Every Minute Counts: Building Visual and Tactile Expertise

In my last blog post, I discussed the reasons for me to look at the original artworks when quality digitized versions are available. This post is a further thought on the challenges I have encountered during studying the originals.


In the afternoon of the 29th and on the day of the 30th November, I got to study the flower book of Eberhard Anckelmann (Fig. 1) at the British Museum in London.[1] The album was painted by German painter Hans Simon Holtzbecker (1620/30–1671) and commissioned by the wealthy seventeenth-century merchant, Eberhard Anckelmann (1599­–1664), who owned a garden in Hamburg.[2] This relatively small flower book measures around 20.5 x 28.8 x 5 cm; it contains 74 painted leaves, including one coat of arms, one frontispiece, and 72 leaves of flowers.

Fig. 1. Hans Simon Holtzbecker, leaf from the flower book of Eberhard Anckelmann, 1660, watercolor (gouache) on parchment, © Trustees of the British Museum, London.

Working within the opening hours of the museum study room, I had a total of 6.5 hours over the one-and-a-half day to consult the flower book and record my observations and findings. Divided by 74, I had only five minutes, at most, to examine each painted leaf in the album. This has been the pace for my research, with five minutes on the longer end of the time allotted for a leaf.


“The power of patience”

Recalling an essay I read a few years ago, Jennifer L. Roberts explained why she asked her students to spend three hours looking at a painting (the original artwork instead of a reproduced image) before starting any research in books or online for an assignment.[3] In her own experience of looking at the painting Boy with a Squirrel (see image) by John Singleton Copley (1738–­1815), this ostensibly excessive timespan without preoccupied interpretation gave her a chance to notice details in the composition that otherwise escaped her attention when only glancing at the painting:

It took a good 45 minutes before I realized that the seemingly random folds and wrinkles in the background curtain are actually perfect copies of the shapes of the boy’s ear and eye, as if Copley had imagined those sensory organs distributing or imprinting themselves on the surface behind him. And so on.[4]

I think that most art historians—myself included—would vouch for this “power of patience,” as Roberts has demonstrated, or for the similar concept of “slow looking.” Many findings, often crucial ones, can indeed come from this type of immersive experience.


When there is not enough time to be patient

Like Roberts’ assignment, during this first stage of my research, and before delving too deeply into literature, I am simply looking at the original artworks to see what they have to show. However, I regularly find myself racing against time, trying to skim through as many albums within the shortest time possible when on research trips. The albums I study often include between 50 to close to 500 leaves per collection. If I spend three hours, or even 30 minutes, to look at one painted leaf, I will have no time to to do anything else for the next four years.

But, can I really get anything useful within shorter than five minutes for each leaf? A handful of albums are particularly fragile, and I might not get permission to return to them for another examination. Am I squandering my chance to work with these albums by not spending longer time with the painted leaves?

Alternatively, I can select a few leaves and study only those for a more extended period of time. Nonetheless, as indicated in their numbers of images, quantity is equally important as quality for early modern flower books. Take the Anckelmann flower book, for example; there are many species of garden flowers represented throughout the 72 leaves. Moreover, the fact that one beautifully painted tulip was not enough, but 12 were included, speaks for the importance of number in this album. Thus, examining only a few selected images would be loosing the big picture of the entire collection.


The power of accumulation

If the boundary of Copley’s painting is within the picture plane of the canvas, the boundary of the Anckelmann flower book would be within the bound album. The five minutes I had to look at every leaf in the album is accumulative. With every turning page, I build on the observations I have made from the previous images to identify the similar or different characteristics of the current leaf I was studying.

In the five minutes I had with Fig. 1, I noted that there are some speckles throughout the green leaves that are caused by some green pigments flaking off the parchment. The dark brown and dark green are more reflective under light than other colors. The colors are rich and vibrant, despite the plants consist of a limited palette with mostly cool colors. The pink on the orchid on the right-hand side has degraded, turning part of the petals into a pinkish-brown.

What I could get out of the five minutes is limited, but after tens to hundreds of five minutes, I started to notice patterns and tendencies—like how a certain shade of blue green tend to flake off more than other greens. This recognition of certain material properties and qualities is not only visual, but also tactile. For instance, when turning a leaf, I would immediately notice if a parchment is thicker or thinner than the average ones in the album; or if a parchment was prepared with a coarser or smoother layer of white paint.


Returning to the power of patience

Of course, the power of accumulation is nothing of a revelation. It is perhaps one of the oldest tips when it comes to learning something new. Yet, this experience has led me to rethink the value of speed and quantity in an art historical research. Naturally, the power of accumulation alone cannot ensure quality research. The five minutes I had to get acquainted with each leaf in the Anckelmann flower book was a start, but I will need to return to the images, albeit digitized ones, to take a much longer and harder look for visual analysis. The power of patience is still critical, but not necessarily at the initial stage of looking at the originals for my project.


[1] For more images, visit https://www.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/collection_object_details.aspx?objectId=1399648&partId=1&searchText=holtzbecker&page=1.

[2] Eva de la Fuente Pedersen and Hanne Kolind Poulsen, Flowers and World Views (Copenhagen: Statens Museum for Kunst, 2013), 109–110; Magdalena Bushart, Catalina Heroven, Michael Roth, and Martin Sonnabend, eds, Maria Sibylla Merian und die Tradition des Blumenbildes von der Renaissance bis zur Romantic (Frankfurt am Main and Munich: Staatliche Museen zu Berlin – Preußische Kulturbesitz, Städel Museum / Hirmer Verlag GmbH, 2017), 117–125.

[3] Jennifer L. Roberts, “The Power of Patience: Teaching students the value of deceleration and immersive attention,” Harvard Magazine, November–December 2013, 40–43. I consulted a printed copy, but there is also a digital version online, see https://www.harvardmagazine.com/2013/11/the-power-of-patience.

[4] Roberts, 42.

Leave a Reply