52 Weeks of Historical How-To’s, Week 41: Drawing with a Camera Lucida

Back before the days of photography, society relied on the ‘artist’s impression’ to see people they would never meet or places they would never go. Artists used drawing aids such as mirrors, prisms, lenses, and camera obscuras (Latin for dark room, although strictly speaking the plural should be camerae obscurae) to fine-tune their craft. In 1808 William Wollaston invented and patented the camera lucida which became very popular, very quickly. The camera lucida (Latin for light room), is simply a brass stand with a prism and a few lenses.

01 Brass Camera Lucida in carying case, ca. 1860's_1

Brass Camera Lucida in carying case, ca. 1860’s

The camera lucida is still being used today, albeit by a select few who can get their hands on one (see note below). While seeking inspiration for yet another blog, I happened to stumble upon (not literally of course) ‘Forty Etchings, from sketches made with the Camera Lucida, in North America, in 1827 and 1828’ by Captain Basil Hall in our collections. As I was in possession of a camera lucida (on loan from a friend) and was heading off on holidays to Canada, it seemed a bit like fate that I should have a go at this for our blog.

02b Title page and fold out map showing Capt Hall's route through Canada and America in 1827 and 1828 [rfF1013.H2]_1

Title page and fold out map showing Capt Hall’s route through Canada and America in 1827 and 1828 [rfF1013.H2]

I ventured into this very tentatively, as one of the iconic ‘camera lucida’ stories comes from the pre-photographic days of William Henry Fox Talbot, who, on his honeymoon at Lake Como in Italy in 1833, was so miserable with his camera lucida that he decided to find a way to capture an image ‘by the agency of Light alone, without any aid whatever from the artist’s pencil’. Within a few years he had gone on to invent the photographic negative, just to compensate for the shortcomings of his own drawing.

03 Ilustration of how the camera lucida work, as published in Scientific America magazine, 11 Jan 1879_1

Ilustration of how the camera lucida works, as published in Scientific America magazine, 11 Jan 1879

The lucida’s prism is the heart of the instrument. The prism splits the image and allows the artist to see both their drawing paper and the subject simultaneously. Initially it can be a bit tricky to see as you are only seeing a small sliver of overlap between the two, split images. Some of my Special Collections colleagues wanted to have a go at this over the past few days while I had the lucida in the office. Strangely, people’s reactions were a bit mixed. The strain on the eyes and strange view can be a bit uncomfortable; two colleagues felt particularly unwell, noting headache and nausea after only a few minutes (the experiment was promptly stopped for my co-workers’ well-being). I for one felt fine and got used to the process rather quickly.

04 When looking through the prism, your view is split. There is only a very narrow band to draw in. Also, note how a small shift in viewing angle will alter the perspective_1

When looking through the prism, your view is split. There is only a very narrow band to draw in. Also, note how a small shift in viewing angle will alter the perspective

Captain Hall obviously had no issues mastering the use of the camera lucida. His book opens with an explanatory memorandum which states:

“This valuable instrument ought, perhaps, to be more generally used by travellers than it now is; for it enables a person of ordinary diligence to make correct outlines of many foreign scenes.”

It goes on “It should be recollected that in most cases, it is not striking or beautiful views that we require, but merely correct representations …” This is precisely what the lucida is meant to assist with: the portrayal of a realistic representation. Although the basic outline form can be drawn using the lucida, the details Hall drew in afterwards really added to the overall quality of the images.

05 Plate IV - Niagara's famous Horse Shoe Falls. In the top right you can see a large hotel, almost 200 years ago they were already starting to take-over the area._1

Plate IV – Niagara’s famous Horse Shoe Falls. In the top right you can see a large hotel, almost 200 years ago they were already starting to take-over the area. [rfF1013.H2]

06 Plate VII - The town of Buffalo on the American side of Lake Erie. [rfF1013.H2]_1

Plate VII – The town of Buffalo on the American side of Lake Erie. [rfF1013.H2]

07 Plate X - A lovely detailed view of Rochester New  York [rfF1013.H2]_1

Plate X – A lovely detailed view of Rochester New York [rfF1013.H2]

Once you have the lucida set up, you cannot move it until you have finished your drawing as it is really difficult to get the exact same alignment again. Most people use a good sturdy tripod with a flat surface attached as their drawing surface. As I prefer to do things the difficult way, and wasn’t travelling with a tripod, I just used what was available, i.e. a tall stool in one case and a small box in another.

