Making Pictures

David Hockney has been a favorite artist of mine for over a decade now. I love how his seemingly sloppy and improvised images utilize heavily academic techniques and approaches, as well as hint at historically important works. Hockney is not only an artist, but an art historian, who is concerned with the ways that pictures have been made over time. Hockney has studied ancient Chinese scrolls, as well as film, theatre, and works from Picasso, and is constantly working with modern technologies including cameras, fax machines and iPads.


Whether you are looking at his photo-collages, paintings, or his drawings, it is obvious that a curious mind is at work. I’m always fascinated by the ways in which Hockney addresses depth and volume, as well as composition, and subject matter. Pearblossom Highway (above) is a good example of Hockney’s ability to describe an otherwise mundane scene in an exciting way that considers both the image-making processes, as well as a satisfying end result.

sir_isiah_80Drawing Makes You See Things Clearer

“Everything Hockney does is about seeing what’s around us, and seeing it better. Recently, he went out in the Yorkshire countryside, where he has been painting for the past two years, and stopped his car beside the road. “I took one of those Japanese sketchbooks and I’d draw different grasses in the hedgerow. After 2 1/2 hours I’d filled the sketchbook, and after that I saw that hedgerow a great deal more clearly.”

“If you’d just photographed it, you wouldn’t be looking in that way. Drawing makes you see things clearer, and clearer and clearer still, until your eyes ache. The image is passing through you in a physiological way, into your brain, into your memory — where it stays — and it’s transmitted by your hands.” That way of working, in Hockney’s view, is well worth preserving.” (Why I Paint Instead of Just Picking Up a Camera, Bloomberg, USA 9/18/2006)

Secret Knowledge

In 2001, Hockney published Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters, an ambitious work that set out to study the use of optics used in creating drawings and paintings over the last 1,000 years. Though much has already been published on mirrors and lenses, Hockney was able to shed light on their importance in creating work, as well as specific processes used with camera obscuras and lucidas.

Since reading Secret Knowledge I haven’t been able to look at Caravaggio’s work the same. The book is a fascinating read and I highly recommend to all my friends that are practicing artists and art historians.

Below is a video 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.

The Camera Lucida Today

How thrilling it was for me to find NeoLucida on Kickstarter last week! Basically, the project is run by two college art professors that have also read and loved Hockney’s book and want others to experience the camera lucida first-hand. Within an hour after backing the project, all 2500 camera lucidas had been spoken for. A few days later the project owners decided to produce a second run of lucidas, and those also sold out in record time. While all 8,500 camera lucidas have been spoken for, I recommend keeping a close eye on the project. Every now and then someone will have to back out of their pledge, and that spot can be snatched up by an observant or lucky donor.


Drawings From the Camera Lucida

To wrap things up, here are a few images I found that were created by artists using a camera lucida. How relevant do you think this technology is today? Is the NeoLucida the best way to utilize portable optics for drawing in 2013? Post your thoughts in the comments section below.

1a7be03bdbd0252f2c452389b2831706_largePortraits by Pablo Garcia, created with an antique camera lucida (c.1900, left), and the NeoLucida (right).


From About.com: “A camera lucida can’t teach you how to choose what to put in or leave out of a drawing or painting, nor what kind of marks to put down. But, by eliminating the need to measure while you’re drawing to get the perspective accurate, it will increase the rate at which you work and free you up to experiment more as you haven’t invested so much time in one picture. The two pen figure studies above were both done in five minutes (they’re done on A2 paper).

 herscheljohn_cape-of-good-hope-observatory-1837John Herschel, Cape of Good Hope Observatory, 1837


  1. I backed this Kickstarter too, Jess. I think it is an awesome drawing aid and I know it will help me improve my skills immensely. I have a very visually oriented mind but I seem to have problems with getting the things I see in my head or even in real life onto paper accurately. It mostly has to do with getting the angles right, and even constant practice has only made a small difference in my competency. I am hoping I will be able to “train” my eye to see the proper angles through the use of the camera lucida. It has been a life long frustration and I am really psyched to see the improvements, if any, this technique can provide.

