Monday Morning Art School: paint with precision

We’re all proponents of loose-is-more, but there are times when you have to be able to hit it right.

Cremorne Pastoral, 1895, Arthur Streeton, courtesy Art Gallery of New South Wales. There are few details, but the ones that are, are very accurately painted.

Detail and precision are not in style right now. “The artist should fear to become the slave of detail,” wrote Albert Pinkham Ryder. “They should strive to express their thought and not the surface of it. What avails a storm cloud accurate in form and color if the storm is not therein?” We’re all proponents of this loose-is-more theory of painting.

However, this is a current trope, and not an artistic truth. There are contemporary figure and still life painters who focus on detail, and artists practicing modern trompe l’oeil. Even in plein air, there are fine painters who eschew looseness for careful attention to detail. Richard Sneary, Jay Brooks and Patrick McPhee come to mind.

The Girl with the Wine Glass, c. 1659, Johannes Vermeer, courtesy Herzog Anton Ulrich Museum. We’re so focused on the clarity of Vermeer’s vision that we barely notice how empty the room is.

Many people get caught up in the details before they get the big shapes right. That’s overwhelming. Before you ever get to the point of painting in blades of grass, the rhythm of light and dark must be researched and articulated properly. How do you do that? The same way as with an alla prima finish—through sketch and underpainting.

Even the exuberant Dutch Golden Ageartists left things to the imagination. We’re so busy looking at all the stuff they crammed into their canvases that we sometimes don’t notice what they’ve left out. Not every detail deserves the same attention.

Banquet of the Amsterdam Civic Guard in Celebration of the Peace of Münster, 1648, Bartholomeus van der Helst. Courtesy Amsterdam Museum

Great painters distill the visual noise, and then concentrate on the important parts. Consider the problems facing Bartholomeus van der Helst in his monumental commission, Banquet of the Amsterdam Civic Guard in Celebration of the Peace of Münster, above. It’s a portrait of 24 august gentlemen and one lady. (And wouldn’t you love to know why she was included?) None of the subjects would have been happy to be represented with a few Impressionistic brush strokes. There were symbols that needed to be included—pikestaff, drum, silver drinking horn and the paper on the side of the drum. In addition, the men were garbed in their very best frippery, and they meant to show that off.

Van der Helst pared away at the composition with ruthless efficiency. The background is muted. He let black hats and black garb sink wherever he could. Thank goodness for the fashion of ruffs and white linen collars—they allow the faces to stand out. The remaining textiles are held in a rigid pattern of gold, blue, and red. The color harmony is, in large part, holding the picture together.

It’s unlikely that an artist will ever paint a monumental commission like this again. It’s more likely that we’ll add a few details to a much looser painting. These details can fool the eye into thinking there’s more there than is actually present.

Out Back, Peter Yesis, courtesy of the artist.

Peter Yesis is the best painter of flowers I know. In my mind’s eye, I see his paintings as detailed, but they’re actually very restrained. The focal points draw our eyes, allowing our minds to fill in the other areas. This engages our imagination, which is far more potent than anything on the canvas.

I wrote last week about pareidolia, our ability to see meaningful images in ambiguous visual patterns. Humans find this much more compelling than having things spelled out for them.

We’ve been using that technique since the Impressionists to engage viewers. But to do it, you need to be able to occasionally lay down a tight, accurate line.

Painting precisely is a matter of slowing down and exerting greater direct control over your brush. Smaller brushes can help, but a light hand is most important. (Most of us are slightly tremulous, and smaller brushes can result in shakier lines.) There’s no way to get there but to practice your fine motor control.

Monday Morning Art School: the lost-and-found edge

Sometimes it’s what you don’t say that matters most.

Girl with the Red Hat, c. 1665-66, Johannes Vermeer, courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.

I once had a painting teacher who told me that heavy edges were “my style.” Like many younger artists, I just hadn’t learned how to marry edges in my painting. Beginning painters tend to give all edges equal weight—they are borders to be colored in. Part of the learning process is learning when to keep the edge and when to lose it.

Vermeer’s Girl with the Red Hat, above, perfectly illustrates the lost-and-found edge. The smooth transitions between the hair and the hat on the left, within her gown, and the lack of contrast in the shadow side of the model’s face drive our eye to the highlighted passages. Squint and concentrate on just the shape of the highlighted passage for a moment. It’s just one long, beautiful abstract shape in a sea of darkness.

Losing the edges helps link visual masses into a coherent whole. It deemphasizes things that aren’t important. It’s a way to create rhythm in a painting.

In Church at Old Lyme, 1905, Childe Hassam softened the edges between leaves and sky by making them the same value. Courtesy Albright-Knox Art Gallery.

The human mind is adept at filling in blank spots in visual scenes (and seeing things that aren’t there). If you doubt this, squint while looking around your room. In any collection of similar-value objects, you don’t see edges, but you understand what you’re looking at. Your mind sorts it out just fine.

