The pace of our vision quest encourages us to go slowly and as a result, we have the time for a long slow look.
I first came across the idea of a long slow look through Roger Housden who uses it as a chapter title in his book How Rembrandt Reveals Your Beautiful Imperfect Self - Life Lessons from the Master. He talks about needing to spend at least twenty or thirty minutes with a Rembrandt painting in order to contemplate and feel the “poetic depth” of the masterpiece.
More recently, I was out cruising the country side, looking for potential photographs when I heard Maria Konnikova interviewed by Michael Enright on his CBC radio program, Sunday Edition. Konnikova was talking about her book Master-Mind, How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes. But what she was also talking about was a long slow look. I pulled over to the side of the road and take notes.
We open our eyes and we see automatically, with no effort and, for the most part, we see unthinkingly, without absorbing what we have seen. It was the fictionally famous Sherlock Holmes who pointed this out to his sidekick Doctor Watson – you see, but you don’t observe.
The long slow look is about making an active decision not to just see, but to observe and consider, to be fully mindful and to remain in the moment.
Konnikova makes the point that we can learn to observe like Sherlock Holmes. Emily Carr, the Canadian artist, writer and painter tells us how we might go about that. Her approach to looking slowly is as fine as I’ve ever read.
You go, find a space wide enough to sit in and clear enough so that the undergrowth is not drowning you. Then, being elderly, you spread your camp stool and sit and look round. Don’t see much here.
Everything is green. Everything is waiting and still. Slowly things begin to move, to slip into their places. Groups and masses and lines tie themselves together. Colours you had not noticed come out, timidly or boldly. In and out, in and out your eye passes. Nothing is crowded; there is living space for all. Air moves between each leaf. Sunlight plays and dances. Nothing is still now. Life is sweeping through the spaces. Everything is alive. The air is alive. The silence is full of sound. The green is full of colour. Light and dark chase each other. Here is a picture, a complete thought, and there another and there…
There are themes everywhere, something sublime, something ridiculous, or joyous, or calm, or mysterious. Tender youthfulness laughing at gnarled oldness. Moss and ferns, leaves and twigs, light and air, depth and colour chattering, dancing a mad joy-dance, but only apparently tied up in stillness and silence.
You must be still in order to hear and see.
In those three paragraphs, Carr teaches us how to look, describes some of the delightful surprises we, too, might find in the woods and then introduces some of the words that we use in a later section when talking about aesthetics: joyfulness, the sublime and the mysterious.