Archive for Thursday, March 8, 2012

A Look Back: Before photography

March 8, 2012

Recently I got an e-mail with a video that was about a Camera Lucida and it reminded me on one I used more than 60 years ago. It is an optical device used as a drawing aid by artists. long before digital cameras and modern technology. It performs an optical superimposition of the subject being viewed upon the surface upon which the artist is drawing. The artist sees both the scene and the drawing surface simultaneously, as in a photographic double exposure.

I used one of these instruments when I first learned to paint and draw. It was a way to enlarge your own drawings, or to redraw one of your sketches onto a larger canvas. It was very difficult to use as it would tax my eyes and my brain. The Camera Lucida was the precursor of modern chemical photography. They are still used today as a common method among neurobiologists for drawing brain structures. It is also regularly used in biological taxonomy.

After reading about this I went to the basement and immediately found the one I had purchased and used. I think I paid about $60 for it and it is still in perfect condition with four lenses in a red velvet-lined case.

The scientific knowledge was known by the master artists four hundred years ago, long before photography. David Hockney has written a book called “Secret Knowledge”, rediscovering the lost techniques of the old masters. He is a California-based artist originally from England and was interviewed on TV by Charlie Rose discussing the theory and belief that the old masters used optical devices such as mirrors to paint their masterpieces. His theory is controversial with present day historians who hold that the old masters did not use these devises. I have known many artists who can draw an original sketch in perfect perspective without any of the optical aids. Human nature tells me that if the knowledge of any aid at that time had been available, it would have been used.

So many times when I show my paintings I am asked “did you do these free hand”? That always makes me laugh.


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