A careful drawing is different from a value study. Both are important, and the wise artist does them both. But a drawing explores the shapes and contours of an object. It’s a fact-finding mission. A value study concentrates on the links between objects and the final composition.

The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit, 1882, John Singer Sargent, courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. 

In the oil painting The Daughters of Edward Darley BoitJohn Singer Sargent uses the great dark entryway as a framing device, a compositional accent, and a poignant social statement. Only a hint of light in the shape of a window implies what is behind. The girls recede into space in order of age, with the eldest (Florence, age 14) almost enveloped in the darkness of the drawing room. Florence and Jane have no accents in their hair; their dresses and stockings disappear into the murk.

The Bridge of Sighs, c. 1903-04, John Singer Sargent.

Sargent painted at least two versions of this study of the Bridge of Sighs; a mirror-image is in the Brooklyn Museum. In this version, Sargent placed a hard edge at the top of the arch where sky meets stone. The shadows on the left bleed without any attempt at architectural precision. This creates the same kind of murky dark passage as in The Daughters of Boit. (A note for watercolor purists—the whites of the gondoliers’ clothes were done with white paint.)

In Two Women on a Hillside, 1906, Franz Marc tied the women to the background by repeating greens in their skin and garb. Courtesy Franz Marc Museum.

To lose an edge in painting, start by making both sides of the line the same value, even when they’re different hues. Conversely, the highest contrast will give you the sharpest edge. You can add to either effect by softening or sharpening the paintwork with your brush. Introducing the color of the adjacent object will also soften the contrast between an object and its background, as in the Franz Marc painting above.

Detail from John Singer Sargent’s Lady Eden, 1906, courtesy Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Remember that the sharpest, most contrasting edges draw our eye. The trick is to find a balance that supports the composition. Sometimes only a small flick of paint is necessary, as with Sargent’s sequins in the detail from Lady Eden, above. These support the dynamics and direction of the composition. If they didn’t, they’d undermine all his careful compositional work.

If you think I’m starting to repeat myself, you’re a sharp observer. This essay was originally posted in July, 2018. I’m focusing on it in my painting classes this week.

Monday Morning Art School: the lost-and-found edge

Sometimes it’s what you don’t say that matters most.

Girl with the Red Hat, c. 1665-66, Johannes Vermeer, courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.

I once had a painting teacher who told me that heavy edges were “my style.” Like many younger artists, I just hadn’t learned how to marry edges in my painting. Beginning painters tend to give all edges equal weight—they are borders to be colored in. Part of the learning process is learning when to keep the edge and when to lose it.

Vermeer’s Girl with the Red Hat, above, perfectly illustrates the lost-and-found edge. The smooth transitions between the hair and the hat on the left, within her gown, and the lack of contrast in the shadow side of the model’s face drive our eye to the highlighted passages. Squint and concentrate on just the shape of the highlighted passage for a moment. It’s just one long, beautiful abstract shape in a sea of darkness.
In Church at Old Lyme, 1905, Childe Hassam softened the edges between leaves and sky by making them the same value. Courtesy Albright-Knox Art Gallery.
Losing the edges helps link visual masses into a coherent whole. It deemphasizes things that aren’t important. It’s a way to create rhythm in a painting.
The human mind is adept at filling in blank spots in visual scenes (and seeing things that aren’t there). If you doubt this, squint while looking around your room. In any collection of similar-value objects, you don’t see edges, but you understand what you’re looking at. Your mind sorts it out just fine.
A careful drawing is different from a value study. Both are important, and the wise artist does them both. But a drawing explores the shapes and contours of an object. It’s a fact-finding mission. A value study concentrates on the links between objects and the final composition.
The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit, 1882, John Singer Sargent, courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. 
In the oil painting The Daughters of Edward Darley BoitJohn Singer Sargent uses the great dark entryway as a framing device, a compositional accent, and a poignant social statement. Only a hint of light in the shape of a window implies what is behind. The girls recede into space in order of age, with the eldest (Florence, age 14) almost enveloped in the darkness of the drawing room. Florence and Jane have no accents in their hair; their dresses and stockings disappear into the murk.
The Bridge of Sighs, c. 1903-04, John Singer Sargent.
Sargent painted at least two versions of this study of the Bridge of Sighs; a mirror-image is in the Brooklyn Museum. In this version, Sargent placed a hard edge at the top of the arch where sky meets stone. The shadows on the left bleed without any attempt at architectural precision. This creates the same kind of murky dark passage as in The Daughters of Boit. (A note for watercolor purists—the whites of the gondoliers’ clothes were done with white paint.)
In Two Women on a Hillside, 1906, Franz Marc tied the women to the background by repeating greens in their skin and garb. Courtesy Franz Marc Museum.
To lose an edge in painting, start by making both sides of the line the same value, even when they’re different hues. Conversely, the highest contrast will give you the sharpest edge. You can add to either effect by softening or sharpening the paintwork with your brush. Introducing the color of the adjacent object will also soften the contrast between an object and its background, as in the Franz Marc painting above.
Detail from John Singer Sargent’s Lady Eden, 1906, courtesy Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Remember that the sharpest, most contrasting edges draw our eye. The trick is to find a balance that supports the composition. Sometimes only a small flick of paint is necessary, as with Sargent’s sequins in the detail from Lady Eden, above. These support the dynamics and direction of the composition. If they didn’t, they’d undermine all his careful compositional work.

