Where Art meets Science

I am, at best, an amateur sketch artist, with my artwork confined to inspired nature pieces when I am travelling. As an untrained “artist”, I find the accurate capturing of perspective and proportions to be perhaps the most challenging and time-consuming part of the drawing. I often have to make manual approximations (using my fingers to gauge) of the relative dimensions of the various objects in the scene, so that they do not appear to be of the wrong size.
It was hence somewhat comforting when I found out that the art grandmasters of old probably used a certain ancient optical device to assist them in creating paintings that are so life-like that they look like modern-day photographs of scenes. This device is called a “camera obscura”, the precursor of the modern camera. It deploys the simple concept of how a pinhole image is created when light rays pass through a small opening, creating an upside-down and laterally inverted image.
camera obscura.png
The blue shaded circle represents a lens, which is often used to produce brighter and sharper images. A mirror tilted at 45 degrees inside the box would invert the image to an upright position for the viewer to see. By en:User:Meggar – en:Image:Camera obscura box.jpg, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1245255
It has long been debated about whether certain famous artists used such optical devices to guide them in their painting. Artists like Canaletto, Rembrandt and Vermeer were suspected to have used them. Even if you know nothing about art history, you may find the title “Girl with a Pearl Earring” familiar. It was painted by Vermeer circa. 1665, and inspired a book and a film in more recent times.
In 2013, a man named Tim Jenison, released a documentary titled “Tim’s Vermeer”, directed by Teller of Penn and Teller fame. Jenison had spent four years proving how Vermeer could have used lenses and mirrors to help him in his artwork. He went to the extent of creating a life-sized replica of one of Vermeer’s works – The Music Lesson, in order to demonstrate how a technique he discovered could enable supposedly anyone (disputable) to paint like Vermeer. Check out the video below to see a clear demonstration of his technique!


The photo above shows how the lens and mirrors are positioned. The lens is in the foreground, focusing the image onto a large curved surface mirror placed against the wall, which in turn reflects the image onto a small mirror that Jenison is pointing at. (Photo by Lisa Krantz)
vermeer comparison
Can you guess which is the “Vermeer” painted by Tim versus the real deal? (It’s the one on the left? (Source: genisyscorp.com)

So, is the use of the camera obscura a form of “cheating”? Tim’s “Vermeer” has its fair share of critics among art historians, saying that it is no where near the real Vermeer painting, and accusing the documentary of undervaluing the skill of the artist.

As someone who takes a certain amount of pride in my drawing, would I actually adopt such a method of “tracing”? To me, art is primarily a form of expression, so there should always be some leeway, some space for the unexpected. To make paintings using such a guided approach doesn’t seem to be much fun, and would limit the engagement of the artist with his/her subject.
Nonetheless, I find this to be a fascinating use of optics.

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