Things My Mother Taught Me

Turp Wash Image
Turp wash underpainting.

I’m a 3rd generation artists. My maternal grandfather was an artist (and a hilariously funny individual). He used to sketch things for us on a little yellow notepad, on demand. He owned a custom bedspread and drapery business, down on South San Pedro Street, in Los Angeles, where he designed and fabricated beautiful custom bedspreads and coordinated draperies for particular individuals, interior designers and hotel chains. He designed many of his own fabrics and all of his quilting patterns.

Girl with Lamb Normal Photo
Normal, non-squinting view of subject.

One of his daughters, my mother, was an even more diverse artist: painting oils, watercolors, creating and teaching ceramics, writing poetry, designing sets for local dramatic productions (acting in some of them), designing and fabricating unbelievable exotic costumes and working as a fashion designer for 30 years.

It goes without saying, that I had lots of support, once I showed an interest in art. My mom shared a lot of creative tools and methods with me, as I was becoming an artist. One of the most valuable, one I still use constantly today, is squinting.

Squinting View Photo
Squinting detail reduction simulation.

Squinting is a great tool in helping you to simplify your subject matter, helping you eliminate details and identify the masses. Before I ever put pencil or brush to canvas, I squint to identify the mass shapes of the darks, mid-values and lights in my subject matter. What I see while squinting is what I indicate in my turp wash underpainting (the armature on which I build my painting).

I open my eyes fully, while painting, of course, to see the actually subtleties of the color and value before me, but I keep the masses in mind throughout the painting process to maintain a simplified, powerful relationship across my value range (darks, mid-tones and lights). If I lose sight of this relationship, I squint again for a refresher.

Turp Wash Small Image
Note actual mass values are determined with eyes open.

I’ve found this to be a wonderful way to separate out surface detail from value (grayscale) substance. I can confidently add as much surface detail (window dressing) as I want to my finished painting, but by squinting I reduce my subject down to basic shapes and values, eliminating any confusion, caused by the detail, in identifying the basic masses from which I want to build my composition.

2 thoughts on “Things My Mother Taught Me”

  1. For some reason, squinting never worked for me. From the age of 18 I have worn contact lenses and squinting makes things come into better focus, not less. So I had to use other methods for this way of reducing details. Without my contacts everything in my life is edgeless mass of colors and values. Taking off the contacts is sometimes not possible in the midst of a painting session so I have started using my camera with the white balance distorted or with the exposure level reduced so that the shadow shapes have dominance. It helps. I loved reading about your artistic family.

  2. Interesting, Denise, didn’t realize that contacts would prevent this from working for you. The idea is that you close your eyelids down far enough that you’re partially viewing through your eyelashes, which is like looking through a coarse screen, making things a little darker and cutting back detail. I wonder what the contacts are doing to prevent this from working. Oh, well, at least you found your own method of achieving similar results!

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