Sunday, May 21, 2017

Reviving the Camera Lucida


For centuries, artists have developed devices to help translate what they see directly onto paper. One of those tools is the camera lucida, which has remained popular even after the invention of photography.


As you look through the viewfinder, a virtual image of the scene appears ghosted over the paper and your drawing hand.

For the device to work, the optics must reflect the image twice so that it's right side up and right-reading. There are two ways of doing this: with a prism or with a set of half-silvered mirrors.


A few years ago, art instructor and antique-art-tool geek Pablo Garcia revived the prism-based camera lucida (below, left) in a successful Kickstarter campaign for a product he called "NeoLucida." But he admits that the small prism is a bit difficult to use.


So he has evolved his design to incorporate the half-silvered mirror optics (above, right) in a new design called the NeoLucida XL. Although the image is bigger and easier to see, the challenge is maintaining proper brightness levels on the subject relative to the paper. The design addresses this problem with neutral density filters that can block out light that's too bright.



In this video, Norm of the YouTube channel "Tested" interviews Mr. Garcia and tries out the new device, which will soon be in production. (Link to YouTube) The campaign for the NeoLucida XL is still live on Kickstarter.

By way of disclaimer, I haven't been contacted in any way by the makers of the Neolucida. Also I have never used either kind of camera lucida, so I can't speak to how practical it is to use. And I can't vouch for how well these devices are actually designed or built.

Graphoscope, a mirror-based camera lucida from the 1960s
The NeoLucida XL is not the first product that uses the mirror technology. There have been many variations over the years. In addition to the Kickstarter version, there's another product called a Lucid Art that's already available on Amazon, though the reviews from users are mixed.

Have you tried a camera lucida? What was your experience? I'd love to hear in the comments.
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Previously: Did Fitz Hugh Lane Use a Camera Obscura?
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Here's a discussion that developed after the FB version of this post. (It's too long to paste into the comments.)

Davis Fandino
Yet people still sneer at the concept that classical artists used lenses to project images to aid their practice.

James Gurney
I wonder how many 19th-century artists actually did use optical devices such as camera obscuras, camera lucidas, projecting mirrors, or sighting grids (not to mention photography later). Those that did rarely discussed it. David Hockney's book "Secret Knowledge," while perhaps overstating the case a bit, has opened up a lot of healthy experimenting, and that strikes me as a good thing.

Davis Fandino
Agreed Mr. Gurney. David Hockney may have over over stated the conclusions somewhat but it seems that the basic case is exceedingly difficult to refute. Many take umbrage to it because they see it as casting aspersions on the skills of these artists

Eugene Arenhaus
That is because camera lucida is a 19th century invention, and the classical artists simply had no access to it. It does not use lenses, either - it is a one-sided mirror.
Camera obscura, which was more or less known since 17th century or so, produces extremely faint images even with the best illumination conditions. It would be next to useless for an artist. There are no recorded mentions of any artist using one, or evidence of distortions produced by such a device in artwork. What is known to have been used by draughtsmen was a simple viewfinder frame, which works in daylight - but not any kind of camera.
Hockney's idea about curved mirrors does not hold water no better than his suggestions about lenses. Given how bad his portraits are even with optical aids, I suspect that his claims stem from a bad case of sour grapes. That you cannot refute his claims matters nothing: he makes claims about existence of some practice, it is his burden to provide evidence of such practice, not anyone else's to disprove it. And he did not produce any evidence so far - only conjecture.

Davis Fandino
It's well known Rockwell used models and photo to work from.
But, can you post a reference to Rockwell's use of a projection? Thanks

Davis Fandino
Rockwell used the balopticon image projection…

James Gurney
Re Cardany Yes, check out the book by Ron Schick on Rockwell's use of photography. Also in his book Rockwell on Rockwell he talks about how he used the Balopticon projector.

Davis Fandino
Eugene Arenhaus, David Hockney provided ample proofs to back up his theory in his book and the accompanying documentary. The distortions you mention are addressed and taken into account with convincing examples. That artists never mentioned using them is not evidence that they did not. Artists have always been notoriously circumspect about their methods lest the mystique of the craft be lessened. Michelangelo burned preliminary drawings and never spoke of his methods despite copious writings and letters throughout his lifetime in order to maintain the sense of him being the "divine" Michelangelo.

