In praise of the squint

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Dear Artist,

Yesterday, while hanging out in my studio with some fellow travellers, we got worked up about squinting. We agreed it is one of the most important things we do. “Squinting demands a twice-weekly letter on its own,” someone said, pushing me into a corner and roughing me up a bit. While being beat upon, I was remembering how Richard Schmid dedicated an entire painting video to The Secret Squint. Being a believer, I’ll explain:

Orange Pansies oil painting 12 x 18 inches Richard Schmid

“Orange Pansies”
oil painting 12 x 18 inches
by Richard Schmid

Looking at work with half-closed eyes has several benefits — and there are several ways to do it. We have to agree that establishing an effective pattern — the overall compositional integrity of a design — is valuable. Simply put, squinting makes notes of weak areas. Squinting tells you what’s wrong and what’s bad. Squinting lets you know where darkness or lightness might be added. Even high-key equal-intensity work can be improved by squinting. Artists must know that compositions “form up” with patches of tone or colour. Interestingly, these needed patches can often use general rather than precise placement.

By squinting, the eye can be made to defocus, or, by further reforming the shape of the eyeball, bring subjects into sharper focus. Also, by drawing together the eyelids like an external iris diaphragm, you see the subject as more or less reduced to black and white. When work is viewed without the benefit of colour, decisions can be more readily made. It seems that in standard easel-working vision, you “can’t see the forest for the trees.” The squint becomes a quick and easy re-evaluation technique that simply gives the artist a second opinion.

Funnily, it’s not always easy to remember to do it. Like swizzling your brushes, squinting really needs to be built into your habit pattern. A plan is to make sure every work session has a dedicated squinting period. Consciously sit back and squint at the whole work and its particulate areas. Your brush will inevitably go where needed.

Another great ploy is the “multiple squint.” This is where several works are placed side by side on an easel and squinted as a group. It’s a remarkable experience, as weak works are contrasted by proximity to stronger ones. As well as benefiting from the mutual feed that one work gives to the other, the multiple squinter gets an overall understanding of stylistic direction.

Best regards,

Robert

PS: “Never knowingly leave anything wrong on your canvas.” (Richard Schmid)

Esoterica: If your work process takes you to middle tones first, and you habitually leave your darker darks and lighter lights till last, the calculated squint can guide your latter hand. An advantage of this system is the avoidance of the almost inevitable tightening up that occurs when works near completion. Squinting sees the big picture and keeps your work true to its higher ideals. As they left the studio, my friends dropped a few bouquets: “Tell them to learn to squint,” said one. “The world will never have enough squinters,” said another. Yet a third said, “Squinters of the world, arise; you have nothing to lose but your crap.”

 

Squint at the subject
by William Schneider, Crystal Lake, IL, USA

 

Robin mural painting on linen 16 x 20 inches by William Schneider

“Robin”
mural painting on linen 16 x 20 inches
by William Schneider

I went to the American Academy of Art in Chicago and was trained in the same tradition as Richard Schmid, Dan Gerhartz, Scott Burdick et al. We were always taught to squint at the subject (not necessarily at our work), and were told, a thousand times, “don’t paint anything you don’t see when you squint.” The goal was to simplify the subject. As you know, squinting enables the artist to see the value relationships and the edge relationships (which is the sharpest, where are they lost etc.) For color, I was taught to look at the subject with my eyes wide open. So I’m squinting almost every time I look at my subject; in fact I have to force myself to open my eyes to make the color judgments. Sometimes I catch myself squinting at my canvas and have to remind myself to open my eyes (otherwise I make the edges too hard.)

 

Differing ideas of ‘squint’
by Lori Simons, Merrimack, NH, USA

 

Clayton Beck Painting oil painting 16 x 20 inches Richard Schmid

“Clayton Beck Painting”
oil painting 16 x 20 inches
by Richard Schmid

Yes, it’s easy to forget to squint! I am a member of a small group of painters who work with Richard Schmid and Nancy Guzik on a regular basis. We are called the Putney Painters. Almost all the info that Richard shares with us is also in his book Alla Prima. However, I just can’t resist mentioning a couple of things here that I’ve heard him say often:

1. Squint down to see relative values and determine hard, soft and lost edges. But open your eyes to see color.

2. Squint at your subject, but not at your painting.

The second one has taken some practice on my part… I keep squinting at my painting… which doesn’t really tell me anything about how it’s coming along.

