I have just posted a portfolio of pencil drawings done using a camera lucida at Comics Lifestyle. About ten years ago an article about David Hockney’s controversial theory that great artists from the Renaissance on had used lenses, mirrors and other optical devices to project images for tracing made me curious to try it for myself; the camera lucida was one of the devices mentioned in the article (Hockney insists he sees signs of its use in lngres’s penciled portraits), and my friend Steve Abrams happened to have one sitting around that he wasn’t using. He generously agreed to let me have it for an extended loan.
The camera lucida was patented in 1807 by William Hyde Wollaston. It is basically a prism on a stick which displays a transparent image of the object to be drawn through which one can see the paper the way one can see both the display in a shop window and a reflection of the street; the artist traces the image onto the page with a pencil. It is by no means easy to use, and its difficulty hastened the development of photography. While on honeymoon in Italy in 1833, the photographic pioneer William Fox Talbot used a camera lucida as a sketching aid. He later recorded that it was a disappointment with his resulting efforts which encouraged him to seek a means to “cause these natural images to imprint themselves durably”.
Most of the drawings I have done using the device have been nudes drawn at Hipbone Studio, a space for artists in Southeast Portland. The physical limitations imposed by the distance between the prism and the table make it difficult to draw beyond a certain size, and most of my drawings were done in a small moleskin sketchbook (I did do a few larger drawing by putting my pad on the floor and drawing with a novelty store giant pencil) Because of the imposed tiny drawing size I pretty much only use the device during the ten to fifteen minute sessions, and in longer sessions do larger drawings freehand.
I use the device pretty much the way Hockney recommends, to fix the positions of a few key landmarks,(hands, eyes, mouth, chin, nipples, crotch, knees) and then adding the rest freehand. The camera lucida does not do your drawing for you, but it is very useful in drawing complex features like tattoos- and good luck finding an artist’s model without a tattoo in Portland these days.