Tracing the lineage of optics
In 2001, the artist David Hockney published Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters,* a book which lays out his theoretical history of the use of optics in art. Hockney believes that, beginning in the 15th century, artists used lenses, mirrors, and cameras (both lucidas and obscuras) to make their extraordinarily realistic paintings. He cites the sudden development of a more true-to-life style in painted faces which occured around 1430 as partial proof of his theory and maintains that even those artists who did not use the new technology to create their images altered the way they painted as a result of how optics changed the artform.
He first suspected the widespread use of optics by the old masters when looking at some of Ingres’ drawings. At first, he was amazed by the level of accuracy that the artist captured in such small works, but as he looked closer, he noticed more. The faces in the drawings were softened and worked, but the dresses, like in the example above, have a traced feel.
The easy folds of the clothing reminded him of some of Warhol’s drawings which Hockney knew to have been made with the help of a projector. With the example above, Hockney specifically notes the way that the pencil line moves confidently from delineating the fishbowl to following its shadow out from its base. It would be very difficult to draw in this quick and single-line manner if one were not tracing.
And the fact is that Ingres did not always draw with such confidence. In this sketch, dated a decade later than his seemingly effortless Madame Charles Hayard, the artist is groping for the correct line, feeling his way to an accurate representation.
After doing some of his own experimenting, Hockney concluded that Ingres’ Madame Charles Hayard was made with a camera lucida, a portable tool which allowed the artist to see a projected image on his page and draw from it. However, Hockney writes from experience that the camera lucida is a difficult tool to use. If the artist moves even slightly, the image projected on the page changes drastically. It’s for this reason that he believes that the faces in drawings like those done by Ingres are softer and more worked. He posits that the artist quickly noted the layout of the face—marking the corners of the eyes and mouth for example—and then finished the drawing by looking at the model directly. The clothing could be traced more casually than the face using the camera lucida, and it’s for this reason that in the drawing Madame Charles Hayard, the pattern in her clothing is so accurately depicted even in the folds and even though the lines are not reworked.
As Hockney progressed in his research, he decided to set up a simple camera obscura. This involves placing the subject in bright light just outside of a window. A small concave mirror is used to project the subject’s image in the darkened room. In the photo above, Hockney is marking the anchor points of the subject’s face.
Here, he is completing the drawing by observing the subject directly.
This image shows the full camera obscura setup, including the placement of the small mirror, visible in the upper right.
In teaching himself to use these tools, Hockney became convinced that they had played an important role in creating many of the masterpieces of the Western world. He believed that even the artists who did not use optics were inspired by the paintings which were produced with the new technology. This novel way of seeing leaked into all painters’ work.
Hockney’s book is a fully turned out visual argument and good read also. Furthermore, throughout Secret Knowledge, Hockney is careful on two counts:
1) He affirms repeatedly that the various optical tools are very difficult to use and that they require a good deal of practice.
2) He emphasizes that no amount of optics before 1839 (when the chemical process for fixing light to a surface was invented) could create a painting: there are still painters behind the masterpieces and ones with considerable skill at that.
These are important points for Hockney to make since, with his book, he is seen by some to be attacking a cherished paradigm—that of the incredible genius of Renaissance artists. In fact, that is not his intent at all and, to my mind anyway, he makes that perfectly clear. Honestly, I’m more interested in how his theories and thoughts relate to the continued use of optics by artists today.
Warhol is not the only modern artist to trace from a projected image. Willem de Kooning is known to have used an opaque projector to blow up his sketches and get the gist of a composition onto a large canvas. And he is a perfect example of what I would consider a proper use of optics in painting in that the projector does not cripple the finished work. De Kooning does not simply color between the projected lines, afraid to lose their “rightness.” Similarly, the old masters may have used optics to find anchor points in their ever more complicated compositions, but their paintings are not paralyzed by the assistance from a camera obscura. Optics are a problem in painting only when they replace observation and deliberate choice-making.
This is something I’ve thought about a great deal in my own work since I use optics. I do not work from life to paint my portrait but from photographs that I take of my subjects during the course of an interview. It is important to me that I am behind the camera as well as behind the brush for my paintings: I cannot work from someone else’s photograph because I need to meet the subject and observe her-his movement and breath as I take the pictures. The camera helps me to take notes about my models, as in this case with the subject of Nixon Returning Home Robed In Embroidered Silk.
I take up to 400 pictures of each one of my subjects, and I usually choose just one primary source image. I trace this main reference photograph and use the tracing to create compositional sketches that help me decide how the painting should be laid out. I then impose a grid on the sketch (here displayed close to its actual size)...
...and a proportionally identical grid on the canvas. I use the grids to find the anchor points of my subject, drawing in charcoal on the canvas.
The finished painting is based on the photo, but it isn’t limited by the optics I used to create it.
Working from photographs allows me to capture more transient expressions and make portraits that are livelier as well as more complex than those that I could make from life. My camera is a tool, much like my brushes are. It contributes to my paintings but does not take them over.
*Hockney’s book is by no means the first on this subject. Recently, I discovered Jean Gimpel’s The Cult of Art from 1969, a fascinating look at the history of the artist’s role and place in society which touches on optics and photography and how these technologies affected the artist’s role. The book also happens to be a terrific (if extreme) condemnation of art for art’s sake and a delight to read because of its strong (and sometimes outrageous!) opinions.
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