Every artist has two invaluable tools in their creative arsenal. The first is the mind, a realm teeming with imagination and possibility, shaping our creativity’s vital fabric. Our priority should be to keep this cognitive machinery in tip-top condition.
The second tool, peculiar to us painters, is squinting. This might sound like bizarre advice, but don’t furrow your brows just yet! Baffling as it might sound, you may find it surprising that the simple act of narrowing your eyes can profoundly impact your painting prowess. You’re thinking, how does squinting – which typically signifies the need for glasses – help me paint better? Great question! Let’s unravel this mystery and explore the transformative power of squinting to improve our oil paintings!
Watch any professional artist, especially plein air landscape painters, at work.
Before they even set up their easels, you’ll catch them squinting. I’m going to teach you why that is, and once you try it, you’ll be hooked on squinting as well. Squinting will become your trusted friend and indispensable painting partner.
So, let’s delve into the intricacies of squinting and how to master it.
Squinting – how do you know when you’re doing it ‘right’?
That’s an excellent question. It takes practice. You’ll know it’s working when you squint at your subject, and smaller delicate details dissolve into larger forms of light and shadow, reducing the scene to a few basic shapes. This lets you clearly see the overall arrangement of light and dark areas.
Squinting allows you to view the world through a simplified lens. When you squint at your subject, the intricate details blur, and the scene is reduced to its fundamental value structure.
It’s akin to switching your vision to grayscale mode, revealing the bare bones of your subject. Squinting helps you identify the foundational structure of your scene. Your entire perspective of what are the lightest and darkest areas undergoes a paradigm shift. What’s a paradigm shift? It’s altering the fundamental way we view something. That concept – breaking or disrupting our routine habits of observation – is critical to improving our skills and increasing our ability to use our imagination and creativity as artists.
Here’s a quick tutorial: Close your eyes until your eyelashes lightly touch. This act merges unnecessary details into larger shapes of light and shadow. Squinting is a method of ‘abstracting’ what you see. By abstracting, we mean reducing the scene or subject to its essential elements.
So, when you squint, don’t just blur your vision. Actively try to perceive the interplay of light and shadow, the division of warm and cool tones, and the juxtaposition of shapes and lines. All these elements contribute to the ‘value structure’ of your painting, which is fundamental to its overall success.
Squint to Simplify – But Don’t Overdo It
Next, it’s important to remember not to overdo it. Just as squinting can simplify things, it can also make things overly simple, removing essential details that might be important to the overall piece. Find a balance between squinting to see the big shapes and values and opening your eyes to observe the intricate individual details. You can consider squinting as the tool to establish the big picture and normal observation as the tool for detailing and refining.
Moreover, use squinting to help in color mixing. When you squint, colors also simplify. You can see the overall color temperature and relative color relationships better. For instance, if you’re painting a landscape and the many shades of green confuse you, squinting can help you see the larger, more general color fields.
It’s also useful to intentionally squint at different stages of the painting process. Begin your piece by squinting at your subject to establish the big shapes and values. Continue to squint while painting to maintain the overall value structure and to ensure you’re not getting lost in the details. Even when you’re nearing the end of the painting, a good squint can help you evaluate your piece’s overall balance and harmony.
I once heard Richard Schmid say to squint at your subject, not at your painting. While Richard is one of my painting heroes, we don’t want to take every remark a hero makes without scrutiny (the same goes for anything I say or teach). I squint throughout my painting process because it helps me keep my value relationships in check.
Squinting – Seeing Value Relationships Clearly
Picture this scenario: Your front door is wide open, revealing a clear, vibrant view of the world outside. You see all the colors; you see all of the values. You see how light it is.
This process can best be explained through a vivid analogy: Picture standing in your open doorway, taking in the vibrant world outside. You can see every detail, every color and nuance. You see the shadows clearly – how dark they are and their deep colors and reflected lights.
Now, visualize shutting the screen door. Suddenly, the view becomes less distinct, less chaotic. The myriad of details merges into a few larger shapes representing light and dark. This is the magic of squinting. Your eyelashes are the screen door that helps you filter out the distractions and see the essentials.
The true value of squinting is in simplifying an otherwise overwhelming scene.
But what exactly are we aiming for when we squint? We’re seeking value relationships. We won’t see values clearly, and we won’t be able to identify distinct colors. It’s going to distort or eliminate both of those. If we want to identify colors accurately, we must open our eyes fully. Squinting helps filter out distracting details, transforming a chaotic tree full of rustling leaves into a simplified masterpiece of shifting shapes of light and shadow.
Imagine trying to paint a lively scene brimming with intricate details, like thousands of leaves reflecting sunlight. Without squinting, the task seems daunting, even intimidating. But the art of squinting allows us to eliminate unnecessary complexity. It simplifies our job, enabling us to swiftly capture the essential elements, particularly when shifting outdoor light is a factor.
