Smoke, mirrors and viewfinders


Dear Artist,

A demonstration video by subscriber David Jon Kassan shows him frequently looking through a small pair of binoculars at his subject. Working at some distance from his model, he’s making a head and shoulders portrait. By quickly eliminating the surroundings, he’s able to stick to the basic relationships without distraction. Also, the focus/defocus quality of binoculars is helpful.

Kassan finds the binoculars help him “to see the large masses and their edges more accurately.” He’s working on a way to get a plumb line etched onto the lens “for even greater accuracy.”

Particularly in painting, the persistent habit of seeing with new eyes can give work the winning edge. Painters who are too lazy to regularly stand back have been known to look through binoculars backwards. Rivalling the “Ministry of Silly Walks” there’s the option of bending over and looking back between your legs.

Small and large mirrors give quick info and don’t generally alarm the neighbours. Further, like the clichéd movie director’s hand-frame, no ancillary equipment is needed for the squint. Do it with both your subject and your work in progress. With the squint, tone values are more easily determined and one gets a better understanding of shape and design. A squint at your work tells your brush where to go. The squint can also be used for sizing up practically everything. That being said, the squint needs to be used with discretion on fellow passengers on buses and trains.

For field work, flip-down and stationary viewfinders are easily attached to baseball caps with the use of spring clips. Like a camera viewfinder, they forewarn of compositional faults. Some excellent commercial viewfinders have variable aspect-ratios. A homemade pair of L-shaped cards does the trick.

Another useful ploy is to imagine smoke. The smoke can be coloured, of course, like a glaze. Smoke helps to mystify and simplify complexities like a leafy tree or a busy floral frock. Softening edges and building auras is a smoke benefit. One needs to avoid the natural habit of looking around in subjects and sharpening things that might be better left out of focus. Smoke gets in your eyes.

Best regards,


PS: “The winner’s edge is not in a gifted birth, a high IQ, or in talent. The winner’s edge is all in the attitude.” (Denis Waitley)

Esoterica: New eyes and odd ways of looking at things invite new attitudes. The smoke and mirrors of a regularly changed attitude improves work. Competent advisors lurking silently within you are pleasantly invited in to consult. Try this one: Step out of your studio, turn around, come back in, suddenly look at your work as if you’ve never seen it before, and say “Oh, my goodness” or another, more colourful epithet. Catching your work as a surprised stranger is about as good a tool as any.



Use of blurred photos
by Theresa Bayer, Austin, TX, USA


“Bird Lady”
acrylic painting, 11 x 14 inches
by Theresa Bayer

I love the idea of the binoculars. I’m definitely going to try it out. I’ve been wanting to find a way to simplify masses to see the abstract shapes, and this sounds ideal. Lately I’ve been snapping my paintings in progress with a digital camera. Since I’m not too concerned with lighting, the shot comes out blurred, which is advantageous for viewing a work in progress. Reduced and blurred I can see what needs to be done with the composition. Seeing it reduced and blurred is also useful when painting a face, to ensure the features get lined up properly, especially the eyes. I also hold the camera up to the mirror and flip it for extra insights.


Flip for faults
by Nancy Bea Miller, Philadelphia, PA, USA


“Balloon love”
by Nancy Bea Miller

I have hit upon another “new eyes” technique that works so well it is almost scary. I fact, I am not always brave enough to use it! I take a digital photo of the piece, upload it to my desktop and put it into Photoshop. Then, reverse (flip) the image. Shock! Horror! All flaws suddenly screaming aloud and they can’t be winked away. That edge you were not sure about but thought might be okay: No! That color you applied with more hope than sense: Wrong! Although my “Flip it in Photoshop” technique seems similar to looking into a mirror it is not…it is much more intense. Try it and see. And, you can print out the reversed image, every flaw aflame, and bring it back to the studio with you as a tangible “to do” list. If you are brave enough!



