Monday, January 8, 2024

The Optical Tools of the Old Masters

What is the Secret Knowledge?


    When we talk about master artists, what are our assumptions?  There may or may not be technical virtuosity, innovative use of materials, mastery of color and form.  What I think we can safely assume is that there is something about the way a master artist sees - either the physical world or the interior world of the imagination.  For my part, I’d say it is the vision of the artist, the ability to observe the visible world and then translate that observation meaningfully that sets an artist into the category of “master."  Some artists actually suffered from eye or neurological problems that impacted their vision.  Monet had cataracts that strongly influenced his later paintings; Van Gogh had problems with his eyes (and with the medicines he took for them) that may have effected his color vision and exaggerated the “halo” effect he saw around lights at night; Rembrandt may have had strabismus, which is suggested by misalignment of his eyes in his self-portraits.  Before the widespread use of corrective lenses, any visual artist painting from life was at the mercy of his or her eyes, and any loss of visual acuity could mean the end of a career - or potentially, it could provoke innovation.
    Artists, art historians, physicists, and eye specialists have all brought their own expertise to the question how did this artist see?  What evidence is there of eye disease or faulty vision?  What evidence is there that this artist had an optical assist? 
    As early as the 11th Century, monks were using lenses to help with illuminating manuscripts; prisms
were so common by Isaac Newton’s time that he was able to purchase some at a local market fair; and of course mirrors (at first of polished metals) were in use for millennia. DaVinci’s notebooks are filled with drawings of optical apparatus, and he is known to have used a camera obscura - essentially a giant pinhole camera - as a drawing aid.  He wasn’t the only artist to do so.

Drawing from Da Vinci's notebooks of a camera obscura










          In fact, in the 15th Century, there was a dramatic shift in painting towards extreme realism.  There are persuasive arguments that starting at this time, many master painters were using optical devices that were becoming widely available to help them render complex scenes with minute detail and precision.  Some of the evidence is in the subject matter of the paintings themselves - we see spectacles, magnifying glasses, convex mirrors, prisms, all of which can be used in combination to project an image onto a surface.  Some of the evidence is in the changing focus in some paintings - an effect that doesn’t happen with the human eye, which refocuses on whatever it looks at directly. Lens effects such as fish-eye distortions are evident in some paintings, too.  Some evidence comes from x-rays, which reveal how “sketchy” an underpainting or drawing was (or whether there was one at all - sketchy lines indicate an artist trying to get the shape or line or position right, in other words, by eye; unhesitating lines are tracing lines,)  Some of the evidence is practical - to render mathematical precision of curving patterns by eye is extremely complex and time-consuming, and working artists usually did not have the luxury of spending that much time.  Documentary evidence from letters and diaries often reveals the time spent before delivering portraits, as well as mentions of various "devices" in studios. There is an almost breathtaking exuberance to the depiction of lavishly patterned or embroidered textiles, engraving on shaped armor, and minute details of facial features that arrives (in art history terms) almost overnight.  The shift from generalized portraiture to almost photographic realism in distinct, specific portraits happens in the blink of an eye.
    These arguments, and the paintings that support them, are convincingly presented in a book by famed artist, David Hockney, The Secret Knowledge.  (It’s a big glossy book you may find in your public library’s oversized collection).  Hockney argues that this "secret knowledge" of using optical tools as drawing aids was often a trade secret, passed down from master to student, but not widely known (or understood) outside of the scientific or artistic community.  This “optical drawing tools thesis” often runs into fierce opposition from

