The Internet scares me.
Through it, I’ve reached and connected with a larger group of people like me, of artists working to improve their skills, than I could have ever thought possible.
I’ve learned a huge amount about art and approaches to practice that I would have struggled to learn otherwise.
But the Internet still scares me.
I’ve also wasted countless unproductive hours looking at stuff I just don’t need. Yes, I love funny cat pics too.
I’ve been sucked in to facebook, google plus and pinterest more times that I care to admit. I’ve used them to procrastinate and have taken way longer to get important stuff done because I was too busy looking at funny cat pics.
I love funny cat pics.
You clicked on that link, didn’t you?
Despite all that, it’s not so much the wasted time that scares me. It’s that the Internet is rewiring our brains. Research into brain plasticity shows that what we habitually do creates physical change in our brains. Collections of neurons become wired together in patterns that are strengthened by repetition.
We are what we habitually do, and what we habitually do, too often, is Facebook. YouTube. Pinterest.
As a species, we’re losing our ability to focus for any reasonable length of time. We’re losing our ability to be satisfied with our own thoughts, in quiet solitude.
We need input, constantly and endlessly refreshed, to keep our interest. Our brains are becoming desensitised, deadened.
Why you should care
You should care about this because as an artist, your ability to focus, to contemplate, to handle solitude, defines in large part how successful your output will be – and how much of it there will be. It defines how much and how quickly you’ll learn.
You should care because if you can’t focus, your art will suffer. And actually, so will your life.
My biggest worry is that I know from experience that our ability to see as an artist sees – to notice the quiet beauty around us and become captivated by it – requires a quiet mind and an ability to focus.
Our ability to draw depends to a large extent on how well, how completely we’ve seen. One of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned in my own art journey is that the ability to see isn’t a given. Seeing is a skill that needs to be honed and stretched, like any skill. The best way to hone that skill of seeing is slow, intense, closely observed drawing.
How to remember how to see
If you want to counterbalance the goldfish-like attention span that the Internet engenders, you’ll need to practise stretching your focus. Here’s a few things you could try.
- Meditation. The original focus exercise. I’ve recently signed up for Headspace and would recommend it based on my experience so far.
- Draw regularly. Drawing accuracy practice is great for this. Do only a small amount of it every day for two weeks, see if you can stretch your ability to focus. Bargue drawing is accuracy practice on steroids.
- Limit your online time – especially aimless browsing. Only do it after you’ve done your thing that matters that day.
- Pause. If you find the pull of the Internet and social media to strong, try this: Stand in front of the blank canvas for a while, and feel the resistance. Feel the urge to open facebook, check email. But don’t act on it. Wait for a little while, and let it die off, then start focusing on what you need to do. This was one of the most useful insights that Leo Babauta shared with us in our recent interview. It really works. I highly recommend you try it.
Practical steps for artists
Any kind of drawing will do. But here’s a few exercises designed purely to help you rebuild your ability to focus.
Practice breathing lines
This exercise is like heavy weightlifting for your focus muscles. It’s part meditation, part drawing. It’s been designed specifically to stretch your ability to relax and focus on your drawing. It’s a powerful right-brain activator too.
Try it. Feel how hard it is to settle into it at the beginning. It should be simple, but it isn’t!
Draw an Enso
The quiet and peace of mind required to draw an enso takes time and practice to acquire.
Do a charcoal value scale
That video is 10 minutes long, all I do in it is draw a value scale from dark to light. You can’t watch a video in which nothing really happens for ten minutes? I know the feeling. Here’s some cat pics instead, much more fun.
The interruption machine
Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows, calls the Internet an “interruption machine.”
What it interrupts is us attempting to live the life we’re capable of living, a life in which we give the world the best of ourselves, become the best of ourselves.
Through its repeated interruptions – that we gleefully collude in – it slowly but surely erodes our ability to focus. Without focus we’ll lose our ability to see.
You’re an artist. You can’t afford to let that happen to you.
Further reading material:
If any of the sentiments on this post resonate with you, you might want to check out the following books:
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