This post was prompted by a reader’s comment that Jan Van Eyck would have loved using digital cameras, Photoshop, and other current visual aids.
Canaletto, the 18th century Venetian painter of views, used the camera obscura (two of his devices are in the Museo Correr, Venice) to produce rapidly traced drawings of the buildings and views he might later paint. The four drawings shown here are, because they are traced drawings, a little lifeless.
A camera obscura is, as it sounds, a dark chamber or box. It has a small aperture, through which the image of the externally lit subject is projected upside down onto the opposite wall of the room or box. Later refinements included lenses and mirrors to sharpen and right the upside down images. There has been much written about whether the artists Caravaggio and Jan Vermeer used the camera obscura in creating their pictures. (As a curious aside, no drawings have been convincingly attributed to either Caravaggio and Vermeer.) One reason for thinking these artists used a camera obscura is because of the remarkable clarity and detail in their work. The painter David Hockney goes so far as to claim that artists as early as Jan Van Eyck used optical aids. There is absolutely no documentation showing that Van Eyck, Caravaggio, or Vermeer used such devices.
Many artists try to assist other artists (and possibly further their own reputation) by writing about the practice of art. Dürer in his Underweysung der Messung or Instruction in Measurement uses the following woodcut as an aid for teaching perspective.
The woodcut shows an artist viewing his subject through a window, compartmentalized into squares, so that each square could be methodically understood and then recorded on the gridded drawing paper.
One much used device was the Claude Glass. Named after the 17th century artist Claude Lorrain, it came into use in the 18th century. The Claude Glass is a darkened, slightly convex mirror. It functions as a view finder and, because of its tinted nature, it creates an artfully cohesive tone, suggesting the dreamy effect of a Claude landscape under yellowed varnish.
It was used by artists, both professional and amateur and also by people who just wanted to see what fashion told them was a more perfect landscape. There is a drawing in the British Museum by the artist Thomas Gainsborough which shows an artist, possibly a self-portrait, holding a Claude Glass in one hand and drawing implement in the other, to record what he was seeing on the paper on his lap.
Gainsborough had another interesting way of working, that of collecting plants and using them in his studio to create miniature landscapes. His friend the painter Joshua Reynolds tells us about Gainsborough:
“He even framed a kind of model of landscapes on his table; composed of broken stones, dried herbs, and pieces of looking glass, which he magnified and improved into rocks, trees and water. How far this latter practice may be useful in giving hints, the professors of landscape can best determine. Like every other technical practice, it seems to me wholly to depend on the general talent of him who used it. Such methods may be nothing better than comtemptible and mischievous trifling; or they may be aids.”
The works of Sir Joshua Reynolds, knight … : containing his Discourses, Idlers, A journey to Flanders and Holland, and his commentary on Du Fresnoy’s art of painting / printed from his revised copies, (with his last corrections and additions) In three volumes. To which is prefixed An account of the life and writings of the author by Edmond Malone, esq. …, 3d ed. corrected, London 1801, vol. II, p. 154.