(RG note) Thanks, Lori. Richard Schmid’s words in Alla Prima are: “Never squint at your canvas! People do this all the time because it seems to eliminate mistakes by making everything in their picture look soft and ‘arty.’ It is the same device that Hollywood uses to film aging movie stars (using a soft focus lens to obscure wrinkles). They only kid themselves and so will you. So to repeat — squint at your subject, but open your eyes to look at your painting! Don’t get this backwards!”

It’s my finding that a lot of this approach has to do with the vision type of the individual artist—astigmatism—near sightedness, far sightedness, etc. I have to differ from Richard. In my case, squinting reduces the work in progress to black and white, finds weaknesses and propels the brush to correct—just as squinting at the subject itself simplifies areas, codifies design, and finds the bad spots. Richard is right, of course, in that the artist must constantly look at work with 20/20 vision and assess it for what it really is.

 

‘Kerning’ for profit
by Jean Wilson, Des Moines, IA, USA

 

I have my students print their work, hang it on the wall upside down and squint at it to determine whether the kerning is okay or not. They always look at me like I am nuts!

(RG note) Thanks, Jean. I assure you, you are not nuts. “Kerning” is a term that applies to proper letter spacing and goes back to the days of metal printing fonts. Kerning also applies to fine art. Elements in a work of art need a sensitive eye to see that they are spaced (or run together) in way that is desired by the artist. Printing out, mirroring and turning upside down are other deadly ways to discover and root out kerning infringements.

 

‘Squint and compare’
by Diane Burke, Durham, NC, USA

 

Upstream Light oil painting by Diane Burke

“Upstream Light”
oil painting by Diane Burke

I went to a workshop in Vero Beach Florida every January for a number of years until the unfortunate death of the instructor William Schultz. In every session, Bill would repeat, “Squint and compare, squint and compare.” He was a wonderful impressionist painter in both oils and pastel, especially with his portrait work. He, with other friends, started the American Impressionist Society which has since sponsored several juried shows across the US and has an increasing number of members. Many of us are charter members. I squint all the time and find it very helpful in deciding what to do next.

 

Squinting and photography
by Jolene Monheim, Great Falls, MT, USA

 

Katie original photograph by Jolene Monheim

“Katie”
original photograph
by Jolene Monheim

Squinting is a great tool for photography too. It helps with cropping choices, recognizing and developing underlying abstract designs and enhancing repetitive patterns. As does putting your image on its side, upside down, etc. and/or looking at it from across the room. Anything to help your brain stop filling in the ‘blind spot’ and be alert to question what it is really seeing. You can also use your digital camera as a squint tool. When painting outdoors I especially seem to have the worst time seeing value structure properly, so I’ll put my digital camera on BW mode and look at the LCD screen from half an arm’s length away. All this helps to sort out visual information and add to our toolbox to combat those nasty visual delusions.

 

The mirror resource
by Helen Zapata, Phoenix, AZ, USA

 

Hibiscus acrylic painting, en plein air 5 x 7 inches by Helen Zapata

“Hibiscus”
acrylic en plein air 5 x 7 inches
by Helen Zapata

The Squint is one of our most valuable tools, along with being probably the Cheapest! Stand back and Squint! I am also a dedicated mirror user. I often look at my painting in progress in reverse by the use of a mirror on the wall behind me. No painting goes out of my studio which has not been evaluated in reverse. Errors in value and composition will stand out where you didn’t see them before. When my painting is “finished,” I move it to the end of a long hallway. At the end of the hallway is another mirror. As I move around the house, I’m constantly seeing the painting from a distance, and in reverse! I cannot tell you how many times this habit has paid off with telling me exactly what my painting needs.

