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Ways to improve concentration

Have you ever got frustrated by your ability to stay focused when you’re painting?

I know that for those of you who like to paint in a detailed way, this can often be an issue. To paint like this requires intense looking – and that requires concentration.

I’m often asked how it is that I am able to concentrate for such extended periods of time – and I never really had an answer for that.

But I do walk my dog, Dexter, out in nature every single day.

And before reading this research I’d never really linked those two activities.

I’ve just discovered a theory known as ‘ART’, standing for Attention Restoration Theory. It was developed by Stephen Kaplan of the University of Michigan in the 1990s. The theory holds that we have two types of attention: involuntary and voluntary. Involuntary attention is effortless, relaxed and non-directed – the sort you’re using when you’re walking in nature.  Whereas voluntary (or directed) attention is the sort you use when you’re concentrating.

Voluntary attention is tiring, and it’s exactly the sort of attention required for really and truly looking at a subject in the kind of intense detail we do.

Naturally when we’ve concentrated for a long time we need to take a break – and I advocate taking regular breaks from painting to refresh your ability to ‘see’.  We also need to sleep regularly and for sufficient lengths of time. But what this research shows is that being in a state of involuntary attention is highly effective at restoring our voluntary attention. And the best way to be in a state of involuntary attention is to  get out into nature.

This makes A LOT of sense to me.

I knew my daily dog walk was great exercise, and that exercise has loads of positive benefits, including for our ability to concentrate.  But when I lived for a year with my dog in a town in 2012, my walks, though just as long, never felt as restorative and my ability to concentrate suffered.  I really missed the countryside and moved back to live in it as soon as I could.

This is a watercolour I did (deliberately it’s is in a different style to my usual work) of me and Dexter walking in the Surrey Hills by my home. Can you spot us? (click on it to see a bigger version)

WalkingDexterAnnaMason

After being in nature, I feel calmer, more peaceful and and, especially on sunny days, hugely inspired. And I can’t really imagine trying to paint until I’ve had this time soaking up nature.

So if you’d like to give your concentration a boost, try taking a regular stroll in nature.  Better still, get a dog! That way you’ll be forced to get out in nature (even if it’s just the local park) every day. Spending time gardening or being in your garden can also do the job, and I know it’s something lots of us enjoy.

But what if you live in a garden-less home in the city, or your mobility is really poor? Other ways that have been shown to improve concentration are to reduce your exposure to TV and to social media. As this article by Eric Jaffe details, both of these are designed to suck your voluntary attention in, depleting it further. I’m sure we can all relate to what too much TV feels like!

I would love to hear about your experience with nature (or even TV) and your ability to focus on your painting. Please share your story in the comments below!

AnnaKiss

35 Comments
  1. Claire howard 4 years ago

    Hi Anna,I couldn’t agree more with your article,I live in a remote farmhouse on the Leicestershire/Rutland border.I walk my dogs in the fields around our house and when not walking I will be riding the horse.Both give me great opportunities to observe nature and the changing seasons.These forms of exercise are hugely beneficial to me,they certainly help with my concentration allowing me to sit and work on my botanical paintings and often leaving my picture for a while and then returning I can resolve most issues with a fresh approach.

  2. Claire howard 4 years ago

    Hi Anna,I couldn’t agree more with your article,I live in a remote farmhouse on the Leicestershire/Rutland border.I walk my dogs in the fields around our house and when not walking I will be riding the horse.Both give me great opportunities to observe nature and the changing seasons.These forms of exercise are hugely beneficial to me,they certainly help with my concentration allowing me to sit and work on my botanical paintings and often leaving my picture for a while and then returning I can resolve most issues with a fresh approach.

