Saturday, January 26, 2008

Lorrain Mirrors

For centuries artist have used darkened mirrors and smoked lenses to help them view a real landscape in simplified tonal values.

By the nineteenth century these optical devices became widely known as “Lorrain mirrors” or “Claude glasses.” Their darkened reflections suggested the work of landscape painter Claude Lorrain (1604?-1682). Lorrain himself, though, probably never used them. The name appeared long after his death, and for a time the devices were associated with the English poet, Thomas Gray (1716-1771).

Antique Lorrain mirrors were usually elliptical and slightly convex to allow the viewer to see the entire scene in miniature.
Here’s a simple homemade Lorrain mirror fashioned out of an ordinary piece of glass painted black on one side. The backside and edges were then protected with tape. In a pinch you could get the same effect by looking at the reflection in a lens of your sunglasses cupped in your hand.

For artists nowadays, the benefit of studying a darkened reflection is that it desaturates the colors, reduces the detail, and organizes the tones. By grouping the darks together into large masses, the vista takes on a romantic or picturesque aura. You can immediately see how to proceed with your tonal design. It’s easier to compare the relative brightness of light values—such as clouds compared to white buildings.

Here’s a photo manipulated with Photoshop to simulate the effect. I occasionally use Lorrain mirrors to help me choose a motif, or study it before commencing to paint. They’re also helpful for a mid-course check during the painting. They guard against the tendency we all have to lighten the values of the shadows, which results from our eyes adjusting to the dark areas and seeing too much detail in them.

If you prefer looking through a transparent viewer rather than seeing a reflection in a mirror, you can improvise your own Lorrain glass using a dark gray filter, a welding goggle, or an unexposed piece of film.

In an era before photography, both artists and tourists enjoyed the novelty of looking at real landscapes through gold- or blue-tinted Lorrain glasses. A heroine from an English play dating from 1798 said, as she peered through her warm-tinted glass: “How gorgeously glowing.” Then switching to a dark glass, she said, “How gloomily glaring.” Finally, looking through a cobalt-tinted glass, she exclaimed, “How frigidly frozen.”

For more:
Tintern Abbey Viewing Station with live Lorrain mirror webcam. Link.
Archived webcam shots show changes of light through the day. Link.

Final quote from Spectacles and Other Vision Aids: A History and Guide to Collecting, by J. William Rosenthal. p. 276,
Tomorrow: Color Wheel Masking


Adam Paquette said...

I was introduced to these guys during a long pose recently, I had never heard of them. They are fantastic at simplifying values... but since they are good at separating values in the light, does it run the risk of clipping the blacks and losing reflected light/radiosity/fill light? (beyond the erroneous overcompensation you already mentioned)

Id like to check myself, but havnt been able to find where to buy one of these mirrors in Sydney yet.

James Gurney said...

Hi, Adam--
Yes, they do clip the darks, but I think that's why they're helpful. I find I need to tell myself to paint the shadows darker than they appear, because the tendency (for me at least) is to overstate the fill and reflected light.

I don't know if dark convex Lorraine mirrors are commercially available anywhere--if so, maybe someone can give a link.

Anonymous said...

I hope you will share the process for photoshopping the image to mimic the Lorraine mirror. Thanks for your blog. It's very helpful and interesting. Judy

Unknown said...

I think is something I might use in my work, to make one you just taped the back of a small mirror?

James Gurney said...

Judy, I shifted the middle control in Levels to emphasize the darks.

Eric, as I recall, I painted thick acrylic on the back of the glass. Probably it wasn't the best adhesion, but so far the tape has protected it. Maybe someone knows a better paint.

There must be a place to find a slightly convex piece of glass--maybe a clock face cover or an oval picture frame glass.

Anonymous said...


great blog photo of yourself! with the hat turned backwards and the futuristic uber dork glasses! haha, so funny. i didnt think you would be able to top the one of you with the bird on your head! haha!

James Gurney said...

Excuse me, Gator, but those aren't dork glasses, they're official Mongolian mountaineering expedition eyeshades. Now I just have to get my expedition together. Know where I can get some yaks?

Anonymous said...

dang james, i was hoping we were going to see a super awsome sci fi video posted on, haha

i was hoping to see you battle some aliens and space trolls with your uber dork...errrr.. i mean uber mountianering glasses...

by the way if you are to put together a super cool youtube video, i want a part in it!!!!!!

Erik Bongers said...

Indeed there is nothing dorky about those shades !
But I must make a correction : these are in actually Afghan mountaineering eyeshades.
I have proof.
Two half pages of a documentary graphic novell about a "Doctors without Borders" expedition to Afghanistan in 1986 during the Russian occupation.

Erik Bongers said...

Was trying to choose between "in fact" and "actually".

James Gurney said...

Good sleuth work, Erik. Actually I got the goggles from a guy who said he got them from Tibet. They look homemade. Maybe there's some secret valley full of yurts in Central Asia where they make tons of these things.

If only we can get them to make a steampunk/Silk Road version of Lorrain gogglees (with swivel-adjusting colored lenses) we can supply the art market, and do a stop-motion YouTube video showing them in use.

Anonymous said...

could james gurney be the next tron guy?

oh lord i hope so!! haha!! and count me in on the stop motion youtube video!! i have a santa claus hat and some swimmers goggles...we can call the video GIANT SPACE SLUG ATTACK!!!!!

Anonymous said...

I was just reading your queery about old dried up watercolour tubes. Have you tried opening up the tubes and using them like an ordinary watercolour block?
regards Chris

James Gurney said...

Chris--great idea. No need to chuck them out.

Daniel New said...

is this what Solomon Solomon refers to as a hand-glass in is book? I can't seem to find one, or find out what he means by "hand-glass" even though he calls it "absolutely indispensable to the draughtsman."

ladykewp said...

Maybe he means a convex mirror which can project images on a blank wall--see the Hockney-Falco thesis. That is something that would be very useful for representing accurate proportions.

ladykewp said...

Maybe he means a convex mirror which can project images (upside down) on a blank wall--see the Hockney-Falco thesis. That would be very useful for representing accurate proportions.

Emanuele Fittipaldi said...

can it be used as a substitute of squinting? does it produce the same effect?

Emanuele Fittipaldi said...

can it be used as a substitute of squinting? does it produce the same effect?

James Gurney said...

Daniel, I think Solomon Solomon just means a pocket mirror.

Ladykewp, I've tried mirror projection a la Hockney with a concave (not convex) mirror, such as a makeup mirror, and it works, though it's rather laborious.

Ghostvillage, it's similar to squinting in that it removes a lot of the minor details and tonal variations, but a true Lorrain glass also reverses and darkens the image.

Kathy Johnson said...

In a workshop this summer, Richard McKinley - a pastel artist. suggested using the screen of a mobile phone - in the "off" mode, which is a black screen

Huemalgamation said...

Just buy a welders glass plate.

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Mandm said...

I’m reading a very old book on painting which was originally published in 1897. The author tells of a Lorraine Mirror that can be made by painting the back of a piece of glass with black paint as you describe. This helps to eliminate detail and puts more focus on values. To take it one step further hinge it to a common mirror by way of masking tape strips. This can then reflect your arrangement onto the black glass and reversing the image as well, which is another way to trick your eye. Or try useing a magnifying glass. Rather than looking through the glass at your subject you simply look at the image on the glass. Interesting ideas.