History of the camera lucida

The Lost Secrets of the Old Masters:

This is a very interesting interview with David Hockney, where he explains and demonstrates the use of camera obscuras and camera lucidas in the artwork of the Old Masters chronicled in his book “Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters”.

A shorter version of this interview is on our Home page.

An article about Hockney’s theory: click here.

Watch David Hockney's Secret Knowledge Documentary

Watch this video to see some of the scientific evidence for Hockney's theory!

The History of the Camera Lucida:

For nearly as long as humans have been making art we have employed tools to make our art better and easier. One tool that may have been the first was the camera obscura: in its simplest form is a small hole in the wall of a dark room, which projects an image of the outside world on a wall inside the room. Some have even claimed that a pinhole camera obscura was used to create some of the prehistoric cave drawing 1, but it was defiantly recorded as far back as 500 BC by great thinkers from Aristotle to Leonardo Da Vinci 2. Camera obscura is Latin for "dark room", and is a predecessor to the camera lucida, which is Latin for "light room". It is no coincidence that the names sound similar, and seem to be a play on words to juxtapose the way in which they function.

The camera lucida is an optical devise that allows an artist or scientist to see the transplant image of a subject reflected onto a paper or canvas, so that the image can be traced; thus, making an accurate drawing of the subject. The simplest devise that can achieve this effect is made by looking down through a piece of glass or half-silvered mirror set at a 45° angle. There are also many other configuration that can create a similar transparent image. Each configuration has positive and negative aspects, but some methods are inherently better than others.

This concept, later to be called the camera lucida, was first recorded by the German Scientist Johannes Kepler in his 1611 Dioptrice 3. By 1807 when William Hyde Wollaston patented the devise described by Kepler and gave it the name by which it is known today, the camera lucida, the world had forgotten about Kepler's original description. And we have no way of knowing if Wollaston was knowingly copying Kepler or if this was a relatively common case of multiple people inventing the same devise separately.

In the mid nineteenth century, Alexander Alexander invented an improved version of the camera lucida, which he called the Graphic Mirror or mirror type camera lucida. This camera lucida had a more stable image when compared to the original Wollaston design, but the Wollaston design could easily accommodate lenses to magnify a subject.

The different types of camera lucidas that were used throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries varied only slightly from the original Wollaston and Alexander designs (shown below). They experienced waves of popularity in the artistic community by well know and amateur artist; although, sometimes their use was shrouded in trade secrecy. Among the scientific community; however, they experienced diminishing popularity as modern photography developed and camera lucida drawings of specimens and ruins were replaced with photographs. And by the late twentieth century, the camera lucida had become lost to the knowledge of most people apart from art and photography historians.

Until 2001, when artist David Hockney published "Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters". His argument, known as the Hockney-Falco thesis, is that great artists of the past, such as Ingres, Van Eyck, and Caravaggio did not work freehand, but were guided by optical devices such as the camera obscura and camera lucida 3. This brought interest back to the camera lucida. The existing supply of camera lucidas increased in value as demand went up, so a few manufactures started producing the old Wollaston and Alexander designs, but only enjoyed limited success and circulation because of the inherent problems with the traditional camera lucida such as: a small reflected image, dim image that was hard to see, unstable image and the high price tag.

A young artist, named Les Cookson, was introduced to the camera lucida while attending a painting class by Mick Sheldon. Sheldon was showing the class his own version of the camera lucida, which he called the "Mick Lucida". The first time Cookson looked through the camera lucida he didn't even understand what he was looking at; somehow what looked to be a hologram of the gourds that were set up in front of the "Mick Lucid" were reflected on to the paper. It took a minute and a second look for it to sink in, but when it did Cookson was overcome with excitement that such a devise existed and immediately stated to work on plans to find ways to improve the camera lucida and solve the problems with the Wollaston and Alexander designs.

After four years of working with, researching, experimenting with and building camera lucidas, selling his various creations to artist all over the world in order to fund his efforts and test the effectiveness of his work and incorporating the impute and ideas he got in to his efforts, he finally created a camera lucida that incorporated the positive aspects of the Wollaston and Alexander designs while solving all of the inherent problems with the traditional camera lucida. He dubbed his ultimate camera lucida: the LUCID-Art.

Old Photo
Old Photo
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