critics and art historians who prefer to attribute all mastery in great painting to “genius.”  This, I think, is too rigid a view of what artists do (especially artists who are trying to earn a living, an important consideration when it comes to efficiency).  The artist may be brilliant and have a unique visual interpretation to share, but without any tools, how is that sharing supposed to occur?  We allow the artist the paintbrush, we allow the paints - and as paint technology changed over time the colors changed and became more vivid.  I hope we would allow the artist corrective lenses - otherwise everyone reading this with the aid of glasses is out of luck.  Stencils are tools.  Rulers are tools.  Rubber stamps and pencils and pens are tools. Using a grid to help copy an image, using reference photos, cameras themselves - these are all tools for the artist.  Without a vision, the tools are just inert objects.  Art arises from the decisions the artist makes about what to show us with those materials.  The tools are there to help make those decisions visible to the rest of us.
    There are digital tools now that can help artists in similar ways.  The camera lucida, a portable optical drawing tool patented in 1806, has been reimagined a number of times by app developers.  I’ve played around with a couple of them; one is called Camera Lucida, one is called AR Art Projector: Da Vinci Eye.  It takes some getting used to, because while you are drawing you are looking at the screen of your phone or tablet rather than the paper you are drawing on,  but it’s well worth experimenting with. Practice, practice!  Try it with pencil.  Try it with a pen.  Try with a loaded brush.  Try with charcoal.  Try the same image at different enlargements.  Try it with a face, try it with a building, try it with a landscape. 
    At this point you may be wondering why you might bother with a technique that takes so much practice when - if you want that kind of accuracy - you can trace over any photograph and transfer it to a surface.  All I can suggest is that you may not always have access to a printer.  You may not own a printer.  You may have a printer but be traveling.  I’m sure are there are other reasons.  Maybe you don’t even need a reason.  Learning new techniques to apply to art making is always an opportunity for growth.   Most importantly, free yourself from the worry that using any kind of drawing aid is somehow cheating.  After all, if a candid photograph can be art, then nothing else you make with your hands - and tools - need be disqualified from consideration.  We may be awestruck watching an artist create a realistic portrait alla prima, but that’s not the only way to do it.  The old masters showed us the way.
    So, you should feel free to use this tool to add anything to your artwork that you want to draw accurately - even if it’s just to get the proportions right.  Below are some examples of my own experiments with the Camera Lucida app.  I’m using it on my phone, but you can also install it on an iPad, and I think that might be easier.
    What you should know:
    1. Don’t use a pen with a white casing if you’re drawing on white paper - I couldn’t see where I was when I carelessly picked up a white ballpoint to draw with.  You'll see what happened when I made that mistake!
    2. When the app is in drawing mode, you can magnify your drawing and the photo in order to work on fine details, without losing the alignment of your phone with the image you are drawing.
    3. It takes some getting used to, so be prepared to practice drawing the same image over and over with different tools to get a feel for what works best.
    4. A tripod isn’t exactly required, but I don’t imagine you can do this by holding your phone.  Rig up something to hold it still while you draw.
This is a family photo - I'm pretty sure it's my paternal grandfather.  I chose this to practice with as doesn't have a lot of distracting background.  The sepia print means I won't be distracted by color, either.

First attempt, left.  Second attempt, going smaller, but using a pen that was hard to see through the screen!  I got lost trying to find the ears...

Using a marker, and exploring the magnification options.

Here I used a Stabilo All on watercolor paper.

Now I have taped down a small art journal to a spread with blue gesso, and I'm going to try drawing this face now directly into the book. Using the Stabilo All was probably not a good choice, as it loses its sharp point very quickly and makes it hard to get fine detail.

Using the magnification to try to get some detail in the eyes.

Quick art journal spread using the drawing I copied from the photo directly into the journal with the Camera Lucida app.  He came out looking younger than in the photo, but that doesn't matter.

    I haven't yet tried using this app with photos of architecture or landscape, but that will be next on my "to try" list.   If you want to include drawings with accurate proportions in your work, but you feel that your "by eye" drawing skills are not up to the task, by all means, use an optical drawing tool.  If it worked for the greats, it can work for you.

Stencils used in this project:


Four inch stencil from the September 2019 Club Set  by Tina Walker

Six inch stencil from the February 2014 Club Set by Mary Beth Shaw

ATC Mixup by Pam Carriker L651


1 comment:

  1. Another thought-provoking column with interesting results. Thanks for the inspiration, Jennifer!


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