More than 500 years ago, it was discovered that when an image is projected onto a wall in a dark chamber, an optical effect could be created by light passing through a small hole on the opposite wall. This observation led to the development of devices like the camera obscura, camera lucida, and eventually the invention of photography itself. With each advancement, artists were given the opportunity to reflect on the nature of image-making and the role it plays in interpreting our world. One tool, in particular, the Camera Lucida, gained popularity in the 1800s as a simple and effective drawing aid for artists. In basic terms, it’s an optical device that uses a prism to superimpose the subject onto the surface on which an artist is working. Looking through one side of the prism as though it were a screen, the artist could see a transparent image of the subject as well as their actual drawing below, allowing the artist to seemingly draw directly on top of the image.
Modern smartphone and tablet technology have taken the concept of the camera lucida and given it a 21-century update. The Camera Lucida app is an app that was developed to improve drawing accuracy and satisfaction by mimicking the fundamental principles of its traditional namesake. The robust application is packed with tons of additional features and functions, making it an easy and effective tool for artists. Rather than using a prism to merge the subject and surface, the app uses the smartphone camera and a digital photograph. While using the app, the artist looks through the screen of the phone (or tablet) to observe both the surface on which they’re drawing as well as a superimposed transparent reference image. While a traditional camera lucida can come with significant costs, this app is available for just $10.
Camera Lucida App: A Test Drive
You may be thinking “Wait … is using this kind of drawing aid akin to cheating?” While I certainly embrace the objective of creating artwork from life through the challenge of studying, understanding, and translating the 3-dimensional subject onto a 2-dimensional surface, I also enjoy exploring new tools to see what they can teach me. I’m particularly intrigued by optical devices, not to make the drawing process easier, but to uncover the deeper connection between the subject and the drawing. For me, the idea of “easy” or “hard”—“cheating” or “rules”—is of little value in my process. It’s with that mindset that I approach this test of the Camera Lucida app to assist me in the creation of two drawings.
As the app can be used in both “basic” and “advanced” functions, I use the “basic” function for the first drawing and the “advanced” function for the second. The basic function is best used with a smartphone, using its camera to allow for the viewing of the drawing through the screen. The advanced function works by using the front-facing camera of an iPad or Android tablet, allowing you to view your drawing on the screen of the tablet with the reference image and other tools overlaid on the drawing.
My adventure begins by first exploring all the in-app tutorials to familiarize myself with the options available. These tutorials are easy to follow and help provide a basic orientation point for how the app functions. In this article, I’ll be focusing on how application factors in the development of a drawing, rather than the technical aspects of how this application works. I encourage you to visit Camera Lucida on the Web for more information, tutorials, and frequently asked questions. With numerous advanced features to explore, I keep it simple for the first drawing and simply get comfortable with the basic setup and the challenge of looking through a screen to complete a drawing.
Demo One: Drawing a Portrait Using a Basic Setup
Step 1: The initial setup for my first drawing presents an interesting challenge. I need a solution for securing my phone, allowing me to adjust the height and comfortably look through the phone while drawing. My solution is to strap a short piece of scrap wood to the head of my painting tripod. Placing the phone in such a way that the camera overhangs the wood directly above the paper. Then I adjust the height until my paper fits precisely in my camera’s screen. With a few quick clicks in the app, I bring the reference image onto the screen as well, adjust the transparency, and I’m off and running! The drawing process begins as any other drawing with a quick gesture of the subject to warm up and establish the major forms. The advantage to using Camera Lucida at this stage is that my initial gesture is more accurate than a typical gesture, but I still want to ensure my marks remain loose and expressive.
Step 2: With the gesture established, I move on to correcting proportions. So far, the application has supported my natural process for developing a drawing, starting from a gesture before calculating the proportions and adjusting my marks. It’s in this step, however, that I see the greatest benefit. I’m able to adjust the gesture more quickly and with greater accuracy than when I rely on traditional techniques. When I focus my attention on the proportions, I become aware of the ways in which I interpret things inaccurately in the reference, putting my instincts and assumptions in check.
Step 3: In this next phase, I rely on the reference in full opacity, so I can engage with the drawing and reference directly. At this point, I’m thinking less about calculating correct proportions and details, and am connecting with the image on more of an emotional level. I’m thinking about the large shapes, the quality of light, and edges, allowing the drawing to evolve as a unique image in response to the reference, rather than trying to replicate the photo reference precisely.
Step 4: I complete the drawing with the assistance of the Camera Lucida app again. I lower the opacity of the reference image, allowing me to superimpose the reference and drawing. The facial features require refinement, so I sharpen my charcoal and get to work. The technology of this app keeps the reference and drawing locked together, so with one quick gesture, they enlarge in unison on the screen. I remain absorbed in the finer details of the facial features, stepping back from the drawing as I typically do to evaluate the result and ensure the drawing is unified, expressive, and accurate.
I’m pleased that the Camera Lucida allowed for a portrayal of the subject that is not only accurate but full of expression.
Demo Two: Drawing a Landscape With an Advanced Feature
Step 1: The setup for this second drawing is quite different than the first, but I’m excited to explore this option. To use one of the Camera Lucida’s advanced features, I first borrow my daughter’s old Osmo® device, which is essentially a tablet stand with an angled mirror that fits over the front-facing camera. The tablet stands vertically in front of me, with my drawing paper placed on the desk at its base. With the camera on, I see the paper on the screen stretched out and distorted by the view from the camera being deflected by the mirror. A simple calibration quickly fixes this distortion on the screen so that the paper now fits squarely on the screen. I now bring the reference image up, lower the opacity, and I’m ready to draw my initial gesture. I immediately notice the difference in working this way compared to the previous drawing. Looking into a larger screen directly in front of me, rather than down and through the phone in my first drawing feels more comfortable to me.
Step 2: The gesture is established as I react to the basic form of the subject. I then move into the second phase, correcting and adjusting the proportions, refining the larger shapes while ignoring details. As with the first drawing, it’s in this stage that I particularly appreciate how the device assists me with speed and accuracy.
Step 3: With the large shapes refined, next I explore the additional features of the application. I’m particularly interested in the Gaussian blur, Wash Levels, and Grayscale modes. It’s fascinating to observe how these features correlate to the tools I use in a traditional approach to drawing—strategies like squinting, indirect gazing, and other tricks, all of which help me better understand the unique shapes, value relationships, and edges of the subject.
Step 4: To complete the drawing, I select areas for further refinement and details. As with the basic function, the advanced functions allow me to zoom in on the reference and drawing simultaneously. I add some final touches with white charcoal to bring out the highlights and the drawing is complete!
Using the Camera Lucida app has been a fun and enlightening experience. It’s exciting to experience the continuing tradition of artists exploring the use of new technology to discover new ways of working.
Check out the Camera Lucida app and discover ways in which it can support your own approach to making art.