 

New art movement
by Dave Edwards, Blyth, Northumberland, England

 

Morpeth original painting by Dave Edwards

“Morpeth”
original painting by Dave Edwards

Squinting helps immensely. Often, when confronted with a scene, we can’t see the forest for the trees. We are inundated with details and want to draw all of them but the viewer can end up overwhelmed by superfluous detail if we do that. Squinting certainly gives an idea of what is important and what is not, especially with tonal values. Being a little obsessive, I often want to include everything I see. Incidentally, why don’t you patent Squintism? It could be the new art movement.

 

‘Eye candy’
by Adrian Deckbar, New Orleans, LA, USA

 

Against the Wall oil painting 32 x 48 inches by Adrian Deckbar

“Against the Wall”
oil painting 32 x 48 inches
by Adrian Deckbar

I teach at Tulane University as a Professor of Practice, often Introductory Painting and Drawing. I use the squinting technique all the time, in teaching and in my own work. However, I am in a dilemma. Mel Chin recently visited Tulane and lectured and gave a power point presentation and cracked jokes — the whole schtick. He suggested that realistic painting with no political message is “eye candy.” I am struggling with that notion. I hear his voice over my shoulder as I paint. Any advice?

Jilava Prison Bed Mel Chin, 1982

“Jilava Prison Bed”
Mel Chin, 1982

(RG note) Thanks, Adrian. All art is confectionary of a sort, even when it is political or when it is meant to shock. There is a place for all art but it is commonplace for conceptual, politically- or ecologically-motivated purists to debunk skill-driven realistic art.

 

 

 

 

Working from photographic reference
by Paul Austin, West Drayton, England

 

Portait of Queen Elizabeth II tempera painting Pietro Annigoni (1910-1988)

“Portait of Queen Elizabeth II”
tempera painting
by Pietro Annigoni (1910-1988)

On various occasions I have copied the great artists of our time, sometimes slavishly, sometimes generally. I have found each experience most satisfying — but above all, I have been working on my gift merely by putting pen/pencil to paper or brush to canvas. Each time I work is a pleasure and an experience — whether copying or working from life.

My particular ‘bent’ is for portraits and figures. It would be wonderful for me to draw a particular character I admire from various live sitting — but, strangely enough, the sports stars (Tiger Woods, Wayne Rooney) are not bashing down my door for me to paint them. So, what do I do? Not paint them? Exactly! I go ahead and crib from any photo or picture I can lay my hands on from which I might gain inspiration towards creating a likeness. Sinful me. Would Pietro Annigoni have created the ‘Garter’ portrait of HM Queen Elizabeth II if he had to do without any of the references he utilized? — photographs, pencil and ink drawings, oil sketches and sittings — of which in total I believe there were around 2000? It is simply important, as in the case of collecting antiques, etc, to start the process by listening to your ‘heart’ and identifying what you find as being an object or subject of beauty.

 

Graham paints
by Diana M Graham, West Linn, OR, USA

 

Regarding Ines Epperson’s letter, Friendly oils, our family firm M Graham and Co., makes oil color ground in walnut oil with a solvent free system of clean up, high-solids acrylic with a slightly longer open time, watercolor made with honey that does not dry hard on the palette and fine art gouache with no chalks or whiteners. In oil painting, there is nothing new about using walnut oil. It has been in use for five centuries. It gives greater freedom and control without the use of volatile solvents, is non-toxic and environmentally responsible. No harsh thinners or turpentines are required for cleanup, reducing harmful disposal and unnecessary pollution. We are a small company — 8 folks and the shop cat.

(RG note) Thanks, Diana. These folks are mighty green. Not only do they have the solvent-free system of oil painting but 100% of the electric power used at their shop is purchased through the renewable power option. They have purchased more efficient filling equipment and reduced energy consumption by 71%. Almost all of the machinery is reconditioned/recycled — one of the fillers was built in 1951. The acrylic resin is produced in a factory about 2 miles from the shop, the bee farm that makes the honey for watercolor and gouache is about 30 miles away — so even the bees are local. The walnut oil comes from neighboring California to cut down on transportation pollution. The factory waste water used for cleaning equipment is recycled and reused for 2 weeks before it is collected for EPA certified disposal. The paperboard box packaging is all made with post-consumer recycled paper waste as is the paper used for trifolds. The cadmium pigments are by-products of zinc manufacturing which are converted from a toxic heavy metal into a “biologically unavailable” pigment that can be disposed of in garbage as solid waste. Graham products are also available in Canada through selected outlets, and www.artpurveyors.com will export from the USA to anywhere in the world. Graham art materials are, of course, available through Dick Blick.

