Thursday, May 22, 2014

Did Fitz Hugh Lane use a camera lucida?

Karen Quinn, a curator at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, suggests the possibility that Fitz Hugh Lane used a camera lucida in recording the topography of one of his seascape paintings. (Direct link to video)

The hypothesis hinges on the presumed mechanical appearance of the drawing, and its alignment with the final painting (seen here in a superimposed image). In fact the images don't line up that closely, and the drawing has more of a searching than a tracing look to me.

This example doesn't seem like a really solid case to me, but I wouldn't be surprised to see other examples that make a surer demonstration. (Video link)


Chae said...

This sort of on going debate about artists using camera like devices is interesting.

After doing some googling about camera lucida I came across this interesting article.

I wonder what other people think about it.

Jeff Hebert said...

I agree with you James. I think the drawing would more closely resemble the painting. Also, It's no big surprise to me that artists back then were using tools at their disposal. I think the end results speak to how great an artist Fitz Hugh Lane was.

Dan said...

Interesting. Maybe I'm missing something, but I don't see how the closeness of the drawing and painting enter into the question. It has long been common practice to trace a drawing as a starting point for a painting, or to "square up" a smaller drawing. No special device is required.

If I'm understanding correctly, the question would be whether Lane used a camera lucida to make the preparatory drawing. It seems possible, but not particularly likely to me, given what is known about him. He was evidently a gifted artist from a young age, and his striving for accuracy in fine details throughout a picture (which may be viewed as "mechanical" in its effect) seems to be seen all through his work.

The judgment that the lines "look mechanical" seems to me like fairly flimsy evidence for a claim like this, without some additional supporting historical evidence.

James Gurney said...

Dan, good reasoning. I suppose the rationale for why the drawing should match the painting is that there's no point bothering getting the drawing topologically accurate unless that accuracy is transmitted to the final work as well. But I wonder: who cares about the accuracy of seaside rocks? Such a device might be more likely used for architectural views, like city overviews, where topological accuracy matters more. But the camera lucida isn't the only way to get really accurate measurements. A gridded pane or even just careful measurements (a la Antonio Garcia Lopez) can achieve the same goals, too.

Clinton Hobart said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
jeff jordan said...

Dali and Norman Rockwell both used projectors, as I understand it. So what? All that gets you is the lines. How does that affect the actual paint?

This is by now a really boring argument. I trace whenever I can, used to use the grid method. Anything to start putting paint down.

Is this supposed to be some shocking revelation, maybe to increase the visibility of a curator or whatever?

I'm gonna tell MOM!

James Gurney said...

Jeff, I don't think the MFA is presenting this as a shocking revelation, and I don't think it's a boring subject. All art tools and methods are worth considering, and it's fun to try to reconstruct how artists of the past achieved their results. I think it's significant that major museums are doing more of this kind of investigation, but it would behoove them to consult closely with working artists, because I believe their hypothesis is a bit off base in this case.

jeff jordan said...

Not trying to come off as argumentative, Jim. It's just a tired old argument. Everybody wants to get the work done faster. I learned long ago that I could draw the thing, but it would take a lot longer. To me the beginning of a painting isn't the important thing--it's where you end up that matters. Does the fact that Vermeer might've used a camera obscura lessen his accomplishment?

Sorry if I seem grouchy--like Dan said, would you really need an optical device of any kind to start out what is essentially a pretty simple composition?

Like you say, it would be a good thing if sometimes Museum people worked with artists on these things. Maybe some of these folks aren't artists, themselves.

Dan said...

The underlying philosophical question is: To what extent is this kind of mechanical (or nowadays digital) assistance "cheating."

Andrew Loomis cautioned aspiring artists against tracing photographs, which in his view seems to have been seen as a crutch at best. His rationale was essentially that once you come to rely on such a method, your skill at beginning a drawing freehand will atrophy, and you'll be sorry later when you need that skill. He also asserted that those in the know would be able to spot a certain quality in your work if it were generally laid out by tracing photographs.