08 Being a bit lazy (and already over-packed), I didnt want to travel with a tripod as well. I managed to find other good stable ways to set up._1

Being a bit lazy (and already over-packed), I didnt want to travel with a tripod as well. I managed to find other good stable ways to set up.

I thought I would start off easy with a simple lake/beach/pier/lighthouse view. I realised quickly that far-away objects are more difficult to get right because of the limited detail one can actually capture with this instrument. The learning curve may be steep, but improvement can be seen pretty quickly. I was heartened to read in the Memorandum:

”… while persons altogether ignorant of the subject, are disappointed to find, that for the first day or two they advance but little. … But they may rest assured, that a little perseverance will put all these difficulties to flight, after which, the wonderful economy of time and trouble will bar more than overpay the short labour of the instruction”.

So I persevered, and by the end of my third drawing I was less depressed about my new artistic venture.

09 My first experiment with the lucida, Port Dover Lighthouse, Ontario on Lake Erie. Simple enough but a bit rudimentary_1

My first experiment with the lucida, Port Dover Lighthouse, Ontario on Lake Erie. Simple enough but a bit rudimentary

10 By my third drawing, I was making things a bit more complicated for myself. This group of log barns were a bit of a chore and took a good long while to draw_1

By my third drawing, I was making things a bit more complicated for myself. This group of log barns were a bit of a chore and took a good long while to draw.

As pleased as I was to see my improvements, it was clear to see how Hall’s years of practice made him much better at drawing log cabins than I was.

11 Plate XXII - Capt. Hall's far more detailed drawing of a log house in Georgia and rather amusing anecdotes of peoples reactions to his work. [rfF1013.H2]_1

Plate XXII – Capt. Hall’s far more detailed drawing of a log house in Georgia and rather amusing anecdotes of peoples reactions to his work. [rfF1013.H2]

12 Slightly awkward drawing angle_1

Slightly awkward drawing angle

It felt a bit unnatural at times as I couldn’t adjust the paper and my arm had to stay out of the way. In retrospect it would probably be easier to draw from left to right. I hadn’t ventured into the realm of adding shading and features. But by the end of my fourth drawing I was getting much more comfortable with the process.

13 My fourth and final lucida drawing, 1820's farmhouse in Eastern Ontario, Canada_1

My fourth and final lucida drawing, 1820’s farmhouse in Eastern Ontario, Canada

Overall I think it was a fun tool to use if you like drawing but don’t have the confidence. Others I have spoken with who regularly use the lucida say ‘you really must be able to draw first’. In many respects I think this is correct, but even if you are a person of “ordinary diligence” you should find this tool a wonderful aid and well worth a shot!

-RN

Special thanks to Richard Cynan Jones for the loan of his camera lucida and allowing me to take it on a trans-Atlantic journey, it peaked the (friendly) curiosity of many airport security staff along the way.

NB: Getting your own camera lucida can be pretty expensive as they are pretty highly sought after items on eBay often fetching in the region of £200. However, in doing some research for this blog I found an old KickStarter page by two art teachers in Chicago who make a modern rendition of the camera lucida and a wonderfully reasonable rate. I haven’t personally known anyone who has tried this for themselves, but their lucida was so successful it will be getting a second production-run over the next few months. Check them out here if you fancy giving it a try for yourself?!

27 responses to “52 Weeks of Historical How-To’s, Week 41: Drawing with a Camera Lucida

  1. Thank you for another fascinating and useful article that showcases an old technology still relevant today. The link to the modern version of the device at the end of the article was most elucidative, too.

