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Through the Magnifying Glass: Painters or Photographers?

by Doifel Videla



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George Desmarées, 1744. Portrait of the Court Painter Franz Joachim Beich, with his tools. (From David Hockney’s book: Secret Knowledge)


In December 2001, an eventful conference was held in New York, crowning two years of intense research during which the painter David Hockney collected evidence to prove the thesis that the nature of painting was radically altered when it adopted the projected image as a tracing pattern. According to Hockney, this change took place in the city of Bruges as early as 1430, that is, at the beginning of the Renaissance.

Gioto1300 Robert Campin circa 1430

The book Secret Knowledge: rediscovering the lost techniques of the old masters is the outcome of this research and presents the paintings themselves as "scientific evidence". A comparative analysis that places hundreds of images next to each other ordered chronologically from 1300 to 1870 illustrates an irreversible change in the way the Flemish, and later on the Italians, painted from the middle of the fourteenth century onwards. A study by Charles Falco, an optical scientist at the University of Arizona, demonstrates the use of optical devices (concave mirrors and magnifying glasses) and suggests the possible methods used to take advantage of the projected image to trace drawings or produce the necessary marks for the creation of lens-based paintings. Such a technique would have given an unmistakable optical look to the paintings that would soon be found all over Europe.

From David Hockney's book, pages 66-67

In this way, the use of the projected image as a tracing pattern would have become the basic means of registering visual reality in the Renaissance and during the next four centuries. This optical-graphical tradition would continue until 1839 when it was replaced by the optical-chemical system—better known as photography—, freeing painting at last from what Hockney has called the "tyranny of optics".

If we take an ordinary magnifying glass and place it some 20 cm from a wall opposite a window, we will be able to see the projection of a small inverted image, analogous to what we can see with our eyes. This principle—which was also used in "magical" shows since ancient times—is based on a natural phenomenon that can be observed even without the use of a lens (by means of a pinhole in a wall of a darkened room). This phenomenon had already been described by Mo Ti in China in the 5th century BC, by Aristotle in the 4th century BC and by the Arab Alhazen of Basra in the 10th century AD. Giambattista Della Porta, for example, in his book Magiae Naturalis of 1558, recommended the use of the camera obscura to help painters achieve correct perspectives. All subsequent versions of the optical camera, including present-day digital cameras, are based on the same principle: a lens produces an inverted image of reality that is then recorded.

Hockney recreates one of the possible techniques employed to paint with the assistance of a concave mirror. From Hockney's Secret Knowledge, p. 76.

Hockney's thesis now reinforces the fact that optics has played a major role in the visual arts. From tracing the projected image by hand, to the chemical fixing of the image on a photographic plate and the current means of recording it using a CCD chip, it can be said that what has changed is just the recording system, not the underlying principle. Whether or not optical instruments are used to produce an image could even form the basis for a typology of the visual arts, in contrast to the one based on the medium.


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