the importance of paying attention

I am learning to paint. In oils.

It is such a huge departure from my usual practice that there are days when I am amazed by the sheer audacity of applying paint to canvas and calling it work. The audacity of creating art that has nothing to do (yet) with cleaning beaches, or ocean pollution.  The audacity of creating an image for no reason other than the desire to do so, and the even greater hope that someone else will want to look at it.


There are also days when I literally want to weep from frustration. Because I can’t make the paint do what I want it to do. because I can’t see what my painting instructor tells me is there. Because I want to be able to do it now, and my way, without having to go through the exercises that will allow me to learn what he is trying to teach me.

He must be a patient man, this Jeremy Herndl. (You can see his paintings here: I like his teaching style. Most of all I like that he says painting is about paying attention. It is about looking at a thing, or a view, or a person and seeing what is really there. Of taking the time necessary to be able to really get to know something. And then doing the work of making the paint express that thing, so that anyone looking at the painting can see the tree-ness of the tree or the stone-ness of the stone; can see – and believe – the colours that exist in a white egg. (Not quite there, yet!)


I thought I knew all about paying attention. After all, my work takes me to the beach, where the sea literally forces me to pay attention to it. To the roar of waves of a windy day, the tinkling of rolling pebbles when the sea is calm. To the crunching of rock and sand beneath my feet and the smell of seaweed. To the tears the wind pushes from my eyes and the taste of salt spray on my lips. To the tide coming in and the tide going out, and the cries of gulls wheeling overhead. To the blue-green-grey-white-black of the angry-lazy-full-dancing-raging sea on different days. And each time it is a new sea demanding my attention.


And isn’t cleaning beaches all about paying attention? Paying attention to the stuff we’d all rather not think about? Getting down on my hands and knees sometimes, to pick out the teeny-tiny pieces of plastic, or polystyrene, that I would prefer to ignore?


And there’s the rub – paying attention takes effort. Perhaps you will need to get down on your hands and knees. Perhaps you will have to stare at an egg for half an hour trying to figure out what it is you are actually seeing. Perhaps you will have to shut up and let someone else guide you. You may not succeed. You might end up noticing things you’d rather not. And once your understanding of the world has been expanded, you can never go back. Paying attention is a Pandora’s Box, and there’s no knowing what will come out when you open the lid. It is an audacious way to live.

But you can be sure that your life will be richer for it. Noticing a piece of netting washed up onto my favourite beach a few years ago, and paying attention to it, set the course for my practice and quite literally changed my life. I have always loved feasting my eyes on the world around me but now, thanks to a couple of months of painting classes, the world I live in has become even richer than before. Looking – even watching telly – has become a feast of shades and hues, of highlights and shadows. So just as I now can’t walk along a beach without seeing the debris scattered along it, I can now see colours where before I just saw light and dark. When it comes to paying attention, I suspect that I still have a lot to learn.



6 thoughts on “the importance of paying attention

  1. Good post! I read it this morning…and found myself on a beach this afternoon. Wasn’t planned! And I found myself walking along the surf with a carrier bag…as usual! I came across those damn bits of polystyrene you speak of!..and because I had read your piece this morning, although I was annoyed, it wasn’t quite so bad to pick them up…Thanks!

  2. Hi Clare! Thanks so much for dropping into my blog and deciding to follow. I have repaid the compliment. I particularly like this post because my practice is all about noticing. It takes practice but is so worth the effort. Wish you well in your painting endeavors. Love the portrait. Caro

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