An introduction to slow looking

Most people, who don’t visit galleries very often, tend to look at a painting, sculpture or photo for just a few seconds. Then they look at the label to give them reassurance because unless it’s called Untitled no. 3, the title will help them work out what it’s about. They may also look at the name of the artist, and if it’s someone they’ve heard of, that reassures them too. Then they will look back at the painting. These people are “art lovers” too.

In this article we explore the benefits of looking at art and other things slowly. Also we touch upon phonomenolgy – what it’s called when you look at things, as if seeing them for the first time with an open unbiased, non judgemental mind.

slow looking at art

The art of slow looking

Slow looking is the term I found to explain the practice I have been learning myself and teaching to other people as I go along. It’s about taking more time to really absorb the art, when you find yourself in front of it. The practice is about giving a piece of art 10 minutes or more of your time, for just looking, thus letting it grow on you.

When you engage in long periods of slow looking, you will find a gradual opening of your senses, a deepening of your focus and an intimacy forming with the art or object you are looking at. When you speak about your observations with another, and get feedback about your shared experience, it strengthens what you’ve understood.

“Theoretical interpretation is obfuscating simple truths and imaginative responses to art.”

According to art historian Ben Street.

Which roughly translates as, talking about art can complicate the real enjoyment, which is simply just looking at it.

Thus, it is important for the inquisitive and focused mind to continually take the time to experience the world that is immediately around us. To engage directly with objects by looking slowly at them and thinking about what they mean to us, from our own standpoint.


slow looking at art

Pictorial intelligence

Pictorial intelligence is when a painting or sculpture reveals itself to you bit-by-bit. When you find yourself in a gallery or exhibition, it’s all too easy to just skim through and only take in the surface offering of what is on display. You have to trust that there is always more than what meets the eye at first glance. When you begin to take more time to have a slow look, you will be amazed at what else there is ready to be revealed, what else is there waiting for your mind’s eye.

slow looking at art

The benefits of slow looking

Slow looking matters because when your curious mind is permitted the time to explore, you create a sincere connection with the world around you. Slow looking helps us to build up the relationships we already have with the everyday objects that surround us. Continued inspection into what else is there can provide genuine insight, that eventually leads to an increase in knowledge. This can lead to personally profound experiences, that you can share with others on a heartfelt level.

My personal experiences

I have experienced deep self realisations that have helped my personal development and I have also attained peace of mind about various issues from slow looking. For example, while sat for a few hours in the Rothko room at the Tate, I came to terms with my grief. I have gained a meaningful and lasting understanding while looking at water flow in a channel, I realised that all beings have a spark of God inside them.

Direct observation can assist with your own philosophical well-being. For example, while I was on a long train journey, I was looking at the pattern on the fabric of the seats in front of me and I realised that it is ok for people to believe in the theory of creation, if it gives them contentment about their own existence.

Viewing art in the flesh

So, if you think about it, maybe this is why researchers of all types are always incredibly keen to get a real life glimpse at whatever object it is they are studying. Curators look especially slowly – carefully scrutinising every facet an artwork has to offer. Viewing art in person, is preferable to viewing art on a screen, because simple things like scale, texture and feeling cannot otherwise be communicated properly.

It is not always the most obvious beauty that proves to be the most enduring treasure.

slow looking at art

A common everyday practice

“It simply means taking time to carefully observe more than the eye can see at first glance. Slow looking happens anywhere people take a generous amount of time to observe the world closely. It is a common practice in everyday life: something we do when we take time to carefully examine an object, a painting in a museum, a family photograph or an insect on the sidewalk”

Slow Looking: The Art and Practice of Learning Through Observation by Shari Tishman. Senior Research Associate at Project Zero, a research and development center at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.


I haven’t read her book yet but it seems like she has done her research on the subject.

slow looking at art

The phenomenological approach to slow looking

To look as if perceiving something for the first time. To look as if you’ve never seen that art/object/reality before – free from judgements, past beliefs, rational, concepts and conventional presuppositions. Experiencing the essential nature of the phenomenon through consciousness, emotions and imagination – rather than words. I think it’s an interesting exercise to use this philosophical approach alongside the practice of slow looking.

slow looking at art

Museums and art galleries

In environments designed for self motivated, meaningful learning, comfortable seating would encourage visitors to linger longer and to look and think more.

slow looking at art


Slow looking for oneself is an innate knowledge-seeking behaviour. It can be learned and is a virtue, a skill and an inherent quality that can be developed over time. As an educator you can ask questions to enable the participants to fully describe what they see.

  1. Viewers should be allowed to engage with an artwork without having any information transmitted to them first – from labels, wall descriptions, display placards, audio recordings or guides. Allowing the viewer to connect on their own terms, to assimilate what is there at face value.
  2. Educators can share knowledge to enhance the viewer’s experience of the artwork. Sometimes people want to be told what is in front of them, to ask an expert questions in order to learn the whole story, concept and nuances before delving into their own alone time with the art or object.
  3. Many everyday people are afraid of going into an art gallery – this can be overcome by taking the art out of the gallery and delivering it directly to the public. This can be done in the form of a public sculpture, mural or a picture show, whereby participants can engage in the art together in say a shopping centre, community centre or school.

slow looking at art

This is my experience of viewing art in a gallery

First off, I go around the whole exhibition to get a general feel for what’s on display. I take special note of pieces that capture my imagination. Then I go around again a second time, this time allowing for my interests to guide me further to the art I find most intriguing. I stop only on that which beckons my attention.


I try and work out what it is I like about the art and what it “means”? I think about what the artist meant when they created it. How and why did they do it like that? I like to imagine the time and circumstances in the world when the piece was conceived. I look at the overall expressiveness and think about how the artist might have felt when making it and how the work makes me feel. I look close, I look from far away. I also like to see the effect artworks have on other viewers.

Content and composition

I think about why they used that colour? Why they put that mouse/skull/hay cart in the corner? I move onto inspect the more technical aspects, including exploring every surface detail, like brush marks or texture and colour combinations. How did they create that light and contrast on a face, sunset or candle. How did they define that reflection on glass.

Information material

I then like to digest every bit of information available – from labels, wall descriptions, display placards, audio recordings or guides. I don’t stop reading until I have finished.

Being selective

Slow looking can be a magical experience. I may, if there is time, go around a third or fourth time, investing more time into fewer pieces. For this reason, I will often miss out some exhibits entirely in favour of taking in one or two pieces more thoroughly.

slow looking at art


Living more slowly

Some of us are already committed to living more slowly – seeing more deeply and learning more about the complex world around us. There is a cultural shift toward slowing down ones pace life generally. We slow down to connect with our life, however often it is easier said than done. Health issues or simple ankle injury can initially slow us down, and when we go with it, an appreciation for timelessness can not be over looked.

Slow looking is a skill that enhances our lives, and improves our appreciation of art and our surroundings!

The more we look, the more we see – don’t hike, saunter!

Ad Reinhardt cartoon

Ad Reinhardt cartoon


(PDF) Book Review: Slow Looking: The Art and Practice of Learning Through Observation by Shari Tishman. Available from:

Thank you for reading

So how about do take some time to look at the art in my web gallery or even better, sign up for my art newsletter and come along to one of my exhibitions!