Camera Obscura and the Paintings of Old Masters

Did you know that some of the most famous master painters from centuries past may have actually used camera “technology” to aid them in creating their masterpieces? According to the hotly debated Hockney-Falco thesis, some well-known artists likely used rudimentary camera obscura rooms as a tool — essentially “tracing” parts of their work.

One of the better known painters that may have used such techniques is Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer, creator of the masterpiece Girl with a Pearl Earring that has been affectionately called the “Mona Lisa of the North.” Using a camera obscura with a primitive lens would produce halation, which would explain the sparkling pearly highlights often found in Vermeer’s paintings.

Other masters “accused” of using such techniques include Rembrandt and Caravaggio.

British artist and art historian David Hockney outlined his findings in a book titled Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters. Here’s the description:

Hockney’s extensive research led him to conclude that artists such as Caravaggio, Velázquez, da Vinci, and other hyperrealists actually used optics and lenses to create their masterpieces. In this passionate yet pithy book, Hockney takes readers on a journey of discovery as he builds a case that mirrors and lenses were used by the great masters to create their highly detailed and realistic paintings and drawings. Hundreds of the best-known and best-loved paintings are reproduced alongside his straightforward analysis.

Hockney also includes his own photographs and drawings to illustrate techniques used to capture such accurate likenesses. Extracts from historical and modern documents and correspondence with experts from around the world further illuminate this thought-provoking book that will forever change how the world looks at art.

Proponents of Hockney’s theory maintain that this doesn’t take away from the artist’s talent, while detractors such as essayist Susan Sontag have been quoted as saying (rather tongue-in-cheek) that:

If David Hockney’s thesis is correct, it would be a bit like finding out that all the great lovers of history have been using Viagra.”

Whatever the art history ramifications, the interesting part of this theory — at least as far as we’re concerned — is the implication that maybe even great artists needed a little help from the “technology” of their day. And as Hockney himself pointed out, “optical devices certainly don’t paint pictures…”

If Vermeer was the old-time equivalent of an image sensor, then we certainly won’t fault him for inserting himself into a high-end camera to properly expose his subject.

(via Koop Films and Wikipedia)

Thanks for sending in the tip, Phil!

  • Scott M

    Read David Hockneys’ book. Very well done argument. Even with lens based help, painting isn’t so easy to do. Now, if the Old Masters used photoshop, that would be cheating.

  • Ken Elliott

    I think of him as a photographer who didn’t have the luxury of film – thus had to do it “the hard way”.

  • Rob Howard

    The Old Masters would have used any tool available that would have made their paintings better or easier to produce (only fools do everything the hard way just for the reason that its the hard way). If the Old Masters were alive today they’d use every tool at their disposal, including Photoshop, and they’d push each one to the limit.

  • Scott M

    I agree, Roberts Howard. Miss the old Ceninni store. Hope you are well.

  • Mike

    Norman Rockwell used photography to support his incredibly appealing illustrations. To mix a metaphor a bit, I think the test is in the tasting, not preparing.

  • kileak

    what you say its true, but sometimes its harder to learn a new tool or tecnique witch can have only little improvement on your work… so instead of learning if you have to work and sell a piece of art, you can consider going with the simply way = old photographers maybe go with film instead of learning camera raw

  • Urs

    I’ve only recently gotten aware of how many camera(s) obscura (effects) there are in daily life – has anyone here ever tried to turn a whole room into one? I wonder how much you actually see with the naked eye.

  • Peabody

    This idea of “tracing” is certainly used by modern artists, including Hockney. In fact, there’s a documentary showing one of Hockney’s famous swimming pool paintings where the guy standing at the end of the pool, looking down, is being traced onto the canvas from an overhead-projected photograph – by Hockey’s assistant.

  • Peabody

    The use of lenses, mirrors and cameras obscura beginning in about 1420, as Hockney asserts, forms the basis of one explanation for the image found on the Shroud of Turin – that it is actually a photographic negative image of a staged cadaver created using a photochemical process known at the time.

  • Sean Walsh

    Slow news day at PetaPixel… I did a project on the camera obscura back in high school and how it was used by artists (or more often their assistants/proteges) to sketch out the images they would later paint, not unlike how modern painters often take a snapshot and later recreate the image on a canvas with their own spin on it (e.g. using a particular brush size, or stroke, dramatically different colours, etc.). The notion that some artists went the next step and actually did their work right there in the camera obscura is not that hard to believe. Why the hell wouldn’t they?

  • Pablo

    The Great Masters used assistants extensively. Paintings are even classified by how much of them were worked on by the Master versus their assistants.

    The camera obscura is not much different than the lines of perspective that Italian Masters used to ensure proper proportions and the golden ratio.

  • cienna

    the diy camera obscera that you wear on your head is pretty awesome

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  • Skip Van Lenten

    The amount of “tracing” from primitive photographic techniques would have to be equally primitive, and confined to issues like alignment of objects and subjects in the preliminary drawing. Having to actually paint them, is the real art.

  • Skip Van Lenten

    The amount of “tracing” from primitive photographic techniques would have to be equally primitive, and confined to issues like alignment of objects and subjects in the preliminary drawing. Having to actually paint them, is the real art.