Reducing glass
by Jack Dickerson, Brewster, MA, USA


“Two Tulips”
acrylic painting
by Jack Dickerson

Marcel Proust said, ‘The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.’ I have a 35-year-old reducing glass. It reduces an entire scene down to the size of a large postage stamp, and omits a large portion of the distracting stuff outside what we are painting. This small image enables us to see the entire scene all at once. It is physiologically impossible for our eyes to see the entire scene all at once without the glass because our eyes are forced to roam around the scene and look at the individual parts. Then we have to put the individual parts together in our brain. It is quite easy to see the relationships of the pieces (lights/darks, reflections, shadows, color changes, sharp/blurry line, etc.) when our eyes can process the entire image at once without roaming. Try it.


Mirrors black and clear
by Anne Shingleton, Tuscany, Italy


“The Dispute”
original painting
by Anne Shingleton

My studio is never without a large mirror mounted on an easel (so that it can be moved about), and a small handheld black mirror (which is actually a black shiny glass tile). The large mirror serves to give me a fresh view of my painting from a distance and in reverse. This way, in a small studio I can get distance from a large painting. The black mirror serves for observing tonal relationships since the colours are muted in its dark reflection. Whilst working in plein air, I find the black mirror is especially useful for helping me try and get the tones right, and I also carry a small ordinary mirror to compare the progress of my oil painting with the real thing.

There are 4 comments for Mirrors black and clear by Anne Shingleton

From: Anonymous — Nov 19, 2009

This is swell. I like the detail of the marking band. The light is lovely.

From: Ken Flitton — Nov 20, 2009

What a beautiful painting!!! Well done!

From: Win Dinn, Painted Turtle Gallery — Nov 20, 2009

How lovely – never has a dispute looked better!

From: Ron Elstad — Nov 20, 2009

Anne, instead of the black mirror you might want to try using a red jell framed in black matte board, it is a lot lighter and easier to handle. Then make a protective sleve for it with file folder material.


Balzac’s mirror
by Warren Criswell, Benton, AR, USA


“Interior with Crow”
oil painting, 40 x 30 inches
by Warren Criswell

I regularly use a mirror when painting. I have a large one at the opposite end of my studio from the easel. I find that I sort of become one with the painting and the mirror lets me break out of it and regain objectivity. I’ve talked to other painters who don’t know what I’m talking about, so I thought maybe I was the only one who used this trick, but I was reading Balzac’s story The Unknown Masterpiece the other day, in which Frenhofer picks up a mirror to check the finishing touches he has just put on a picture. So they were doing this back in Poussin’s day, at least according to Balzac.




New scenes beat old habits
by Eleanor Blair, Gainesville, FL, USA


“Flowers In A Glass Vase”
oil painting
by Eleanor Blair

One of the many useful things about painting when I travel is the challenge of new subject matter. The colors in New Mexico or Austria or Thailand are very different from what we get around here in Central Florida. When the trees are different, and there are mountains on the horizon, I can’t rely on old habits, and enjoy the sensation of not having a clue how to paint what’s before my eyes. Beginner’s Mind is thrust upon me, and as I struggle to find a way to translate unfamiliar subjects into paint, my visual vocabulary grows. Then when I’m home, I’ve got new ways to see and my familiar world is full of surprises.



Dim bulbs and ping pong balls
by Michael Aronoff, Saltspring Island, BC, Canada

I used to sit in my small studio with different coloured low-wattage light bulbs. I would turn on different music for mood and look at all my paintings under each light. It changes the tones, almost making them monochromatic. I got to see the balances of tones this way.

Ever try cutting a ping pong ball in half? Glue a Popsicle stick to the rim of each and paint the outside of each half one colour and the other, its complementary colour. Put them to your eyes and look into a light until your eyes see only a grey.

When you take the ping pong balls away each eye will see the opposite (complementary colour) of the colour you had on that eye. Look quickly at your painting before your eyes readjust. So what was the value of this exercise? A different way to see a familiar painting that gives insight as to the next step.


