What we pay attention to in our art is what is going to get developed and emphasized, so it’s worth making deliberate choices about where to place our attention. But even if you avoid big attention-hogs like social media, news media and TV, there are often still many voices, real and internal, competing for our attention.
Meditation is one time-honored way to increase your ability to maintain a focus of attention. But we’re so conditioned to be doing something that sometimes it’s hard to give yourself permission to simply sit and follow your breath. Today’s activity is a form of active meditation, and an artist-friendly way of training your ability to notice and direct your attention.
Do you ever get an idea for a painting that is a big change from what you usually do, and then find yourself spending more time debating whether you’ll like the result than it would take to just go ahead and paint it? (Guilty.)
Do you ever find yourself online browsing your friend’s favorite brand of watercolors, that paper the demo artist was using, or a new line of brushes, even though there’s no particular problem with the materials you’re already using? (Guilty, again.)
What do you give too much attention to (or worry about too much) in making your art? Another way to think of this is to ask, what is taking more of your time than it deserves?
What do you give too little attention to? What isn’t getting the time it deserves?
What are some places where you’d like to make a commitment to shift the balance?
Today’s activity is a form of blind contour-drawing.
The goal is to train yourself to notice what draws your attention, and also to discover what features of a scene or object most attract your eye, instead of worrying about how to make a representation of it on the page.
You can use any scene or object, but it’s easiest to start with a small object you can place on your work table. Choose something with plenty of interesting details: a shell, a seedpod, an intricate piece of jewelry, a gadget with a lot of features like a multi-tool or camera.
It may be easier to do this activity on a piece of printer or copier paper, so you have more room to work. You can tape or glue any interesting bits into your notebook later. It helps to secure the paper to your table with a few pieces of tape to keep it in place while you work.
Place the object on your table, and position the point of your pen or pencil near the center of your paper. Then place your attention at some point on the object and allow your eyes to slowly move over the contours of the object. (Contours are edges of the object itself or anything that looks like a boundary between different parts of the object, even if it’s just a something like a distinct color change.)
At the same time, allow your hand to move in concert with your eyes, recording a tracing of how your eyes move over the contours of the object.
Keep your pen or pencil on the page, moving continuously with your eyes. Do your best to move your eyes slowly and smoothly, and to keep your hand moving at the same speed as your eyes.
In the usual instructions for blind contour drawing, your eyes stay entirely on the object. No peeking at your paper! Unless you run off the page, or are about to. Then you can peek long enough to get yourself back on the paper.
I leave it up to you whether to adhere to that rule rigidly. But if you do happen to glance at the drawing itself, don’t linger. You don’t want to fall into the trap of trying to make a recognizable drawing. If you start trying to make a drawing, you’ll lose the point of the activity, which is to simply to maintain a focus on wherever your eyes are moving, and to notice where your attention rests.
The pen or pencil is there to act as an “attention seismograph”, recording the areas and features where your attention was naturally drawn.
Note: A common question is: how long should I do this?
Some people find this exercise very relaxing; others find it exhausting! Some objects and scenes will hold your attention longer than others. Try setting a timer for 1 or 2 minutes and see how that feels. You can continue for longer, move on to a different object or scene, or just do a little bit at a time. As always, it’s your choice how you want to use your studio notebook!