  2. It is week 41 and I am posting my first comment, but this was one post which is still relevant today. Thanks for this article. I actually did not know what a camera lucida was. Your article, and the Kickstarter link were very helpful. Keep up the extrememly interesting work. I am a regular reader of this blog.

    • Glad we were finally able to break your silence. You are exactly right, despite it being a little known drawing aid, it is still quite relevant today. Thanks for your comment and being a dutiful follower. -RN

  3. Have you seen Penn Teller’s documentary Tim’s Vermeer? It’s available on Netflix. It’s about a very wealthy, and possibly bored, Texas man who decides to paint his very own Vermeer using a camera obscura. He succeeds mechanically but not artistically. David Hockney who first posited the theory that Vermeer used a camera obscura to create his paintings is interviewed in the film. I too love this blog. Thank you!

    • Hi Linda, I have not seen Teller’s documentary, but I will definitely look it up on Netflix, thank you. I would have also liked to do a few drawings on the camera obscura. It was around a lot longer than the lucida, and obviously has more direct connections to the birth of photography. I tried to do use my photographic camera obscura ( sadly not good for drawing, only taking pictures) in the Pencil of Nature blog post back in week 3, but we just didn’t have enough sunlight. Thanks again, -RN

  4. Pingback: Whewell’s Gazette: Vol. 9 | Whewell's Ghost·

    • Interesting question, Segmation. I think it could be a bit of a rabbit hole. Some artists will implement multiple tools in their drawing practices; proportions, perspectives, mathematical ratios and the-like will play a role. Creating the lucida would have taken an extensive knowledge of maths and science as well. For my part, however I really did not do much more than sketch what I saw. But Capt. Hall was far more accomplished, so likely he approached his drawing in a methodical, and perhaps mathematical fashion. – RN

  5. I really enjoyed this piece. I’m always interested in historical methods and art mediums. I feel as though you took me back to another time. Thank you.
    Right now I’m interested in the old black and white portraits and how they were colored by hand.

    • Glad you enjoyed it. For more historical-art (photographic art really) check out the blog posts from week 3 and 15. I have not ventured down the road of hand colouring images myself. I have been lucky enough to see Mike Robinson hand tint a daguerreotype, it is such delicate work, I am pretty sure I held my breath the entire time! – RN

  6. I’ve never heard of such a device until now. Frankly it’s seems pretty cool! Would this work pretty se in front of a computer? Hmmm…i feel an experiment comin..

  7. Hmmm. thanks. i tried to contact them but I the link to contact them does not work. Do they only accept questions from within the USA? I live in Australia.

  8. I love this article. I had never known about the Lucida before this evening – but I think I may just log on to eBay and…😉 Brilliant! And good attempts by the author, too. R

  9. You wrote: “Plate IV – Niagara’s famous Horse Shoe Falls. In the top right you can see a large hotel, almost 200 years ago they were already starting to take-over the area.”

    The Canada House was known as “Way Farers Tavern” and stood on the east lawn of Loretto Academy. In 1860, the Archbishop Lynch of the Roman Catholic Church acquired an extensive tract of land where the old Canada House stood from Peter Skinner. The former Canada House building became the first Loretto Academy.

    In 1856, John Lynch, an Irishman, founded a Seminary near Lewiston, New York. The site today, is part of the grounds of Niagara University. As a child, Lynch had envisioned Niagara Falls as a place for people to worship.

    Lynch became the Archbishop of Toronto. Archbishop Lynch purchased a plot of land overlooking the Falls along the Canadian side of the Niagara Gorge. He deeded six acres to the Sisters of Loretto.

    The Loretto Convent began in 1861 at the former site of a tavern called “Canada House”. This tavern was located in front of the current Loretto Academy building on Stanley Avenue overlooking the Falls.

    The abandoned and derelict tavern was repaired and remodeled for five Sisters of Loretto Community.

    Currently: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c1HvboIitFw

    • about Irenesverd’s comment: only 5 nuns left in the Sisters of Loretto? Or 5 communities left in the order of the Sisters of Loretto?

  10. Pingback: 52 Weeks of Historical How-To’s: Reflections and Visual Index | Echoes from the Vault·

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