Right and left brain
by Robert Maniscalco, Charleston, SC, USA


“Dennis S. Siekierski”
original painting
by Robert Maniscalco

In the left brain the “idea” of likeness is fluid and ever changing and evolving. The challenge is making the shift from your left brain, where we name things and attach meaning — where shapes become symbols and take on poetic significance. It is where the ego and judgment reside as well. Great writers know how to navigate this difficult terrain. Contrary to what they say it’s a very creative place. The right brain, on the other hand, relishes in connecting shapes and lines and feeling subtle value changes and edges, etc. It abstracts and distills. It’s not nearly as romantic a place to be. It’s not actually creative, which may come as a shock to those who revere the functioning of the right brain. To me being in the right brain is a form of meditation, where hours feel like minutes. Both sides are essential in the creative process and are compatible. Artists must train themselves to move easily between them as both sides need to be developed in order to be a complete artist.

There is 1 comment for Right and left brain by Robert Maniscalco

From: Rick Rotante — Nov 23, 2009

Dennis – Terrific portrait. Very relaxed. Not stiff or “posed looking” like most portraits I see. Good job.


Handy viewfinder
by Jack Wahl


PROCOMPIII view finder

I use a viewfinder to help teach my students. It has a grid for transferring the image to canvas, 1 thru 9 values, three holes in the 3-5-7 value squares and is made in 1″ square increments to use as a measuring tool when gridding off your canvas. The device works so well that I actually manufacture and sell it.




Intuitive appreciation
by Rodney Black, Manchester,UK

As a collector of art I have often found a “feeling of rightness” about the work that I am looking at in galleries and sometimes buying. This may be all about the trouble artists go to get things right, and I appreciate that, but with me it is far more intuitive. I either like it or I don’t. I guess if the artist who knows what he or she is doing does those things you mention, and this website is full of the fine points and niceties of art making, then the rightness comes through to people like me.

There is 1 comment for Intuitive appreciation by Rodney Black

From: Anonymous — Nov 23, 2009

Rodney- This “feeling of rightness” you seek is in many a work, but it takes someone, like yourself, to take the time and develope some skill to look for and recognize it.




Blues Bayou

oil painting, 18 x 36 inches
by Jean Ives, BC, Canada


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 Des Howell of Australia, who wrote, “I do a lot of my portrait art work using photos. I’ve found that the Poster Edges filter in Photoshop is a good alternative to squinting.”

And also Cristina Monier of Argentina, who wrote, “The great Argentine painter who was my teacher for 8 years, Guillermo Roux, made us look at the model through a dark colored glass to reflect it on a dark mirror to appreciate the values without the distraction of the color.”

And also Jill Moore of Kingston, ON, Canada, who wrote, “Laurie Swim uses a front door peep hole which is a reverse magnifier to stand back and look at her large sized quilts. It’s totally portable and works well in a limited space.”



Archived Comments

Enjoy the past comments below for Smoke, mirrors and viewfinders



From: Dorenda Crager Watson — Nov 17, 2009

One exercise that I have often used with students is to get inexpensive, clear glasses and put petroleum jelly on the lenses. When they put them on, they can determine shape and color with ease, but cannot focus on detail, which is normally what a beginning student looks for. This also works well when working en plein air to aid in color choices and determine values. Another tool that I use in my studio is a small (door) “peep-hole” viewer…the kind often installed in apartment doors so that you make look out into a hallway. This inexpensive tool, available at hardware stores, allows the artist to view their work at a “distance” if you are in a small studio setting.

From: Dallyn Zundel — Nov 17, 2009
From: Pamela Simpson Lussier — Nov 17, 2009

Looking through red plastic is a great way to see values. It works really well outdoors especially with greens. The only color it doesn’t work with is red.

From: Rick Rotante — Nov 19, 2009

It’s interesting to note how there are devices to help an artist see things more clearly, to determine proper proportion or color. Many of these devices are certainly useful. I use a large mirror placed behind me with my studio work and a small hand mirror in the field. I’m beginning to find I need a small monocular device in workshops to get up close and person due to my eyes tiring as the hours wear on. Grids are an excellent way to move an image from paper to canvas. In principle, I’m not opposed to using whatever works, but I draw the line at relying on these devices exclusively or in place of old fashioned drawing skills, measuring with your pencil and your eye or using variables of shape from the source model. I see many using these devices not as aids but as regular tools. I see projectors being used more and more, photography in lieu of a live model.