Another reason would be the natural insecurity at layman seeing these devices s and methods as a "cheat" and not understanding their use as tools to aid the creation of art. As seen in the link above Norman Rockwell stated once: "The Balopticon is an evil, inartistic, habit-forming, lazy, and vicious machine. It is also a useful, timesaving, practical, and helpful one. I use it often — and am thoroughly ashamed of it. I hide it whenever I hear people coming.” Vermeer did the same.

Another thing to consider is that in the entire history of writings on art and it's history and methodology there is not a single mention of where artists acquired their charcoal for drawing. It was seemingly considered too quotidian a subject to bother to mention. Only in very recent scholarship into the life and work of Caravaggio was it discovered that they acquired it from bakeries from when the ovens are cleaned. This was from a single sentence from the transcripts of one of the criminal trials he was embroiled in when a fellow artist acting as a witness was describing the circumstances around the incident. Should we have believed that charcoal can't have been used because there was no proof of where it came from in writings?

Lastly, it's in the life and work of Caravaggio that we find the most evidence of the use of the methods Hockney describes. He was used by a landlady for knocking a hole in the ceiling of his rooms and this corresponds to the practice of making a room into a camera obscura.

The possibility and probability of Hockney's theory being at least partially correct should not cause such consternation or emotionalism in it's detractors. As I said before it does not take away from the talents of classical artist. If anything only adds to their ingenuity and genius. Besides we should ever be searching for truth and new perspectives and not clinging to traditional ways of thinking about and making art. Where would we be if the great artist of the past had been so obtuse?

James Gurney
Those are all great points, thanks, Eugene Arenhaus. One of the problems with Hockney's book is that he puts too much emphasis on lens (and concave mirror) systems, which are cumbersome to use and difficult to build, even using today's tech. I haven't tried the lucidas, but I've fooled around with the mirror projection methods and for me they only worked under absolutely ideal artificial conditions. I've been experimenting instead with sighting grids, which were certainly discussed by Durer and Leonardo and others, and they work very effectively in the field if you know how to use them. They're really just an extension of a viewfinder. I love them because they have helped me identify the kinds of persistent errors I've been falling into when I do my usual methods of unaided drawing.

Eugene Arenhaus
Davis Fandino The only insecurity I see in all that is Hockney's own. There is no concrete proof, neither in records, nor in contemporaries' testaments, nor in artistic practices as they had been taught in ateliers and academies. Optical aids began to enter into artist training much more recently than Caravaggio or Vermeer (who constructed his perspective using a pin and a string, which would be unnecessary with optics, and freely changed compositions at late stages of paintings.)
Come on, really, give me a break. Making a hole in the ceiling big enough for the landlord to complain is evidence for camera obscura? That is preposterous on so many levels that it is not even funny. Have you even seen Caravaggio's work? Camera obscura would be terrible in the type of lighting he favored. Before you theorize and pontificate, go find a camera obscura and try to use it. It's next to impossible, and cannot be used for color work.

As for the charcoal example, it vividly shows the defects in your reasoning. You have one account of one artist using charcoal from a bakery, and make a conclusion that everyone everywhere did the same. Charcoal from a fireplace would work equally well; and in traditional artistic practice drawing charcoal is made by heating willow rods in a sealed tin until they turn into carbon - but you ignore that possibility completely. This simply is not logic, this is rubbish.

Andy Volpe
I want to get one and try it out

Greg Shea I have the "Neo-lucida", I'll let you borrow it.

Lancelot Falk
I assume you've seen "Tim's Vermeer"? A great documentary about this very subject. Compelling evidence that the classic Dutch master used this method as the experiment is recreated.

James Gurney
Yes, it's a well done documentary and an ingenious device, but it seems to me far more complicated than it needs to be.

Barry Van Clief ·
I must say, Tims results weren't excellent. Mark Carder's students do far better.

