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.
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.
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)
The Killarney are of Ontario is in what is called the ‘near north’. The landscape is wild and rugged. Giant granite cliffs plunging deep into the glacial lakes. There are no roads leading to our painting locations. We travel by a large, sturdy pontoon boat. This is a self-catered retreat. You bring your own provisions and cook your own meals in our fully equip cabins at a northern camp. Our instructor, Keith Thirgood, has been teaching artists his own unique approach to painting for over 12 years. Learn how to find order in the chaos, control your colours and create paintings that work. Learn modern colour theory, values, shapes and lines, what makes for a good painting. This retreat is suitable for beginners wanting to learn to paint in a fun, outdoor location, as well as more experienced studio artists who want to try plein air, plus artists who are looking to loosen up and paint in a more post-impressionist style. To find out more and register, please visit www.wilsonstreetstudios.
Capturing the beauty of nature and expressing those impressions in oil paint is a joy. Every hour of the day presents new possibilities and keeps even the same landscape location, same composition, an ongoing and beckoning challenge. For this reason, I love painting series: it is exploration made visual.