In praise of the squint

April 27, 2007

Robert Genn

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:

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

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

Best regards,


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."