On the most basic level, art is communication, and there are no "unfair" means of getting your message across. Whether to trace photographs or not is an individual choice, which would only have a moral implication if you were to later deny having done it.

Looking at it more from Loomis' point of view, though, routinely leaning on such techniques may amount to "cheating yourself" out of the skill of freehand sketching, which is surely valuable, even necessary in a lot of circumstances. Not having honed that basic ability would tend to take away your confidence to freely make changes to the literal scene before you so as to better suit your composition.

Even beyond that, it seems to me that skill at freehand drawing requires skill in "unified perception," (i.e. seeing the larger picture all at once), which, it might be argued, is just generally important in an artist. (Hayao Miyazaki was quoted as saying in a conversation with Moebius, "I think that world perception and technique are one.")

As far as speed: In my imagination I see Miyazaki storyboarding, making hundreds upon hundreds of tiny sketches. If you've ever seen his storyboards, the drawings are, IMHO, amazing, in terms of how he conveys a single idea or an emotion with great impact using only a few simple lines. Sometimes I enjoy reading the storyboards as much as watching the finished films. But then how would he ever accomplish this communicating of his vision to the animators without his freehand drawing skill? If his "good" drawings were traced from photographs, it is conceivable that his "rough" drawings wouldn't amount to much.

Full disclosure: Myself, I'm an aspiring artist. I've been studying seriously for only about a year. In this rapidly changing world, discussions about this kind of thing seem essential, especially to aspiring artists.


Dan said...

Chae, I'll venture a comment regarding the article you referenced.

I imagine, for the sake of argument, the following scenario: Humankind has invented machines that are "better" (according to some scientific criteria) at art than the best human artists, perhaps even "better" than it is even theoretically possible for any human artist to achieve. The machines understand perspective, calculate shading accurately, grasp and model the intricacies of forms, and so forth. Such a machine can "look" at a scene, analyze it, break it down into its constituent objects, determine how to place them, delineate them, shade them. Programmed with some aesthetic rules, it can "improve" (according to some definition) upon a mere photograph. It's the "robot artist of the future." Suppose also that we can easily create such machines, so we can have as many as we want. Anyone can have such a device simply built in to their smartphone, which can peer out through the camera lens and make a beautiful digital painting of whatever it sees. Artists are now superfluous. Such is the inevitable march of technological progress.

Or imagine a different reality, in which the program, through its scientifically advanced machine vision, is simply much better at critiquing art than any human. Now we have machines in our pockets that can tell us what is and is not good art. The "robot art critic of the future." We think we like some painting, but, alas, the machine tells us that its perspective is wrong and its lighting is inconsistent. We all thought Rembrandt was a genius, but it turns out that the machine knows better. Etc., etc.

These thought experiments, to my personal way of thinking, help to illustrate the basic absurdity of machines making or evaluating art. I'm talking about cases where the machine has some artificial intelligence directing the process, as opposed to those machines (which already exist at very advanced stages of development) that are simply calculation tools. At its core, art is communication. If a mechanical process is on either side of the conversation, it ceases to be real communication.

A machine can no more judge what is a good painting than it can judge what is a good novel or a good film. Judgment of this kind is uniquely human, because art is about some consciousness who lives within the human condition communicating to some other such consciousness, by means of subjective elements like perception and abstraction. These are simply not the province of machines.

It seems of me to be of dubious value to propose a machine that can "sense" when a painting's perspective is "wrong." We could just as easily print a reproduction on paper and lay a ruler over it, plot the vanishing points, and tell whether it's "wrong." Leonardo could have done much the same thing without our technology. But then "wrong" is also a value judgment, not a simple matter of math. The proportions evident in Impressionist paintings quite often look "wrong" if you scrutinize them according to scientific criteria. But perhaps the artist was trying to make a statement about the fleeting feeling of the particular mood of the scene, and his/her loose, subjective rendering of the proportions was done deliberately in aid of this statement.

Speaking of Impressionists, Auguste Renoir has been quoted in the biography written by his son as saying essentially that he would rather have had an object made by an incompetent craftsman than by a machine, because the former at least communicates some of the personality of its maker.

