November 10, 2001
10:41 PM   Subscribe

Did many of the "great masters" of Western art, well, cheat? Not exactly, says David Hockney, but they were close. In his new book, entitled Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters, Hockney fleshes out a theory that he's been toying with for years: that artists from Raphael to Caravaggio used devices similar to a camera obscura (specifically, a camera lucida), to "assist" them in making near photograph-quality reproductions of their subjects. The theory (and the resulting debate) is fascinating: if these artists did, in fact, benefit from "technical assistance," how should this affect our view of them, and of art history in general?
posted by arco (16 comments total)
I tend to find the counterargument you linked to a bit more convincing than the argument itself. But I'm always fascinated by alternate theories of art, like who really wrote Shakespeare's plays and so on. Not so much for their arguments, but the measures people will go to in order to disprove the grand myths of the artist.

In the end, does it matter? I don't think so, no more than it would matter if Shakespeare smoked pot. (You remember that theory, right?) I think it's this need for "mere mortals" to prove to themselves that sure, anyone could do it.

And the theory came about because of a similiarity with Warhol's work, so it's inherently fraudulent. ;)
posted by solistrato at 12:03 AM on November 11, 2001

I wouldn't be surprised if any of the artists mentioned had used a camera lucida - remember, they were all interested in any technique that would allow them greater accuracy in their paintings, although at the end of the day the fact that all of them can be identified by their style perhaps indicates that they used technology as a tool to achieve their visions, not as an end in itself.

In a sense the laws of perspective could be regarded as another piece of technology - in this case one that is used by the artist to produce construction lines that the artist works around to produce an approximation to reality. How does this differ to using a camera lucida to achieve essentially the same result.

Finally, as someone who used a camera lucida a lot while at university (they are invaluable for producing detailed drawings of fossils) I have to say that they don't make things much easier - they provide a different way of looking at the subject matter and a guide in how to choose which details are necessary to give the viewer a sense of reality.

Great post by the way!
posted by thatwhichfalls at 12:26 AM on November 11, 2001

Why should it matter, really? Like Thatwhich said, it's just another tool, same as getting decent brushes and paints. Or were they also expected to paint with their fingers using pigments they made from crushed berries?
This is a lot like this thread where we got into whether Ansel Adams was a good photographer. Well, sure, but he was an even better darkroom technician. He used the tools available to him to make his results even better.
posted by Su at 1:03 AM on November 11, 2001

It does matter. It doesn't have to enhance, detract or affect appreciation of the art from a personal point of view, however.

Through investigations of this sort we can discover or confirm ideas about how such art was created. In the process some concepts or techniques that have been lost over the ages might reappear. Or we might be confounded to find what we take as thoroughly modern concepts in use much earlier than we had known. Take Vermeer. I love his paintings; learning he used such a device or not would add to my knowledge of how he did it; the personal impact of his work on me would remain the same.

There is a wonderful review by Sanford Schwartz in the New York Review of Books of a Vermeer catalog and a book titled 'Vermeer's Camera: Uncovering the Truth Behind the Masterpieces' by Philip Steadman published in April of this year. (Don't miss the parody Vermeer: The Girl on the Phone with the Tape Measure.
posted by mmarcos at 4:05 AM on November 11, 2001

(Read Gary Faigin's rebuttal before you read any of those other links. You'll save alot of time. As author of the premier book on Facial Expressions, he is highly regarded.)

It seems a bit pompous for Hockney to babble about "rediscovered techniques" of art. These techniques are well known -- there's no new information here. So, why's he framing it like he's betraying Illuminati secrets? (Note to Hockney: Call us when you discover Degas's secret formula for fixing pastels.) He's trying to knock'em down a peg with the simplistic and implicit notion that: You too can be a master. Just use these "cheats" and the art will magically paint itself (or some such crap).

Setting down the proportions and laying out the perspective of a subject via "camera obscura" (or the modern equilalent: an opaque projector) might sound like major shortcut to those who don't actually do art (or illustration, for that matter) -- but its utility fades almost immediately. Observe how true masters created depth in foreshortened images by subtly alternating sharp and fuzzy brush strokes. Note how they often arrange components in the image so that your eye is unconsciously drawn to a area they wish to emphasize. Pay attention to color combinations that clash, blend, punctuate, obscure, harmonize, unify, agitate, or whatever -- depending on the reaction the artist seeks to evoke. Probe for an underlying metaphor; why is one person bathed in warm light while another in the same picture is lit in cold tones?

Is an camera obscura/lucida going to help that sort of artist very much (beyond the initial stages)? Of course not.

