What happens when you squint? Most atelier students know the answer, or at least part of it. With this article I hope to open everyone’s eyes a little and to perhaps shed some light on the value of squinting.
Dictionary.com defines squinting as looking with the eyes partly closed or to be affected with strabismus; be cross-eyed. The first definition is what we are concerned with here.
Squinting, we are told by our teachers, is done to help us see values in a simplified way. But what does squinting actually do to your vision? Ophthalmologists will tell you that squinting has a similar effect to that created by using a pinhole occluder. A pinhole occluder, seen below, is sometimes used by eye care professionals to test your visual acuity (how well you see).
A pinhole occluder.
Light travels in a straight line. When your eyes are open, light rays strike your eye from throughout your field of view. That is almost 180˚ horizontally, and 135˚ vertically. As you might imagine, most of those rays do not go directly into your eye. Rather, they enter at various angles and your eye must focus them onto your retina. The occluder blocks all of the rays which are not perpendicular to the back of your eye and therefore it makes focusing much easier.
You can test this for yourself. Get a dark sheet of paper and push a pin or a tack through it. Make sure that the hole you create is clean. Look through the hole, at an object or scene which is ten or more feet away. The pinhole view is clear, crisp and sharply delineated.
If you are near-sighted, you can even use your hand to make an occluder with the ‘OK’ sign. Squeeze the ‘O’ small enough so that it’s a very small hole. Now, without your glasses, look through the hole. You should see more sharply.
An ‘OK’ occluder.
Due to your eyelids and lashes, squinting also blocks some of the indirect light rays. But, unlike the occluder, squinting slightly adjusts the shape of your eye as well. Because of these effects, as you get older and your eyes’ distance vision becomes impaired, you will subconsciously begin to squint in order to focus more sharply. This action only helps to a small degree, however, and eventually you will resort to glasses.
A artist’s squint is not used to improve visual acuity. Rather, somewhat of the opposite affect is the goal. In fact, artists squint down far more dramatically than one would when trying to focus. They squint in order to visually simplify the values in the scene, to eliminate the perception of reflected light, and to better see the whole.
Remove your homemade occluder and try squinting at the same scene. Close your eyes and then open them, ever so slightly. No doubt you will observe a marked difference from the occluder. In the squint, value differences become less distinct and edges blur.
I teach my students to see value relationships by initially closing their eyes completely when facing their scene and their painting. They are then directed to slowly open their eyes until they perceive the first hint of light. This light is the lightest light in the scene and as such it should also be the lightest light in their painting. Slowly opening their eyes a little more reveals large, simplified masses of shadow and light. They are to correctly represent those value relationships. This routine continues until the painting is finished.
We call this process of drawing or painting, coming out of the mist.
On the left, a plaster cast. On the right, a recreation of how the cast appears when squinting.
The right-most image above represents how the cast (on the left) looks when squinting at it. As seen here, your eyes would be open a bit more than they might initially be on the first squint.
Reproducing these observations is one of the main goals for the first stage or two of a painting. Detail is subordinated to the whole and incidental value shifts are not seen, let alone painted. Despite the squint, the cast is still completely recognizable. What is present is accurate and it is still a definite likeness.
In jest I tell my student that all they need do is to squint way down and paint what they see. When the comparison is true, they should squint a bit less and correct to that. And when that comparison is true, open up a little more, and so on until the source and the painting look the same when their eyes are open normally.
As important as squinting is, it is not the same as blurring your focus or looking away. Squinting is for seeing value, whereas the other two are for observing color relationships.