To illustrate this concept, consider this painting of aspen trees. While squinting, I could identify the darkest values, like the shadows along the trail or in the fir trees. Simultaneously, I could pinpoint the lightest value shapes in the scene, like the sky or the leaves on the trees, without individual bright leaves confusing the overall value structure of a group of leaves or clouds in the sky. Squinting allowed me to discern those values more accurately than if my eyes were wide open.
Imagine you’re looking at a tree. Let’s say an aspen tree or any tree with leaves all over it. And then envision the wind blowing a little bit, and the leaves start rustling around and dancing, causing the leaves to sparkle. But why do they sparkle? When those leaves shift in the wind, some catch the light because they turn at the right angle to cause the sun to reflect off the leaf in our direction and look bright like a ray of sunlight or a stroke of pure Cad Lemon paint.
Then we see other leaves turn away from the light or slip into the shadows of other leaves. They look like small dark spots interspersed through dazzling dots of light. Others are in partial or reflected light. Some we see from behind as the sun shines through the translucent leaf, creating the most intense color of all the leaves.
We’ve got thousands of those magical performances happening in our scene, little spotlights of pure color and dark accents everywhere, constantly changing places between light and shadow. And if we look at all that activity with our eyes wide open and try to paint everything, we’ll feel overwhelmed, thinking it will take forever to paint that frenzy of shifting light.
We will become discouraged, thinking, “Oh, so many tiny things to capture in such a short time.” And if we’re out on location, trying to paint every detail and value shift we see, it will not work because the light changes bit by bit every moment and can change substantially every five, ten, or 20 minutes. We are really working against time.
We’ve got to simplify things. We must make it easier to digest and easier to get down onto a canvas or panel quickly so we capture the essential elements.
Besides the time constraints, access to abundant visual elements has another downside. With every detail clamoring for attention value relationships can be tricky to discern. One bright leaf catching the sun in the middle of a group of darker leaves in shadow can deceive our eyes and make us believe that the group of leaves overall is lighter than it is. Squinting will eliminate the one bright leaf and give us a better sense of the overall value relationship of those leaves as a group shape.
Besides, if we try to paint all those tiny details, we don’t have that kind of time.
That will make the experience we’re painting translate successfully to our viewers. What are the most important things in this scene that make this scene what it is? Then later, during a second or third trip back to the same location at the same time of day with similar weather and atmosphere or in the consistent light of our studios, we might add the smaller details. Those little bits of highlighted leaves or dark accents in spots here and there can bring vitality to our paintings. They can make the painting sparkle like those leaves in the sun. Painting those delicate details can be fun, so we don’t necessarily want to ‘leaf’ them out entirely (sorry, I couldn’t resist the pun).
The before and after images of the oil painting – Breakfast is Ready – (above) demonstrates how small details can add life and zest to a painting. Now, granted, the first photo is from 2005 and did not have the same clarity as the 2011 photo, but the foreground trees with the sparkling leaves, the textured grasses and plants, and the blossoming bush were all details that made this one of my favorite paintings, both to paint and to view.
The first thing I want to establish when I go outside to paint is the darkest value. The darkest shapes, the darkest areas, the darkest values in my painting. And then, what are the lightest value shapes in the painting? Is it the sky, the clouds, maybe? Or is it the leaves on the trees?
In the painting Good Company, I had to squint and discover where my darkest values were. Like in some areas down in the shadows along the trail, up in the fir trees on the left side of the painting, and among some of the dark accent shadows throughout the foreground bushes.
When I’m actually there on location, that can be difficult to determine when my eyes are wide open. One reason is that certain colors look brighter than they actually are. So, I have to figure out, is that yellow leaf right there that’s twinkling in the light, is it really as bright as it looks? Is it as bright as the blue of the sky or the crème-colored clouds? Which one of those is a lighter value?
Which one of them looks bright because the color looks bright? Some colors like red, orange, and yellow often look brighter than they are – they might look like a 1 or 2 on the value scale, but if changed to black and white, they would turn out to be a 3 or 4. Squinting can help us figure that out. Because if we squint down, then suddenly all of that individual color detail disappears, and we get an overall sense of where the value of that color fits in with the values around it.
Notice how the aspen leaves on the top left against the dark value of the fir tree look bright like the sky. Once reduced to grayscale, we can easily see how bright the sky is by comparison. No other value shapes in the photo appear as bright as the shapes of the sky (although some spots in the trail look pretty close). That makes it much easier to determine how bright the value of the shapes of aspen leaves or the shapes of light streaming across the trail are compared with the value of the sky shapes.
A benefit of squinting at light, bright colors is it helps us avoid mixing in too much white, which ultimately desaturates or lessons the intensity of the color. For instance, a bright red flower petal may require Cad Red Light straight from the tube. But what if dark bushes or leaves surround that flower petal? The dark values around that petal will deceive our initial value evaluation and cause us to make the petal brighter in value than it needs to be.
