bonnie’s beautiful work affirms that it’s just my process. I’m feeling liberated! Thanks. Nan

From: Michael — Sep 20, 2011

Lots of my paintings have another painting underneath. I almost consider it good luck.

From: Connie — Sep 23, 2011

“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”. Therein lies the fun. Otherwise, to already know what you’re going to produce is just – boring.

  Danger in ‘faster is better’ by Rick Rotante, Tujunga, CA, USA  

“Old Mill, San Marino”
oil painting, 18 x 24 inches
by Rick Rotante

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  

“Falls Farewell”
original painting, 12 x 9 inches
by Tobi Clement

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  

“Wyoming Mill Pond”
oil painting
by N. Taylor Collins

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 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
From: Anonymous — Nov 18, 2012

Archived Comments

Enjoy the past comments below for Continuous Partial Attention

From: Marvin Humphrey, Napa Valley — Sep 15, 2011

Yes, CPA may not be a bad thing. Our brains are receiving so much more input and stimuli these days, as opposed to the time of Titian; there are more facets encompassed in our daily inspirations.

From: Nolly — Sep 16, 2011

I’ve noticed in myself a kind of “back burner” thinking process … something that goes on outside the conscious … and I recommend it to my fellows who are struggling to grasp a new technique or concept. “Let it simmer on the back burner, and when you revisit this task, maybe something new will be there for you.”

From: Marsha Hamby Savage — Sep 16, 2011

This is an interesting concept. I keep looking all over the painting … with just an “out of the corner of my eye” type of look to see if the area I am working on is in harmony with the rest of the painting. And, the part of your letter about some of us are getting better faster, are we? Or, are we too much of the instant gratification generation with our art? I do think we are the recipient of better materials which makes it somewhat easier to produce some pretty good art. But, are our eyes deceiving us about the quality of our work, the harmony, or are we just plain having fun? Fun should be the best part of it, right? I can hear some teachers saying, don’t labor over the painting. Then the next teachers are saying, take your time and consider what move to make next. I think our eyes, keeping the whole of the painting in that “out of the corner of our eye” mode, are telling us what to do, but are we listening?

From: Nina Allen Freeman — Sep 16, 2011

There is so much to think about when painting. Should I put some of this color over there? I need to soften that line. What should I do about that spot? I have no doubt that while painting one place, My eyes and my mind are already contemplating my next 3 moves. I am creating and working at the same time. This doesn’t seem like “lower order thinking” to me, whatever that is. My hand catches up with all this thinking and I put the painting up to think about at a distance for a while to plan a few more moves and then jump into it again. Painting is fun!

From: Jackie Knott — Sep 16, 2011

Well, yes and no. I have noticed this ability in young people to multitask, but good luck carrying on a conversation with them. Communication skills have suffered. I’ve watched “thirty something” professionals accomplish a terrific amount of positive work in a day – envious. I’ve noticed a change in my own attention abilities since I’ve used computers. I seem to be less able to keep a sustained focus on one project as I once was. That familiar “zoning out” while in the midst of a painting is such a rush. I would glance at the clock and realize I hadn’t paused for hours. Oh, it’s still there, but the need to multitask while I paint is something I’ve not experienced until late years. I’ll take a break and read the newspaper, paint awhile, go put a load of laundry in, paint some more, go check email … you get the picture. And that painting certainly isn’t better for such distraction. I’ve been sidetracked with design, writing, and publishing recently and could pat myself on the back for accomplishing so much. Still, I have yet to start that epic Grand Canyon painting I’ve wanted to do for years. I know it will take months. I know I will have to lay aside other projects to do this one. I know the investment of energy and time and see it with as much dread as excitement. But I have to do that painting. Soon. Are we embracing new techniques or a style of painting because they are faster? Is the “painting a day” an exercise to hone our skills or is that going to be as good as it gets? I can see where new found skills allow me greater output in certain areas but equally, great art takes more than casual effort to do well.

From: Susan Kellogg, Austin, TX — Sep 16, 2011

“Scanning” is an important and primitive survival technique. Are we learning to value it less? Maybe this isn’t exactly on point, but I just had to return some progressive lenses…They impeded my ability to “scan” my subject and my painting. I had to shift gears to paint. This all made me dizzy when I worked…they seemed to require an exact place to focus and I spent too much time trying to find the “sweet spot” After three months, I called it a wash and went back to trifocals happily.

From: Gary — Sep 16, 2011

“Producing art much faster than previous generations” Who cares? Look at the results. “It’s not that we’re any smarter than Titian”. Now there’s an understatement! No wonder there is so much mediocrity today–no respect for the past or vision for the future. Too Bad!

