|David Hockney asserted that Jan Van Eyck's Arnolfini Portrait
was created with optical tools.
The camera lucida is something I've known about for years,
but I didn't know there was such controversy surrounding it--or that people felt
so passionately about its historical use or lack thereof. Latin for "light room,"
the camera lucida is a device used to help artists draw and render by
superimposing an image of an object onto a drawing surface so that you can see
the subject and drawing surface at the same time. It can help an artist sketch
complicated passages of a drawing or even make a contour line drawing of objects.
And while the tool is not particularly well known or widely
used now, documents going back to the 1600s describe the existence of a similar
tool. Even commercial artists from the 1950s through the 1980s used a variation
on the camera lucida because it provided a quick and accurate way of drawing.
But here's where the real fight began. Several years ago,
artist David Hockney asserted that many of the masters of Western art--Ingres, Jan
Van Eyck, Caravaggio--used the camera lucida and other optical aids to help create
their art, insinuating that the skillful realism so highly prized in art
history was a sham. Gasp!
Reactions were extreme. On one hand: boo, hiss, and a lot of
umbrage about the idea that someone would claim that the Old Masters cheated their
way to the art that we revere them for. On the other hand, artists were
intrigued by the camera lucida. They wanted to know how to get their hands on one; many started experimenting with it.
I still love the work of the Old Masters and the idea of
them using tools to render doesn't really doesn't change the way I feel about
it, though many scientists and historians have refuted Hockney's claims. More importantly I don't think that the paintings and drawings that belong in
the Hall of Fame of Western civilization are so easily explained. There is a
lot more too them than just good rendering.
||The camera lucida's existence goes back to the
1600s. It was patented in the 1800s, and was used
by commercial illustrators as recently as the 1980s.
Some artists still use it today.
But the point is that the camera lucida is a tool, and every
tool has its place. Many artists don't use the camera lucida. I've never used one, but there are apparently many artists who believe there are merits to its
application when it comes to drawing complicated perspectives and spatial
relationships. I'm mostly intrigued by all the reactions the controversy over the camera lucida received, but it is interesting to know how it works and what it can do. The
more I know, the better I feel I understand art and my place in it--no matter if I decide to use (or not use) that new knowledge or those tools in my work.
If you feel the same way--that knowledge is power!--our eBook,
25 Technical Questions & Answers for
Artists will be as informative for you as it was for me. It's a good read
and clarified several things for me about the more formal aspects of art-making. And if you can find a dime, you can get 25 Technical Questions &
Answers for just that. Download and enjoy!
P.S. What your thoughts are on
the camera lucida and the idea that the Old Masters could
have used it? Have you used it? Would you? Leave a comment and let me know!