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The Camera Lucida

While reading something by Leonel Moura a few months ago which described in some sense the evolution of art. I came across the Camera Lucida, I had not heard or read about it before and reading about it was fun. Not only is it elegant but is something that can be used with good effect even today and is available quite easily with art suppliers.

The Camera Lucida is a very elegant device, it works to the effect as if the the object we have to draw is reflected on the paper or the canvas we are drawing on. So one would only have to trace the object without having to worry about the perspective. Camera Lucida is Latin for light chamber which is the exact opposite of Camera Obscura which means dark chamber. That ancestral thread lead to the modern photography and as an illustration of that fact we still call our photographic devices as cameras. However there is no optical similarity between these two devices.

It was used as a handy drawing and painting tool by artists and even microbiologists till a few decades ago and was invented by  William Hyde Wollaston in 1807. There is some evidence that the device was first described by Johannes Kepler but over time his contribution it seems was forgotten and now the invention is largely attributed to Wollaston. Wollaston’s original design is given below

[Image Source: Wikipedia Commons]

In such an arrangement an artist looks down at the fabric or paper (labeled as P) through a half silvered mirror which is placed at 45 degrees. The mirror is adjusted so that the source or the object to be drawn (Label S) is in the field of view. Given the arrangement, a virtual image of the source is formed on the paper, this superimposition appears as if the object or person of who you are making a painting of is reflected on the sheet and thus the job is reduced to simply making the outline and coloring it aptly.

Note: The light coming from S is totally internally reflected at the surfaces of the four sided glass prism allowing all of the light from the source to the eye.

[Images Courtesy of The Camera Lucida Company]

The image on the left is simply of an artist using a camera lucida to paint a subject on paper, and the one on the right is simply a photograph taken with a camera lens in place of the artist’s eye and it shows how the image of the subject appears on the paper with the hand of the artist. The Camera Lucida as I mentioned earlier was for obvious reasons used by microbiologists as till recently photomicrographs were expensive!

A sample sketch of a Camera Lucida used for this purpose is shown below:

Click to Enlarge

[A Camera Lucida: Image Courtesy, The Botanic Gardens Trust, Sydney ]


According to a controversial art history theory called the Hockney-Falco hypothesis advanced by a British-American artist David Hockney, quite a few of the great artists of the past whose works lead to advances in Realism were using optical aids and that their creations were not entirely due to their skill as is held. The evidence for this proposal is based solely on the characteristics of the paintings. Hockney’s collaborator Charles Falco who is a condensed matter physicist and an expert on optics calculated the amount of distortions that would result with the use of certain optical aids. Such distortions have been found in the works of quite a few artists such as Ingres, Carvaggio etc. Their controversial idea is summarized in Hockney’s book: Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters.

[Image Source: Amazon]

The Camera Lucida is also very easy to make and I going to make one of these soon!

PS: Also check out the David Hockney page at Artsy.

Quick Links:

1. Buy a Camera Lucida

2. The Camera Obscura

3. Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters.

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