There is much to be said with drawing or painting aids but I feel the results are “too perfect”. What is missing in art today for me are the slight mistakes or miscalculations, the imperfections, the wonderful mistakes that are visible in much great art museums created without aids. The looseness of a single painted stroke left untouched or unblended, the hand of the artist as it were. We are presently caught up in a revival of photo realism, or actualism and I feel we are losing our sense of artistry of creating spontaneously, freely with expression. Artists are now being made to make everything as it is and not an expression of what we see it is, of how we feel it is.

There is little soul in much work done today. True there is great technical skill, wonderful facility but little heart.

With less and less art being taught, fewer people know how to recognize it when they see it. Fewer still are creating it. Art today has to be spelled out in every detail, nothing left to an imagination dulled or silenced or ignorant of nuance

I say if artists take the time and effort required to learn their craft to create good work, and yes use tools when necessary, make art from the heart. Make art for yourself, for everyone and anyone. Make art for the future and stop making pictures. Put more of yourself in the work and worry less about perfection.

From: Ann Bennett — Nov 19, 2009

In my case I take off my glasses and all becomes soft edges.

From: Margaret Mair — Nov 19, 2009

I have been thinking that it is important, if you are to grow as an artist, to understand your own work. Time and again, when I meet, see or hear an artist who is passionate about their own work, who knows why they are creating, who chooses their methods and presentation with care, who works to perfect their own vision, then I too am drawn in to their work. Perhaps it is that they reach out to share, and their work includes, by intent, my – or your – participation in it, perhaps that is one of the essential differences between art and artists that succeed and those that do not find the wider recognition they seek.

What do you think?

From: Debbie Baer — Nov 19, 2009

When I began painting again six years ago my husband and I were newlyweds. He is a non-artist and walked into the studio one day to find me standing in front of the mirror holding up my work in progress and staring at it. He asked me why I was doing that and of course I had to explain that this was not a vanity driven exercise. I simply had to see with a new set of eyes. I also will turn my reference and canvas upside down while working to get a new view. My husband was intrigued by these methods initially but has long since gotten used to my squinting, mirror peering, canvas flipping activities.

From: L Z Francke — Nov 19, 2009

I find taking a digital picture and mounting it on my computer allows me to reexamine the painting in progress.

One can then flip it – add contrast and other effects to see what the painting still needs.

Most of my intricate compositions are composed in the computer.

From: Susan Vaughn — Nov 19, 2009

David Kassan’s binoculars caught me off guard. I’ll be daggone, is that ever a good idea! My family and friends may think I’m nuts when I start using them, but I don’t care. I’m grabbin’ my binoculars with gusto now. Oh, and I promise not to squint on planes, trains, or in automobiles. Especially in automobiles – that could be a real killer. As for bending over and looking between my legs? I don’t think I’m ready for that yet. I might lose my balance and hit my head.

From: Carole Gentile — Nov 19, 2009

Very interesting, Robert — a new angle! I sometimes work from photographs that family members have taken, then give them as gifts to the photographer.

The camera puts everything into focus, so one has to work harder on the perspective.

From: Peter Denby — Nov 19, 2009

So much of it is but an illusion, and these are the tools to create the illusion. Thank you

From: Sylvia Tucker — Nov 22, 2009

I’ve heard that Klimpt painted his landscapes across the lake using binoculars (or was it a telescope…) and that is how he attained the wonderful flatness in his works.

From: Glenn Secrest — Nov 23, 2009

While attending Scott Christensen’s workshop a couple of years ago, we students were having some difficulty determining the colors and values in the Grand Teton Valley. Most difficult were the colors/values of the foothills in the middle ground.

Scott showed us a little trick, I think he called it the “Teton Bendover.” We all bent over from the waist either to the right or left and looked at the subject sideways. And “Voila!”, we could much more easily discern the subtle hues and values that existed in the foothills. Why? I have no idea, but I often use the Teton Bendover when I’m painting en plein air.



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