Apologies all for waxing philosophical here, but maybe this is a valuable discussion.


Unknown said...

I really don't see what the fuss is about either. The point is the quality of the finished product - whatever that is (painting, sculpture, etc). And I agree - if Vermeer used one, so what? It was a tool available in his time.

I think that the almost black and white stance by many artists that everything must be drawn from life is short sighted. If that were the case I would never draw a cheetah because I surely can't hire one as a studio model or afford a $15000 safari.

Don't get me wrong - I think free hand drawing and drawing from life are important skills. I just don't think they are the be all/end all. And I disagree that somehow that skill will "atrophy" if you trace some photographs along the way.

I proved this to myself sometime ago because I was afraid it was going to happen to me as I trace lots of bits and pieces of animals to put together the pose I wanted.

What I personally found is very interesting. I could set myself to the task of producing a freehand drawing and could draw the animal very well freehand but it was a slow process. I then switched to tracing the same animals. I could do many more tracings much more quickly. Do you know what I found? My drawings actually improved dramatically over time after I had traced the same animal in many poses. My freehand drawings improved and for me, most importantly, my ability to draw animals in different poses radically improved much more after tracing them vs when I was doing them freehand. My brain was obviously able to capture the eye-hand-memory connection from tracing all those poses very successfully. Now I can switch easily between freehand or tracing and I would bet you wouldn't even be able to tell the difference because I sketch more than rigidly trace when I trace now.

I also transfer my drawings using charcoal transfer paper instead of gridding or drawing it again - I just don't think it is a big deal. The point as mentioned in an earlier comment is that it is just a contour line - so much more goes into the final rendered/painted piece - value, color, volume, even use of final line.

I can see the same debate in 100 years about how artists work today - "did so and so artist use Photoshop and Painter to refine their composition or do color studies?"

Bottom line is to produce fantastic pieces of final artwork - who really cares how the artist got there?? I do agree that it is very historically interesting to study working methods of the Masters, but why do some think it sullies their reputation or the quality of their art if they used the tools available to them?

Dan said...

Question (to anyone who cares to venture an opinion):

As we interpret, enjoy, or evaluate a work of art: Is the only important thing the final result, or does it matter somewhat how this result was achieved?

TommyD said...

Geez James - what a can of worms. Not sure why some posts are so defensive. Use any devise you want to assist you to reach your artistic objectives, but know that basic drawing skills are critical. Master the basics, then use the technological bridge.

Unknown said...

This reminds me of your earlier blog about Yvon's and Bargue's drawing technique that involves a preliminary drawing consisting of straight lines which are then converted into the curves of the exact contour. My question was, after the preliminary straight lines are drawn, how are they conventionslly changed into the final curved lines? Is the official technique to draw the straight lines lightly and then draw the finished curves darkly, then lightly erase the whole drawing which leaves only the darkly drawn curves remaining. Or is the offical technique to erase the straight lines and replace them with the final curves section by section? Sorry for the super analytical and wordy comment. Haha. Take care.

Unknown said...

To Dan,

In my opinion it is the final work that matters - that's what the artist has put out there for the world. Some artists are starting to sell their studies - so for them they are cool with the world seeing those as well.

It is a well known fact that Michelangelo burned most of drawings - supposedly because he did not want the outside world to see how much work he put into a piece. Our own James Gurney has developed his own burning machine to destroy work he doesn't want around anymore. (Any comment James?). Others are known to have destroyed their studies and sketches.

The only thing that I think is important about the artist's process is assurance that the materials that they used to create the final piece are durable. I have seen some works being sold for several thousand dollars that probably won't be around or will be badly deteriorated in 20 years, let alone lasting hundreds of years.

Don't get me wrong - I love as much as the next person to try to understand the underlying process of some artists. I have spent hours and hours researching the process of van Eyck and his ilk. However, I don't judge the artist or the quality/worth of the artist's finished work based on the process they used to create it and I think that is at the heart of this discussion.

James Gurney said...

Interesting discussion, everyone.

