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A lesson in looking

Slow Art Day returns April 10 to remind us that the longer and more carefully you look at art, the more you may see.

Vilhelm Hammershøi. Interior with Four Etchings

Vilhelm Hammershøi. Interior with Four Etchings, 1904. Oil on canvas, Framed: 74.7 × 63.6 cm. Purchased with the assistance of a Moveable Cultural Property grant accorded by the Department of Canadian Heritage under the terms of the Cultural Property Export and Import Act, 2015; Acheté avec l'aide d'une subvention des biens culturels mobiliers accordée par le Ministère du Patrimoine canadien en vertu de la Loi sur l'exportation et l'importation de biens culturels, 2015. © Art Gallery of Ontario 2014/1054

Were this any other year, this is the moment we’d be encouraging you to put down your electronic devices, disconnect from social media and make a date to spend Slow Art Day at the AGO, intently gazing at one or more artworks for ten minutes each. However, an invitation to slow down and connect has perhaps never been more welcome. 

“In our hyper-accelerated world, slow looking is not instinctive,” says Melissa Smith, the AGO Assistant Curator, Community Programs, “but is rather something that must be learned, a process to be adopted. When Phil Terry founded Slow Art Day back in 2008, he was trying to share his own realization that how we look at art changes the ways we experience it, no book learning or degrees needed.”

This is why the AGO is celebrating Slow Art Day twice this year: 

First, on Monday, April 5, as part of the AGO’s ongoing Close Looking series, Melissa will lead a warm-up, guiding viewers through the steps of slow looking as she considers Study of a Hare in Winter (1922) by Clarence Alphonse Gagnon an oil on wood painting of a white hare surrounded by vivid snow. 

That's a prelude to the main event on Saturday, April 10 at 11 am, when she will reveal five works from the AGO Collection on the AGO Facebook and Instagram pages and encourage us all to look...carefully, closely, slowly.

Eager to get started? Here are Melissa’s top eight tips for being a better, slower looker. 

  1. Get comfortable.
  1. Try looking at an artwork for 10 minutes. The average person looks at an artwork for between three and 10 seconds. To keep track of your viewing time, set a quiet timer on your phone or try simply counting a number of breaths.
  1. Take your time. Be patient. Let your eyes wander. Try focusing on the details. Try not to have any expectations and try to forget anything you think you know about the artwork. Be open. Look at the texture, colour, shape, symbols, story and perspective.
  1. Trust your own authority and intuition. Pay attention to your first impressions. Don’t underestimate your knowledge of visual culture. Lean into why you were drawn to the work in the first place.
  1. Make connections. Your mind will try and make connections among elements of the work. These connections might be intended by the artist, or unique to you. It doesn’t matter; both are valid. See things from a fresh perspective. 
  1.  How do you feel? Pay attention to how your mind and body respond. This might be in a subtle way. Does the art help you feel calm, does it irritate you, excite you? Does it trigger any memories?
  1. Share your findings. How do you feel about this artwork now that you have studied it in detail? Try and summarize your thoughts. This could be in your head, with your friends, or on social media.
  1.  Look again. Try a different angle or straight away, after a coffee break, on a different day. How does it look in other conditions: on a rainy day, on a bad hair day, on your birthday?

Follow these tips to slow look at a piece of artwork laying around your home, in advance of Slow Art Day. Use this time to connect with art slowly and see what you discover. Practice with our tips and mark April 5 and 10 to join us in celebrating together virtually via social media.  

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