  3. Diane Taylor 4 years ago

    Hi Anna’
    Thank you once again for popping inspiration into my inbox.
    I looked and I found you and Dexter. I think it could be the start of a children’s book. Did you have this in mind when you made that wonderful illustration? It reminds me of the Ladybird books from my childhood with a bit of Wheres Wally thrown in. Or maybe Find Spot would be more appropriate.
    I agree with your ethos about dog walking.
    Sadly our dog Ed passed away on the 1st October. We enjoyed his company on many of our daily walks for almost 19 years. He had a good life. We plan to get another walking companion to join us in the near future. Meanwhile enjoy Dexter and your walks.
    Kind Regards
    Diane Taylor

    • Anna Mason 4 years ago

      Sorry to hear about Ed, Diane. I hope you find a new furry friend soon. I didn’t really have anything in mind with the painting – other than I wanted to paint it! I do get inspired by the landscapes around my home too, and sometimes I just have to paint them – with a bit of quirkiness!

  4. Diane Taylor 4 years ago

    Hi Anna’
    Thank you once again for popping inspiration into my inbox.
    I looked and I found you and Dexter. I think it could be the start of a children’s book. Did you have this in mind when you made that wonderful illustration? It reminds me of the Ladybird books from my childhood with a bit of Wheres Wally thrown in. Or maybe Find Spot would be more appropriate.
    I agree with your ethos about dog walking.
    Sadly our dog Ed passed away on the 1st October. We enjoyed his company on many of our daily walks for almost 19 years. He had a good life. We plan to get another walking companion to join us in the near future. Meanwhile enjoy Dexter and your walks.
    Kind Regards
    Diane Taylor

    • Anna Mason 4 years ago

      Sorry to hear about Ed, Diane. I hope you find a new furry friend soon. I didn’t really have anything in mind with the painting – other than I wanted to paint it! I do get inspired by the landscapes around my home too, and sometimes I just have to paint them – with a bit of quirkiness!

  5. Karen Lewis 4 years ago

    Thanks for the article on A.R.T. I know that going for a walk each day is certainly beneficial but had no idea where you walk makes such a difference. My son is currently experiencing a lot of stress as he approaches the final months of research for a PhD. I had suggested getting out of the office for a short walk would do him good, before reading your article, but I shall direct him to the research you mentioned so he can see for himself that mum’s idea was a good one for various reasons. Who knows, it could
    make a huge difference.
    Kind Regards, Karen Lewis

    • Anna Mason 4 years ago

      Thanks Karen, I hope the theory persuades your son to get out and take those breaks! 🙂

  6. Karen Lewis 4 years ago

    Thanks for the article on A.R.T. I know that going for a walk each day is certainly beneficial but had no idea where you walk makes such a difference. My son is currently experiencing a lot of stress as he approaches the final months of research for a PhD. I had suggested getting out of the office for a short walk would do him good, before reading your article, but I shall direct him to the research you mentioned so he can see for himself that mum’s idea was a good one for various reasons. Who knows, it could
    make a huge difference.
    Kind Regards, Karen Lewis

    • Anna Mason 4 years ago

      Thanks Karen, I hope the theory persuades your son to get out and take those breaks! 🙂

  7. We have just come through a rainy, dreary bit ~ though I live in the country, there was not much going outside and certainly no sunshine coming in. Yesterday, shafts of sunlight filled my room so I opened all the windows and painted near my opened french doors with my favorite music blasting. Your article informed and reminded me that I need to prepare for the upcoming season that does not offer the beautiful colors of Fall, nor the flowers of Spring. Though I am one who cannot “walk” on my ranch, my husband is always bringing the garden to me or taking photos of wildflowers and fruits of southwest Missouri. It is my hope that you or some of my classmates have ideas to enhance our winter focus.

  8. We have just come through a rainy, dreary bit ~ though I live in the country, there was not much going outside and certainly no sunshine coming in. Yesterday, shafts of sunlight filled my room so I opened all the windows and painted near my opened french doors with my favorite music blasting. Your article informed and reminded me that I need to prepare for the upcoming season that does not offer the beautiful colors of Fall, nor the flowers of Spring. Though I am one who cannot “walk” on my ranch, my husband is always bringing the garden to me or taking photos of wildflowers and fruits of southwest Missouri. It is my hope that you or some of my classmates have ideas to enhance our winter focus.