George Parra
Translated from Spanish
Hi James! How are you? An Artifact of these it is easy to make with homemade items? Thanks for all the info to post. Greetings, I am a big fan of yours 😁

Nikhil Sahane
I have actually used camera lucida as part of an exercise while studying botany.
We would connect it to microscope and draw what we saw in slides... :)

Steven James Petruccio
Even with projecting or tracing images, one still needs a level of technical skill to paint realistically. Plus theres the initial concept and composition etc...

Nic Arrighi ·
I tried this out a few years ago using a photo of my mother. Resulted in a nifty painting but a VERY sore neck from contentiously going back and fourth between the mirror and the painting.

Michael Cross
I have heard of pinhole camera, and also current light projectors, but not this. That's neat...thanks for sharing.

Rob Howard
Although I haven't used it in decades, I still treasure my LEON camera lucida. It's. razor sharp and, for most people, confounding to use. They were standard gear in one of the studios I worked in and the layout artists had mastered them so they could fit type with them. In the right hands (and eyes) they are suprememly accurate. Just ask Ingres. He used a LEON.

Re Cardany Rob, can you post a reference to Ingres -use of this device? Thanks, it is fascinating...

Rob Howard
Almost all of his quick portrait drawings show the use of a "luci." This is immediately apparent to those who have used them and developed the special skills required. The lines produced are unmistakable. Of course to those who hold art technique as beholden to some unwritten moral code, the great artists of the past would rather have starved than "cheated". For them, art is not a highly competitive field but rather something akin to the Olympics, with unseen judges checking the artists blood for drugs and aalcohol and then holding up numbers as to how well they did in the side-saddle drawing event.

Ingres was the son of a drawing master and a precocious talent. But like all who had taken up the banner of art as a way to put food on the table, he was more interested in competing effectively than winning some moral high ground and, like Caravaggio, Vermeer and countless other masters of the past, he employed whatever techniques and tools as would give him a competitive edge.

You may do your own research on Ingres and other artists as the information gained from hard work is not so easily dismissed as that spoon fed.

Barry Van Clief ·
I have an old opaque projector from the sign business, but I usually use a grid when I want to reproduce something to scale.

Rob Howard
What has always amazed the unwary is, if you draw badly without a projector, you draw badly with one. It cannot turn a clod into a master draughtsman.

Barry Van Clief
One of my grown daughter's friends traced a photo of her, colored it and sent it as a gift. It looks nothing like her, even though everything is "right." A sweet thought, though.


17 comments:

GJ said...

My dissecting microscope has what is effectively a camera lucida attachment. This enables me to look at a magnified image of a bug or tiny flower-seed, and draw it at the same time. gj

Martha said...

It's similar to an overhead projector, too, which I have used to transfer a 8" sq. design inked on paper to a fabric quilt top, 7' sq. size.

Steve said...

This comment is a day late; it responds to yesterday's post about sensory input. The May 15th issue of The New Yorker magazine had a fascinating article titled, "Sight Unseen -- Seeing with your tongue and other surprises of sensory-substitution technology." It quotes a scientist in this field: "You don't see with your eyes. You see with the brain." The article has much to say about how our model -- our "vision" -- of the world is constructed neurologically.

Jared Cullum said...

I'm wrapping up the last chapter of 'revenge of eakins'. It details his use of cameras and projection and some small inventions. I had no idea how much he used those. Great book if you haven't read it. It's a biography but it happens to talk about his use of tech at the time. He talked about it how people talk abut photoshop now.
I'm looking for more artists biographies if anyone has any suggestions.

jwart said...

Does anyone know if the device used in "Tim's Vermeer" is available anywhere?

pat said...

Like GJ, I've used a camera lucida integrated into a dissecting microscope. It's a fantastic aid! And strangely enough, I found that after several years of using it on an almost daily basis, my freehand drawing *was* better - I could better estimate proportions, and had more success with portraits. Then I finished my dissertation, moved away from the camera lucida, and my skills regressed (sigh).

Marcus Carneiro said...

That device is a comparator mirror. There are several tutorials on YouTube about how to build one. Personally, I never used one.

Marcus Carneiro said...