From: Daniela — Sep 16, 2011

Gary, you took the words out of my mouth. We live in a time when attention span is shorter than the time it takes to say it, everyone expects – speed. HUH?

From: Mary Jane Brewster — Sep 19, 2011

I was fascinated with Continuous Partial Attention. Maybe that is what I have been experiencing. I am a full time portrait/figurative artist except when I am off on a big project. I feel that I need these diversions. It is an itch that I have to scratch. For this whole year I have been one huge project (my whole living room/ studio /dining room and now my kitchen). I do all the work myself, I ask for no help at all. I climb ladders and do plumbing and carpentry. I am just now building my kitchen cabinets. The experience that I am trying to describe is that the project has a life of its own. I am just there for the ride. It twists and turns and finally ends up looking far, far more spacious and beautiful then I ever could ever have imagined. Every night I would make plans and the next day I would just let it flow often do just the opposite. In a week or less I will be back to painting, this time in a well lit new studio. I just hope that I can replay the wonderful drama that I just experienced. I hope I can relax, enjoy and let my art just do it’s magic without my brain interfering. Coarsegold, CA

From: Norman Ridenour — Sep 19, 2011

I have noticed that students (not art) can and do do many things together. I do not see them analyzing any of them nor do I see much lateral thinking, using one piece of input to jump in another direction. Prague

From: Gavin Logan — Sep 19, 2011

I’ve noticed painter’s eyes sometimes go into Rapid Eye Movement (REM) which is supposed to be a precursor of deep sleep. Is it possible that we approach a dreamy stage–perhaps in conjunction with that “glassy stare” you mention, that may be a function of the right brain taking over?

From: Mike Barr — Sep 19, 2011

It may indeed be true that we produce quicker these days. I think we can safely say though, that we stand on the shoulders of artists that have preceded us and produce better, quicker. An impressionist artist today can boldly go where lots of artists have been before and in quicker time. Time seems to be a factor too – most of us seem to be time-poor and squeeze more out of it.

From: Betty — Sep 19, 2011

Your piece on attention reminded me of a consideration that stuck in my head – and returns on occasion – after an intense study of Dante’s “Inferno.” An enduring phrase from that source: “Man is a measure of where he puts his attention,” may be applicable here. Maybe a painter can also be judged on how successfully she bravely directs her attention to troubling areas of a painting. She may not avoid eternal damnation, but at least elevate herself to a less intense circle of hell.

From: Marlene Wildeman — Sep 19, 2011

Sometimes while painting I find myself wondering how I can possibly keep from blinking until my brush reaches the end of the stroke it is at that very second executing. Blinking seems to demand a re-focus right after the blink, and part of me worries in a hugely minute way whether my eye will be able to get back to exactly where it was before I blinked. It does, of course. So far.

From: Craig Clark — Sep 19, 2011

“…The cutting edge of getting worse.” Brilliant. This is what we have got to. With the easy proliferation of the worst, the worst has, by default, been accepted as the best. Public museums are full of it. Somewhere else Robert has said “The cutting edge is not so sharp.” Bravo. I will try to continue to do what is difficult to do well.

From: Knut Flagel — Sep 19, 2011

Yes Robert, the adult human tongue is reinventing the act of taking in or rejecting the nipple. The tongue protruding at the side of the mouth, so common when we are creating, is probably in the gathering in mode while the central tongue push out and up has to do with saying “I am finished.”

From: Joseph — Sep 20, 2011

Thank you again Robert for bringing my attention home to my bliss. I am a professional photographer and sometime painter, but mostly photos – this column/website it for all artist – nicely done. :o)

From: Wendi Filippi — Sep 20, 2011

As a culture we might well be over-mediated. I know that when our home computer is down or in the shop, it’s as if a child is missing, or something seems not right. Painting tends to keep me centered in a world filled with digital images.

From: Gwen Purdy — Sep 20, 2011

Bonnie Mandoe, your painting is stunning, it inspires me to use those colors in an abstract… and I will.

From: Jim Oberst — Sep 22, 2011

I enjoy painting quickly. If one paints watercolor paintings “directly”, that is, without many glazes over and over again, the medium encourages, even demands, quickness. Quickness can lead to the painting looking loose and spontaneous. And when something goes wrong, it’s not a big deal to just do the painting again. I think there are different and legitimate “styles” of speed, just like there are different styles of painting, and different mediums.

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Torch Ginger

watercolour painting by Vicky Earle, Vancouver, BC, Canada

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