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Do Optics Make Art? The Great Tools Debate

"To say that there were no great painters before optical devices is like saying there were no great lovers before Viagra."

Three years ago the artist David Hockney realized that he could not draw with the precision of others. Worse yet, he thought that Andy Warhol had the talent he lacked, Warhol's drawings had an element of realism, they were quick and correct, with the cool assurance of a photograph. The reason was clear: Warhol made his drawings by tracing photographs.

Starting with that jangling observation, Mr. Hockney derived a new theory of art and optics: in the early 1400's, artists began secretly using cameralike devices, including the lens, the concave mirror and the camera obscura, to help them make realistic-looking paintings. His list of suspects includes van Eyck, Caravaggio, Lotto, Vermeer and other lesser known artists. All of them, Mr. Hockney suggests, knew the magic of photographic projection. They saw how good these devices were at projecting a three-dimensional world onto a two-dimensional surface. And temptation followed.

Mr. Hockney and scientist Mr. Falco first presented their case in a 75-minute documentary film to a group of anxious attendees at a New York University symposium titled "Art and Optics: Toward an Evaluation of David Hockney's New Theories Regarding Opticality in Western Painting of the Past 600 Years." Rather than presenting documentary evidence of optical instruments, they showed how the paintings gave themselves away.

The suspect paintings shown were too correct and too natural to have been "eyeballed" or drawn freehand. The armor, eyes, lutes and clothes in them look too real; the expressions appear too fleeting.

Yet these paintings are not without flaws. They have parts that are out of focus, like photographs. Or they have multiple vanishing points and parts that do not quite fit together, telltale signs that the artist focused and refocused his lens to capture different parts of his picture. Or they have an abundance of left-handed drinkers, suggesting that a reversing lens was used. Some actually contain depictions of optical devices. Van Eyck's "Arnolfini Wedding," for example, shows a convex mirror whose concave side might have acted as a lens that projected an image onto a flat surface.

Mr. Hockney is not accusing any artist of cheating. "I am not even saying that people traced," he added. "Optics don't make art." The lens, the mirror and the camera obscura are all just tools. The point is that artists encountered them much earlier than anyone thought.

Art historians did not take this lying down, there is plenty of evidence that artists like Michelangelo, Raphael and Caravaggio had "no need for fuzzy, upside-down images." They made freehand preparatory sketches instead.

One attendee attacked Mr. Hockney's ideology of picture making. To say that there were no great painters before optical devices, she said, is like saying there were no great lovers before Viagra. To argue that there is a "direct line from van Eyck to television" is to use present-day mass visual culture as the lens through which the past is examined. It represents the "Warholization of art."

Other criticisms came in hard and fast. One woman brought in her wedding dress. As evidence that artists can draw patterned cloth without the aid of optics, she compared the dress to a wedding portrait that an artist with "an eyeballer par excellence," had made of her sitting in that dress. "This is what I call scientific evidence," she said.

Another critic, considering the little convex mirror in van Eyck's Arnolfini wedding picture, said that it would have been unikely Eyck's painting was created with the aid of optical devices because getting a lens that would "hold Arnolfini, his wife and dog," would have required a huge mirror, sliced from a sphere seven feet in diameter. If van Eyck had used the lens in a camera obscura, he would have had to paint upside-down. Also, there was the lighting problem: the projected image in a camera obscura would have been too dim. "To mimic the conditions indoors would have required hundreds of candles, and then, how would the artist have survived the fire hazard? "

Eventually the tone changed. A curator at the Metropolitan Museum, suggested that master draftsman Ingres might have done some tracing. A Caravaggio scholar, noted that in 1672 a critic described something in Caravaggio's studio that sounded a lot like a camera obscura. Vermeer scholars also aided Hockney's theory by pointing out that some of the master's paintings are different viewpoints of the same room, and all have been done on the same size canvas. Why? Because he has traced them from images created in a camera obscura.

While the debate over the use of historical optical devices may continue, no one can argue the usefulness of tools available to today's artist. While many artists find it shameful to be caught using photographs, others make paintings that are undeniably based on photographs, using the medium as a clarification tool. For our purposes, that of providing the best talent for your communications project, it goes without saying that although there is no "moral issue" with using creative aids, simply knowing how to work the tools is not enough. Talent and style are gifts. Tools aid people who know their craft.