I have read some criticism about the Neolucida form a science illustrator. Contrary to the transfer mirror of a microscope, that kind of camera lucida is not stable enough, so it is tricky to align the drawing to the image. I can find that article again, if you are interested.

That said, I'm going to buy the Neolucida​ XL, but I have some training in sight seeing drawing.

Scott said...


I'm a photographer, not an artist, but I was interested in trying the camera lucida, so I backed his first Kickstarter and got one. It was very difficult to use, and I suppose that's the main reason why they are coming out with the new version. Here's a photo I took after trying it: https://flic.kr/p/i2Ve6X

Roberto Quintana said...

Hey Mr.Gi-
When I first started drawing, I took a drafting class, but I was appalled that every one was cheating! They were all using rulers and compasses and t-squares! I couldn’t believe it! It was shameless!! I vowed never to use such impersonal, mechanical devices in my work. I practiced and practiced and I got pretty good at the straight lines, and the curves too… but I was just too slow, I just couldn’t keep-up! So I tried my hand at sign-painting, and that was much better, almost everything was done ‘Old School’. The patterns were all done by hand and transferred with charcoal-dust, just like Michaelangelo’s frescos! Many of my competitors started using electric-pounce machines, and even projectors! Can you believe it? Well, I worked twice as hard for less than half of the money everyone else was making, but I felt my sign-work had a lot more feeling and sensitivity… until the whole industry went vinyl! My sign days were over. What could I do? Well, I started painting murals!! At first I could use my household step-ladders, but soon I was using scaffolding. I tried to stick with the bamboo and leather-lashing kind, but I finally gave up and I use the steel stuff now. (No fancy aluminum for this Luddite!) My mane problem now is that my reputation as a sensitive artist has started bringing me Really-BIG murals, but I have to turn them all down. People think its because I’m ‘stuck-up’ and aloof, but really its because I refuse to compromise my integrity and use a diesel-driven boom-lift. I’ve got this cool-little swing-stage chair thing, that I hang-down from the roof with a grappling-hook. It’s a little scary, and I admit it’s very slow, but you should see the quality of my line-work!... and I still won’t use a ruler! (well… I sometimes use a snap-line, but that’s just string and chalk.) All my Best- RQ
p.s. I have written this all out in long-hand with paper and vine-charcoal, you should receive a copy by pigeon soon.

James Gurney said...

Roberto, Haha. Point made brilliantly.

Mr.PP said...

I wonder if taking apart an old overhead projector would work for this?

Peace Artist said...

I have a camera Lucida that uses a wollstrom 4 sided prism. I've used it to draw everything. But, find it most helpful for architecture. Any drawing aid will make you better at free hand. Mostly they teach you to draw and connect your shadows. Of all the drawing aides I've tried, by far the most useful however is a proportional divider.

David Webb said...

When I was kid someone bought me a 'Reflectagraph' as a birthday present (you get presents like this when people realise you like drawing).
It consisted of a rectangle of blue smoked perspex, which sat vertically on your sheet of drawing paper. You then put a photo down on the paper, close to the perspex sheet, which you could see reflected in it if you looked from one side. Then, still looking at the reflection, you drew around it on the other side.
Of course, it was in reverse but what did this matter if you were drawing the USS Enterprise or a TIE Fighter?
Not in the same league as a camera Lucida but an interesting toy, akin to the pantagraph.

Mark Martel said...

Here's a satiric piece from 1830 showing the various tools available to "The English Painter"
https://www.pinterest.com/pin/537054324293264940/

MarkFiskeArt said...

Great post! I love this topic. I have a NeoLucida. I like to use it when I am working Plein Air. Here is an example of how I set it up HERE . After I get a quick sketch for proportion, I then go in and paint from observation. Here is an example HERE of the finished painting. I have had this conversation with my high school students for the past few years. I always get mixed reviews after we watch "David Hockney's, Secret Knowledge." Some are for and some are against. Then I show them how I use the NeoLucida as a tool. Here is an example I did with my students this past year HERE . This is what it looks like through the prism HERE . I am always interested to hear what people think of the topic. Thanks again, James.

MarkFiskeArt said...

I am also backing the new NeoLucida XL on Kickstarter :)