Value is relative. In the image of two red dots, each of them is identical. The red dot surrounded by a black background looks brighter than the red dot surrounded by a white background. A light value surrounded by one or more dark values will look brighter than it is because of the contrast. A dark value surrounded by light values will look darker than it is.
So, suppose the flower petal looks brighter than it is. In that case, we might add white to the Cad Red, lose the color intensity because of the cooling of the color temperature (there’s generally a slight blue tone in white paint), and never reach the visual perception of brightness we hoped to create. Why? Because when we use the proper color saturation (cad red straight from the tube) in league with the proper color temperature, the value will feel correct. If, on the other hand, we add too much white in an attempt to brighten the red, the value will feel off, and our flower will feel unnatural.
Something I should throw into the mix is that while both red dots are technically identical, if we squint at the dots we’ll probably still have trouble discerning the true value of each one. That’s why squinting helps us determine the value relationships of the larger shapes in our scene, but it does not pinpoint or provide exact values.
In the painting Good Company, the values of individual yellow, orange, and red leaves were often deceptive. Even with squinting, I had to experiment with a range of values to get them to ‘feel’ right. Remember, the beautiful rich colors we see in nature are those in the middle-value range, not in the darkest or lightest values. If we paint shapes too light or dark, we will lose many beautiful color possibilities. Squinting will help us avoid that trap.
The goal is to reduce the value range to where we see fewer values in larger shapes. We want to identify the darkest value shape, the lightest value shape, and similar value shapes. That helps us organize our paintings into 3-5 larger shapes rather than dozens of dissimilar smaller shapes. Then we can paint each shape in our paintings with the overall relative value of that shape compared to the other shapes around it. Once we have the dominant value of the large shapes, we have artistic leeway to play with some highlights or dark accents within those shapes, as long as we don’t lose the essence of the larger value shapes.
Once those value relationships are established, we can easily make comparisons – what is the value of a particular tree branch relative to the darkest dark; or the brightness of a leaf compared with the lightest value shape in the painting? Those comparisons speed up our painting process because we avoid value range mistakes which are the most common struggles for artists.
While working on the aspen painting, when I questioned how bright to make a group of leaves, I squinted to see how that group of leaves compared to the brightest shape in my painting. That helped me avoid making the leaves too bright relative to the brightest value shape.
There is no formula. Sometimes the aspen trees are lighter than the sky at midday. Other times the aspens look lighter than the sky, but then I squint and find out the sky is 1 or 2 degrees lighter. With that knowledge, I know that no matter how bright the aspens appear, I need to paint them at least a degree or two darker than the sky. If they still don’t look bright enough, I’ll darken the shapes or objects around them to increase the relative feeling of light in the trees.
Maintaining those value relationships in our paintings increases the feeling of reality. It makes the painting feel ‘right’ to us and our viewers. Plus, the increased organization of shapes within our paintings speeds up the process and reduces our frustration. Oil painting is challenging, which makes it rewarding, but that doesn’t mean we should make it harder than it needs to be.
Squinting throughout the course of our painting’s progression helps maintain accurate and simplified value relationships and results in a stronger, more unified painting. It’s not an easy thing to do, but squinting makes it easier.
Practice, Practice, Practice – and then…Practice Again!
That’s why squinting is something that we want to practice all the time. Everywhere we go.
It doesn’t matter if I’m driving with my wife to the grocery store, out on a walk, or sitting in church looking out of a window. I’m always squinting. It has become second nature. Everywhere I go, I start squinting to see the light and shadow value relationships.
So keep practicing. Squint every day!
Never forget squinting is one of your best friends as a painter. It is indispensable – whether out on location, in our studios, painting a still life or a portrait, or even using photographs.
Photographs are a little more complicated because photographs lie. They don’t give us as accurate information when it comes to light and dark as what we get when we look at it in real life. But fear not! The technique of squinting proves just as useful when working from photographs.
So, remember to practice, practice, practice squinting. Gently close your eyes until your eyelashes barely come together, and the confusing jumble of light and dark details becomes larger manageable shapes.
Have fun and enjoy squinting as a painter for the rest of your life everywhere you go. And get used to the strange looks that you’re going to get. Yes, other people will think that you have something wrong with your eyes, you’re upset, or you’re just plain weird. That’s okay – it’s worth it. Sometimes I don’t realize I’m squinting at somebody because they inadvertently get in the way of whatever I’m squinting at. Oh well. Embrace the art of squinting, and don’t let the peculiar looks you get from others deter you.
For members of the Master Oil Painting membership, you have access to extra tutorials about squinting to improve the strength of your paintings. The new Master Oil Painting Course is included with your membership. Click the link to see your course: Master Oil Painting Comprehensive Course
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Tell us about your squinting adventures in the comments below.
Happy squinting and happier painting!