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The National Portrait Gallery acknowledges the Traditional Custodians of Country throughout Australia and recognises the continuing connection to lands, waters and communities. We pay our respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and to Elders both past and present.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers are warned that this website contains images of deceased persons.

Now and Shen

Practising slow looking

The Amazing Face, lesson 8

Today we will LOOK at the portrait of Wan Lan, Xini, Shen Jiawei and Billy by Greg Weight; THINK about slow looking; READ an article by Penny Grist; DO a couple of activities and finish with a quiz.

Getting to know someone means spending some time with them; similarly, getting to know a portrait requires time. Studies have found that visitors to art galleries spend an average of eight seconds looking at each work on display. But what happens when we spend five minutes, fifteen minutes, an hour or an afternoon really looking in detail at a work of art? Today we will apply slow looking principles to our investigation of portraiture. Slow looking is not about curators, historians or even artists telling you how you should look at art. It's about you and the portrait, allowing yourself time to make your own discoveries and form a more personal connection with it, so try looking without reading the label. Remember, in the case of portraiture, it's not rude to stare at someone’s face!

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Read

As writer Jeanette Winterson noted: ‘Art takes time. To spend an hour looking at a painting is difficult. The public gallery experience is one that encourages art at a trot … Supposing we made a pact with a painting and agreed to sit down and look at it, on our own, with no distractions.’

Read the Portrait article The long game by Penny Grist.

Solo Activity

Slow looking is like slow cooking – except it’s a scrumptious, nourishing experience for the mind, rather than the belly. We will use the portrait above of Wan Lan, Xini, Shen Jiawei and Billy by Greg Weight, but slow looking can be applied to any picture, so you may choose to use another picture you have at home.

Ingredients:

  • Time: (1 minute to 7 hours)
  • Art: Wan Lan, Xini, Shen Jiawei and Billy, 2010 by Greg Weight
  • Curiosity: (a heaped tablespoon)

Method:

  1. Open the portrait up on your screen, so that you can look at it without distraction.
  2. Look at it … breathe deeply … and keep looking!
  3. Zoom in to take a closer look.
  4. Consider the person/people in the portrait: where are they looking? What are they thinking?
  5. Now sautée your notions! What are you thinking about; what emotions arise?
  6. Whisk into soft peaks of wild speculation.
  7. Bring imaginings to the boil, then allow to simmer and percolate.

Connected activity

Slow looking at art allows us to notice things we may not see in an initial glance. Apply these principles to a game of Guess Who and impress your friends. 

  1. Ring a friend and both of you go to portrait.gov.au/portraits/
  2. Now play a game of ‘Guess Who’ with our collection highlights page (24 portraits). One of you asks closed questions. The other gives a yes or no answer. 
  3. If you get a yes you get to ask another question. 
  4. Keep a tally of how many portraits each of you correctly identify.
  5. If you want another game, use the filters to limit to a set of about 20 portraits, and go again!

Quiz

Where is the portrait of Wan Lan, Xini, Shen Jiawei and Billy by Greg Weight set?

This photograph by Greg Weight is best described as what kind of portrait?

List the ingredients of slow looking.

Other resources

If you have enjoyed slow looking, learn about more opportunities available around the world on Slow Art Day.

Next lesson

9. Strike a chord: Expression and mood

Related information

Eye to eye

Previous exhibition, 2019

Eye to Eye is a summer Portrait Gallery Collection remix arranged by degree of eye contact – from turned away with eyes closed all the way through to right-back-at-you – as we explore artists’ and subjects’ choices around the direction of the gaze.

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The National Portrait Gallery building front entrance
The National Portrait Gallery building front entrance
The National Portrait Gallery building front entrance

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The National Portrait Gallery acknowledges the Traditional Custodians of Country throughout Australia and recognises the continuing connection to lands, waters and communities. We pay our respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and to Elders both past and present.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers are warned that this website contains images of deceased persons.

The National Portrait Gallery is an Australian Government Agency