 

World of Art Featured artist Karla Bogard, Santa Cruz, CA, USA  

'Girl at the Beach by Karla Bogard, Santa Cruz, CA, USA

Girl at the Beach

oil painting by Karla Bogard, Santa Cruz, CA, USA

 

You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.

That includes Paol Serret of Australia who wrote, “I squint a lot, so much that I took a week off from painting for good reason, it hurt my back and my eyes.”

And also Rebecca Grantham who wrote, “Squinting came naturally and has been with me longer than I remember. I sometimes fear that wrinkles may come from my squinting.”

And also Apryl Anderson of France who wrote, “For my 40th birthday, rather than get eye correction surgery I took a week-long painting course with Jerry Fresia. While discussing the finer points of squinting, I realized I have been wearing glasses since I was 9 years old and had considered my poor eyesight a disadvantage. Such is the foolishness of trying to see clearly in this world! Now I paint without my glasses.”

And also Jacqui Douglas of Kunda Park, QLD, Australia who wrote, “Squinting is something that I have used over the last 30 years in all types of artwork. It is great for checking the tonal value in mosaics — never a worry what tone the grout should be.”

And also Enid Egan of New Westminster, BC, Canada who wrote, “I often use a piece of red cellophane to check my values.”

And also Rod Cox of Portsmouth, UK who wrote, “I don’t bother squinting. I just take off my spectacles. Trouble is that the painting in progress always looks much better that way!”

And also Toni Ciserella of Richfield, UT, USA who wrote, “After forty-seven years of perfect eyesight, I now have to wear reading glasses. I couldn’t find them when I received your letter, therefore I had to squint to read it. Squinting is a good thing. It not only works for studying artwork but, if you squint when someone is blabbing at you, it makes it seem as if you’re listening intently.”

And also Alfred Leslie of Inverness, Scotland who asked, “What is ‘swizzling your brushes’? We may have a different name for it in Scotland.” (RG note) Thanks, Alfred. Some painters on our side of the puddle habitually swizzle their brushes in water or turps when they are thinking or planning their next move. Below the equator they do it counter-clockwise. Others slap their brushes on their knee or other parts of the body — some so loudly they annoy the neighbors. Perhaps you have similar habits — or the same by another name — “McScrozzling?”

 

Archived Comments

Enjoy the past comments below for In praise of the squint

 

 

 

 

From: Mickie Acierno — May 09, 2007

As Kermit would say…”It’s not easy being green.” So kudo’s to M. Graham oils for not doing it the easy way!

From: Alan P Brown — May 09, 2007

I teach painting and the women in the classes tend to be averse to squinting because they are afraid of the wrinkles that will follow.

From: Dayle Ann Stratton — May 10, 2007

A bit busy, so missed the squint discussion. I chuckled because, having been slightly near-sighted all my life, I don’t have to squint. I set up my still-lifes just out of my “clarity range,” and landscapes and figures are always a bit misty-looking, just the way I like them. I often do portraits from ref photos, and have learned to also put them just outside my clarity range. I am so used to seeing the world this way, sometimes I forget to put my glasses on for driving.

From: Anon Omiss — Oct 28, 2009

Squinting is great, but… I started to defocus my eyes instead so that I didn’t have to scrunch up my face and I have developed that into a bad bad bad habit. So bad that 90 percent of the time I draw and look in a defocused state and I might be wrong but I believe this starts to influence your artistic taste as well. I’d warn anyone against that nasty habit real quick, especially for young students like myself.

From: Samantha Weetabix — Aug 27, 2010

Anyone who worries about getting wrinkles should not plan on living past 60. If the wrinkles are “happy,” they will greatly improve your later appearance, not to mention the quality of your life until then.

 

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