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 while painting — supposedly a remnant of breastfeeding — until another letter.

The Rape of Europa, ca. 1560–1562 Oil on canvas 178 × 205 cm by Titian (b. c.1488-90 – 1576)

The Rape of Europa, c. 1560–1562
Oil on canvas
178 × 205 cm
by Titian (b. c. 1488-90 – 1576)

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.

Venus of URbino, 1534 Oil on canvas 119 × 165 cm by Titian

Venus of Urbino, 1534
Oil on canvas
119 × 165 cm
by Titian

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,


Venus and Organist and Little Dog, 1550 Oil on canvas 138 x 222.4 cm by Titian

Venus and Organist and Little Dog, 1550
Oil on canvas
138 x 222.4 cm
by Titian

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.

Salome with the Head of John the Baptist (or Judith), c. 1515 Oil on canvas 90 × 72 cm by Titian

Salome with the Head of John the Baptist, c. 1515  (or Judith)
Oil on canvas
90 × 72 cm
by Titian

This letter was originally published as “Continuous Partial Attention” on September 16, 2011.

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“The relation between what we see and what we know is never settled. Each evening we see the sun set. We know that the earth is turning away from it. Yet the knowledge, the explanation, never quite fits the sight.” (John Berger




  1. This might possibly be the best description I have ever seen of my painter’s eyes. Though I admit to not being very good at doing several things at once. Often the world around disappears from my conscious awareness. I don’t even listen to music unless I am only painting edges. But my subject and painting process are in a hyper awareness as described in the first paragraph. This is part of the pleasure in painting. I find it soothing to slip away from all else and into the painting process. It doesn’t even matter how it is going, just as long as it is going. All the best of today to you all!

  2. Thank you for posting this. So many times your father’s thinking and putting his observations into print give me courage and freedom to plunge ahead without knowing what is ahead or where I might be going. I appreciate when you continue to share his insights and his art. ~Lorilla

  3. I don’t discount what is being said about the way the eyes travel. It is a fascinating study. Yet I think it is more complicated – as is anything that is studied

  4. Your description of the attention process while actively painting seems accurate and fairly adequate, however, I find that important parts of the attention process occur far beyond before and after ‘brush time’ and execution of every painting has residual effects that we, as creators are not even consciously aware.

    I also think there is a significant difference in the attention load and process between painting and drawing and sketching. Part of the difference in that load comes from our awareness of the freedom to throw away what we are putting down on paper versus the duty to ‘eventually get it right’ in a painting.

  5. I think that art IS being made more quickly these days. But I also think that’s a result of the art being more basic and less detailed. There are fewer expectations of it, and photography has resulted in there being likenesses. Detailed paintings are more rare, and when they do occur they are probably taking as much time to produce as previously– modern colors and brushes being taken into consideration. The development of artistic endeavor from the post-impressionists through the ab ex folk (Franz Kline and the like) have put paid to realism. It is now just another format of art, not the only one.

  6. Years ago they tried to find out how cytology screeners saw cells using Pathfinder which mapped the areas of a microscope slide studied , needless to say the eye-brain-analysis connections were hard to replicate on automation as screeners looked all over the slides at different rates, focusing up and down on the whole and the edges and often going back for a second look or pausing, it is the same with artists that see and analyse their work while painting and intuition plays a part. Certainly practice can make you paint faster as your neural pathways and hand-eye coordination are perfected as you choose to use/ focus on or exclude information gained in the viewing process but will you have time to stand back and see and analyse on high speed. Time is a artists friend and leads to new creativity.

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