Robert, about Yvon's method, hopefully that will become clearer as Darren's translators go through the French text that accompanied the plates.

Dan, I would be inclined to say that the end justifies the means, and that all methods have their value for certain goals.

Does it matter to the viewer how something is achieved? Well, yes, if the artist chooses to reveal the process, or even feature the process in the way he or she publicizes the work. In this age of behind-the-scenes features, knowing how something is done really affects the perception of the final result. Some artists want to give you the impression they tossed something off effortlessly, and others want to let you in on the complex steps involved.

But how something is achieved affects not just the viewer, but also the work and the artist, too. A good example is the use of live action reference in Disney features. In Snow White and Pinocchio it was shot for animator's reference, and largely helped add layers of believability. But in Cinderella, the over-reliance on live action for staging, blocking, editing, and performance decisions tied the hands of the animators and led to a much more limited result.

Robert J. Simone said...

What's the purpose of this kind of speculation? Is it meant to make a master seem less virtuous? I doubt Lane needed such devices to get a fairly accurate drawing down.

And I don't see why a good artist would entertain the use of such devices. Just draw it freehand. It's a heckuvalot more challenging, which means it's a lot more fun.

Dan said...

Marque, James, thanks for answering. It's interesting to know how people look at this.

My view is that the process matters, not just the result.

One of the greatest joys of life is in doing something with a well-developed skill. I think this is one reason people pursue avocations like golf, snowboarding, even painting. Personally I want to paint not just so that I can have finished works to show people, but also so that I can just enjoy doing it. I'd like to be able to record my thoughts and observations quickly and easily in a sketchbook, without having to take photographs and trace them. I don't imagine it being all that time consuming once I have the skill. I imagine being able to sit down and do a sketch in maybe an hour that I would be willing to claim as my work. I'd also like to do more completely modeled paintings, requiring a lot more time and effort, and have the satisfaction in the end that my hand was able to draw and paint what my eye saw, without any mechanical assistance.

But that's me.

Still, I think people also get vicarious joy from seeing others do something with virtuosity. I think this accounts for the popularity of the Olympics, or cooking shows, or the fact that Mark Crilley has one of the most popular channels on YouTube. People love to watch Crilley draw because he does it with such speed and apparent effortlessness. At least part of the enjoyment that at least some people get from good art is enjoyment of the obvious skill with which it was done.

The pop group Milli Vanilli dropped into obscurity practically overnight when it came to light that they didn't really sing. Their shows were enjoyable to fans only on the premise that the vocals they heard were really coming from the people they saw. When that turned out to be false, the content of the shows didn't change at all, but the public's evaluation of those same shows changed drastically.

I've told a few "laypeople" that it is now a common, accepted practice for artists to begin works by tracing photographs. In my experience, people are often shocked and appalled when they learn this, and they tend to indicate that they wouldn't enjoy art that they knew had been produced that way. There is a clear feeling among at least most of the people I've talked to that this would spoil their enjoyment of the art, which I think is a strong indicator that part of what they enjoy about good art is the display of artistic virtuosity. Or perhaps at least that when they see a drawing or painting, they read it on a certain level as being drawn skillfully by hand by an artist, which makes it fully the artist's statement. They want to think that the lines were placed where they were because the artist chose to place each one so, not because that's where the lines of the underlying photograph were.

When Elton John plays the piano, I listen with the assumption that the notes I hear are all being played by him. If I were to find out that his keyboard were connected to a computer, which was altering his timing and dynamics so as to make them more consistent, I'd at very least feel that what I was hearing was pretty impersonal, and I'd probably want to go find someone who can actually play to listen to. This would not entirely be due to the end result. Some part of it would be due to how he was working.

I think at very least we interpret art in a highly complicated context, and that our understanding of the methods used to produce the art is part of that context. Almost everyone knows that Michelangelo did a copious amount of preparatory work before painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. But people also understand that Michelangelo could dash of a sketch absentmindedly that most of us would consider to be serious art. That's part of the context in which we understand his work.

It's been a most interesting discussion. Thanks again for commenting.


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