  9. Christine Bauer 4 years ago

    Anna, your comments make SO much sense to me! I am currently living on the edge of Ft Collins in Colorado, just in the country enough to be on dirt roads and have a lake nearby close to the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. The days that I put my little boy in the stroller and head down there are my happiest. I am always taking pictures of what I might paint in the future, so I have loads of choices when I finish my current project, but I can never get enough of it. 🙂 Now I know why! I have only been painting for a couple years and was trying to learn how to work with watercolors through You Tube tutorials. I am SO glad someone pinned one of your videos to Pinterest, where I found you about a month ago. Your method makes so much sense to me and your pdf about “Blocks” was hugely helpful! I hope to be painting the pear next week! Thanks so much for sharing what you have learned!

    • Anna Mason 4 years ago

      Great to hear from you Christine! Your location near the mountains sounds fab. Best of luck with your painting. I hope i can help you find it really enjoyable!

  10. Christine Bauer 4 years ago

    Anna, your comments make SO much sense to me! I am currently living on the edge of Ft Collins in Colorado, just in the country enough to be on dirt roads and have a lake nearby close to the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. The days that I put my little boy in the stroller and head down there are my happiest. I am always taking pictures of what I might paint in the future, so I have loads of choices when I finish my current project, but I can never get enough of it. 🙂 Now I know why! I have only been painting for a couple years and was trying to learn how to work with watercolors through You Tube tutorials. I am SO glad someone pinned one of your videos to Pinterest, where I found you about a month ago. Your method makes so much sense to me and your pdf about “Blocks” was hugely helpful! I hope to be painting the pear next week! Thanks so much for sharing what you have learned!

    • Anna Mason 4 years ago

      Great to hear from you Christine! Your location near the mountains sounds fab. Best of luck with your painting. I hope i can help you find it really enjoyable!

  11. Fabrício Almeida 4 years ago

    I’ve discovered that I got a better concentration on listening classical music for studies during my painting times. It really keeps my attention focused in shadows, traces, while I’m filling spaces in the draws with watercolors. I have a dog too, Pandora, she keeps me happy and walking with her refresh my feelings to study and paint more! P.S.: I really appreciate your work Ms. Anna Mason, congratulations!!

    • Anna Mason 4 years ago

      Thanks Fabrico! I have little bouts of listening to classical music and have found it really great to paint to. I will try it again tomorrow. Pandora sounds lovely too 🙂

  12. Fabrício Almeida 4 years ago

    I’ve discovered that I got a better concentration on listening classical music for studies during my painting times. It really keeps my attention focused in shadows, traces, while I’m filling spaces in the draws with watercolors. I have a dog too, Pandora, she keeps me happy and walking with her refresh my feelings to study and paint more! P.S.: I really appreciate your work Ms. Anna Mason, congratulations!!

    • Anna Mason 4 years ago

      Thanks Fabrico! I have little bouts of listening to classical music and have found it really great to paint to. I will try it again tomorrow. Pandora sounds lovely too 🙂

  13. Carole 4 years ago

    Hi Anna … could not agree with you more. Our dog goes with me everywhere and so enjoys long walks and swims. He is a great one to get me back on track. I also kayak which has been a boon to getting close to nature and seeing everything out there. Thanks for your inspirational writings. Have been busy with painting and drawing and trying different techniques. Will probably join your school again in the near future. Love the illustration of you and your pooch. Take care.

    • Anna Mason 4 years ago

      Kayaking Carole! I haven’t been in years but I LOVED it before. I must go again soon, thanks for the reminder 🙂

  14. Carole 4 years ago

    Hi Anna … could not agree with you more. Our dog goes with me everywhere and so enjoys long walks and swims. He is a great one to get me back on track. I also kayak which has been a boon to getting close to nature and seeing everything out there. Thanks for your inspirational writings. Have been busy with painting and drawing and trying different techniques. Will probably join your school again in the near future. Love the illustration of you and your pooch. Take care.

    • Anna Mason 4 years ago

      Kayaking Carole! I haven’t been in years but I LOVED it before. I must go again soon, thanks for the reminder 🙂

  15. Pat Barringer 4 years ago

    I ride my old pony Copper, and we potter round the village and from his back I have a great view of all the gardens and the amazing flowers. The country side around me is also stunning, his field is at the highest point in Bedfordshire and the views are just breath taking. I find being around animals so relaxing.