People who painted murals generally worked the composition out on paper. Used a simple grid method to enlarge it and transfer the major lines to giant sheets. They then ran a tool over it, punching small pin-sized holes along the lines. They placed the drawing (called a "cartoon", btw) against the wall to be painted, and rubbed charcoal into those holes so that when the cartoon was removed -- they had a broad outline of their subject on the wall. Does knowing this detract from their artistry?

Did artists working on canvas or panel ever use the same techniques? You bet! Some artists, painting from life, often employed a wire grid mechanism. Picture them looking at their subject through a window with wires strung across (vertically and horizontally) dividing that window into smaller equal sections. The window is the same proportion as their canvas. By peering through this device, they can place things more accurately on the canvas or work on isolated trouble spots with ease. I use a similar approach (simplified) at local figure drawing sessions. I use a handheld piece of cardboard with a rectangle cut out of it and penciled-in hash marks running down the side.

Not everyone used these techniques. And those who did didn't use them all the time. They were just another tool available to them.

I think our modern view of art and artists is jaundiced by the cliched French Bohemian who wandered out into the countryside with his easel. set up, and painted whatever he damn well felt. That's great. That produced some marvelous art. But it is certainly not the approach the old masters took (nor should it be -- they had different objectives). They rarely worked au plein or extemporaneously, prefering to hammer out all the details long before touching brush to canvas.
posted by RavinDave at 4:25 AM on November 11, 2001

RavinDave: thanks for that excellent technical write-up.

As much as I like some of Hockney's work (particularly his set designs for various operas), he's really opening himself up for ridicule here.
posted by MrBaliHai at 6:05 AM on November 11, 2001

I remember reading about Hockney's thesis for the first time and being surprised. But in fact most non-artists know very little about artists' techniques; I think Hockney is basically exploiting that. Look! he says. They use this technique you never would have thought of, that anyone can do! But of course the same could be said for just about any given single technique, no? The genius lies in creating a beautiful work out of those techniques, and in inventing new techniques and combinations thereof. And of course raw talent does help, no matter what techniques you use.
posted by mattpfeff at 6:40 AM on November 11, 2001

I was painting a still life this morning
Of a throat lozenge sitting on a copy
Of Tropic of Cancer
The only thing weird about it
Is that a year ago,
I never thought I'd paint anything again
I decided I wasn't ever gonna paint again
It didn't bother me too much
Warhol's dead,
David Hockney's still alive
I don't need to paint

Good work, RavinDave. I'd still like some of the questions the Times article raises answered. Of course, answering them would ultimately derail any of Hockney's comments, but hey, what's new. Thankfully, we're the only generation who has to know who David Hockney is.
posted by J. R. Hughto at 6:49 AM on November 11, 2001

Hockney's presenting a fairly well-established hypothesis as his own discovery: anyone who's encountered books such as Giannibatista della Porta's Natural Magic -- such as any art historian interested in the Renaissance -- will wonder what the fuss is about. (The technology, of course, was imported from those primitive Arabs.)
posted by holgate at 8:40 AM on November 11, 2001

Paleontologists have used similar devices to make detailed drawings of fossil remains, to bring out meaningful details that photographic work might wash out or obscure. Stephen Jay Gould's book "Wonderful Life" talks about it in a few places.
posted by gimonca at 10:01 AM on November 11, 2001

In my humble opinion, whether Michelangelo used a little camera cheat doesn't matter, just as the identify of the "true" Shakespeare doesn't matter. The work is there to be enjoyed and studied-- and besides, no camera lucida could provde Michelangelo with those fantastic flesh tones.
posted by xyzzy at 7:18 PM on November 11, 2001

mmarcos: Check this article out... it pretty effectively asserts that, yeah, Vermeer did use a camera obscura to create his paintings.
posted by crunchland at 9:13 PM on November 11, 2001

I'm of the opinion that camera or none the works stand on their own. Brushes, computers, cameras, etc. are just tools. The skill to use them properly and the innovation required to attempt such things in the first place is amazing, creative, and praise-worthy.
posted by ooklah at 9:15 PM on November 11, 2001

What matters is what you've decided to point the camera at.
posted by fpatrick at 1:34 PM on November 13, 2001

New article over at the times:

It started personal and it stayed personal. Three years ago the artist David Hockney realized that he could not draw like Ingres. Worse yet, he thought that Andy Warhol could. Warhol's drawings were confident, quick and correct. They had the cool assurance of a photograph. The reason was clear: Warhol made his drawings by tracing photographs.

Some great quotes from the Q&A: Hockney appears to have gotten his ass handed to him.
posted by J. R. Hughto at 8:03 AM on December 6, 2001

Thanks for posting that. It makes me wonder why the heck he's made such a big deal about this.
posted by mmarcos at 10:17 AM on December 6, 2001

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