    • Jess Smart Smiley says:

      No way! We’re NeoLucida buddies 🙂 One of my drawing teachers said something like “Drawing is easy. All you have to do is put the right lines in the right place.” In Hockney’s book he mentions how drawing with a lucida is not exactly tracing–there is a certain kind of skill set required to use it. Half of drawing is seeing or observing, and that’s why I put in a few examples of different artist’s work with using the lucida. Each drawing is quite a bit different from the others. They each picked up on *different* details (something I still haven’t covered in this blog. Shame on me!). Anyway, I’m anxious to give it a go and to see what you come up with.

      • I have a similar teacher, only in blacksmithing. His quote, “If you want it perfect, just make it perfect.” Uh, thanks? Anyway, I am looking forward to this Kickstarter more than some of the others I backed since this is an actual tool. If I haven’t mentioned it or you haven’t noticed, I LOVE TOOLS! Um, yeah, that’s me getting carried away.

      • Jess Smart Smiley says:

        Ha! Thank Heaven for teachers ;P When are you going to run a kickstarter for your knives? I’d be happy to design an emblem or something for you.

  2. Pete Hindle says:

    Hey Jess, interesting that you blogged about this subject.

    I think most of the people who’ve plunked down cash for a Lucida are going to be in for a rude surprise; over-reliance on this tool is only going to produce stiff drawings that don’t ‘pop’. There’s a huge range of skills that are needed to make a good drawing (I’ve only barely begun to work out what they are) and the ability to draw realistic detail is pretty low.

    I have ordered a Neo Lucida, because I’ve been half-heartedly looking for similar objects. The worst case scenario is that loads of people start churning out super-detailed drawings, not thinking about why this technology died out, or what they’re drawing. Fingers crossed we’ll just see a lot of good art!

    • Jess Smart Smiley says:

      Hey Pete, thanks for the comment!

      I’ve always tried to be a careful observer and a calculated draftsman, and each time I try to draw in a new medium or with a new approach I notice all the more that I am more interested in certain kinds of details. Not necessarily realistic details, but the details needed in a drawing to suggest whatever it represents–sometimes just a few lines in the right place. A flood of details will do me no good if I don’t know how to represent them, whether it’s on the computer, in my imagination, or by way of a camera lucida.

      That being said, I think you’re right. A large majority of folks have probably ordered these, thinking that they will become better at drawing, and hopefully that’s the case. More than anything, though, I’m getting one to learn to see better and to get a glimpse into the life and technology of an artist of a different time. It’s fascinating to me that optics are rarely mentioned when talking about the creation of an historic artwork, and yet they were such integral technology for artists like Caravaggio, Vermeer and Cézanne.

      We should all compare drawings when the Neos come.

      • Pete Hindle says:

        hey, thanks for the considered reply. I’ve been travelling since I left that comment, so I apologise for grave-digging on this thread… since this blogpost, I saw an article about the book Memory Drawing (also see http://memorydrawing.com/) which looks to cover some of the same ground I was getting at here.

        I’m also concerned about some other stuff. How does the lens work in normal lighting conditions? It’s a good tool for showing edge delineation, but not everything has hard edges that help you draw it out. I’m going to concentrate on some other stuff over the next few months, but I look forward to working this tool into my practice at the start of next year.

      • Jess Smart Smiley says:

        Welcome back, Pete! I think you hit the nail on the hit with the whole “not everything has hard edges” idea. You can put all the right tools in front of a person, but without having an “artistic” understanding of how to interpret masses of shapes and colors into lines, then the magic is lost. I’ve never used a camera lucida myself, but am excited to give it a shot. Let’s compare what we learn after the show up! Deal? Deal.

        As for the Memory Drawing: it looks like an interesting read. One of my drawing instructors harped on the concept that everything we draw comes from our memories (whether it’s years or seconds old), and I’m all about marrying what we can see in front of us with what we know or remember about it. Another big topic to write about another time. A lot of drawing, I think, is a sort of record-keeping. Have you listened to Sherman Alexie’s thoughts on living in a post-memory society? Though they never mention drawing in the interview, I think it shows the importance of drawing. Check it out: https://jesssmartsmiley.wordpress.com/2011/09/06/an-hour-with-sherman-alexie/

Check out what others are saying...
  1. […] follow-up with my earlier post on David Hockney and his studies of the camera lucida, here he is talking about the making of his photo […]

  2. […] digitally. I’ve been revisiting Hockney’s Secret Knowledge in anticipation of my camera lucida and dreaming of the possibilities within drawing. I like the way I think when I am drawing. When I […]

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