  16. Pat Barringer 4 years ago

    I ride my old pony Copper, and we potter round the village and from his back I have a great view of all the gardens and the amazing flowers. The country side around me is also stunning, his field is at the highest point in Bedfordshire and the views are just breath taking. I find being around animals so relaxing.

  17. Christine Haywood 4 years ago

    Hi Anna – you have again put into words what was in my subconcious. Whenever I take my two Cocker Spaniels for a walk down our country lane on my own (without human company that is) I come back absolutely brimming with painting ideas. Lawn mowing on a sunny day often has the same effect on me! Thanks for crystalizing this for me – I can now use it.

  18. Christine Haywood 4 years ago

    Hi Anna – you have again put into words what was in my subconcious. Whenever I take my two Cocker Spaniels for a walk down our country lane on my own (without human company that is) I come back absolutely brimming with painting ideas. Lawn mowing on a sunny day often has the same effect on me! Thanks for crystalizing this for me – I can now use it.

  19. Charles Bednarik 4 years ago

    Anna
    The painting is very reflective of the thoughts about “refreshing” one’s perspective. Your walk gives you two fold the opportunity to recharge: beautiful setting and your dog. Each time we walk this a neighbor’s dog that requires us to stop and engage it thus a wonderful interaction. Your painting is that wonderful interaction with your environment giving you much of a visual and sensory charge. The other aspects is just the act of walking does one a world of good: keep in good health!

  20. Charles Bednarik 4 years ago

    Anna
    The painting is very reflective of the thoughts about “refreshing” one’s perspective. Your walk gives you two fold the opportunity to recharge: beautiful setting and your dog. Each time we walk this a neighbor’s dog that requires us to stop and engage it thus a wonderful interaction. Your painting is that wonderful interaction with your environment giving you much of a visual and sensory charge. The other aspects is just the act of walking does one a world of good: keep in good health!

  21. Rita L. 4 years ago

    Hi Anna.. your drawing is beautiful (as always) and I must tell you how it reminded me of the pictures in “The country diary of an Edwardian lady”. I remember finding that book a copy of course, years ago in a library in my native South-Africa and really loving those quaint old fashioned drawings. And by some coincidence I found that book on E-bay yesterday and boutght it and this morning I see your drawing. Synchronicity 🙂

  22. Rita L. 4 years ago

    Hi Anna.. your drawing is beautiful (as always) and I must tell you how it reminded me of the pictures in “The country diary of an Edwardian lady”. I remember finding that book a copy of course, years ago in a library in my native South-Africa and really loving those quaint old fashioned drawings. And by some coincidence I found that book on E-bay yesterday and boutght it and this morning I see your drawing. Synchronicity 🙂

  23. Gilberto Rivelino 4 years ago

    Nice article Anna; i also hike with my dog as much as i can 🙂 , but sometimes i use aromatherapy with incense or some classical slow music when im painting.
    I think is more about a process of knowing yourself a lot!, to identify what things work better for you, not just for concentration or relaxing issues, but also for study or develop a creative process that seems to flow alone without effort when you find the exactly formula for you.
    Thanks for sharing! 🙂
    Regards from Mexico!

  24. Gilberto Rivelino 4 years ago

    Nice article Anna; i also hike with my dog as much as i can 🙂 , but sometimes i use aromatherapy with incense or some classical slow music when im painting.
    I think is more about a process of knowing yourself a lot!, to identify what things work better for you, not just for concentration or relaxing issues, but also for study or develop a creative process that seems to flow alone without effort when you find the exactly formula for you.
    Thanks for sharing! 🙂
    Regards from Mexico!

  25. Learner 10 months ago

    How I relate to all you said, Anna! Love being in nature! When I’m too busy, my whole being is ‘asking’ for a walk to some place with lots of greens. I admire the beautiful creation, and I think it is God’s gift to us. I agree with the voluntary/involuntary theory. Thank you for such a useful post. Your beautiful landscape painting is inviting me to get in touch with nature. I’ll be back to paint with you. This is a great School!

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