This essay was originally posted in July, 2018. I’m repeating it because I’ve been focusing on it in painting class and want my students to concentrate on it.

Monday Morning Art School: the lost-and-found edge

Sometimes it’s about what you don’t say.
Girl with the Red Hat, c. 1665-66, Johannes Vermeer, courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.

Earlier this month, I mentioned I once had a painting teacher who told me that heavy edges were “my style.” Like many younger artists, I just hadn’t learned how to marry edges in my painting. Beginning painters tend to give all edges equal weight—they are borders to be colored in. Part of the learning process is learning when to keep the edge and when to lose it.

Vermeer’s Girl with the Red Hat, above, perfectly illustrates the lost-and-found edge. The smooth transitions between the hair and the hat on the left, within her gown, and the lack of contrast in the shadow side of the model’s face drive our eye to the highlighted passages. Squint and concentrate on just the shape of the highlighted passage for a moment. It’s just one long, beautiful abstract shape in a sea of darkness.
In Church at Old Lyme, 1905, Childe Hassam softened the edges between leaves and sky by making them the same value. Courtesy Albright-Knox Art Gallery.
Losing the edges helps link visual masses into a coherent whole. It deemphasizes things that aren’t important. It’s a way to create rhythm in a painting.
The human mind is adept at filling in blank spots in visual scenes (and seeing things that aren’t there). If you doubt this, squint while looking around your room. In any collection of similar-value objects, you don’t see edges, but you understand what you’re looking at. Your mind sorts it out just fine.
A careful drawing is different from a value study. Both are important, and the wise artist does them both. But a drawing explores the shapes and contours of an object. It’s a fact-finding mission. A value study concentrates on the links between objects and the final composition.
The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit, 1882, John Singer Sargent, courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. 
In the oil painting The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit, John Singer Sargentuses the great dark entryway as a framing device, a compositional accent, and a poignant social statement. Only a hint of light in the shape of a window implies what is behind. The girls recede into space in order of age, with the eldest (Florence, age 14) almost enveloped in the darkness of the drawing room. Florence and Jane have no accents in their hair; their dresses and stockings disappear into the murk.
The Bridge of Sighs, c. 1903-04, John Singer Sargent.
Sargent painted at least two versions of this study of the Bridge of Sighs; a mirror-imageis in the Brooklyn Museum. In this version, Sargent placed a hard edge at the top of the arch where sky meets stone. The shadows on the left bleed without any attempt at architectural precision. This creates the same kind of murky dark passage as in The Daughters of Boit. (A note for watercolor purists—the whites of the gondoliers’ clothes were done with white paint.)
In Two Women on a Hillside, 1906, Franz Marc tied the women to the background by repeating greens in their skin and garb. Courtesy Franz Marc Museum.
To lose an edge in painting, start by making both sides of the line the same value, even when they’re different hues. Conversely, the highest contrast will give you the sharpest edge. You can add to either effect by softening or sharpening the paintwork with your brush. Introducing the color of the adjacent object will also soften the contrast between an object and its background, as in the Franz Marc painting above.
Detail from John Singer Sargent’s Lady Eden, 1906, courtesy Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Remember that the sharpest, most contrasting edges draw our eye. The trick is to find a balance that supports the composition. Sometimes only a small flick of paint is necessary, as with Sargent’s sequins in the detail from Lady Eden, above. These support the dynamics and direction of the composition. If they didn’t, they’d undermine all his careful compositional work.

Monday Morning Art School: Repoussoir

If your landscape is flat and delicate, you can introduce drama using this framing device.

Paris Street; Rainy Day, 1877, Gustave Caillebotte (courtesy Art Institute of Chicago). 

Repoussoir is a compositional technique where an object along the left or right foreground directs the viewer’s eye into the composition. The bracket is often done with a tree, but sometimes it’s a person. In Paris Street; Rainy Day(above) the man with the umbrella on the far right of the canvas drives your eye up. Note that he’s a simplified and non-distracting figure compared to the complexity and detail of the rest of the canvas.

The Art of Painting, 1665-68, Johannes Vermeer (courtesy Kunsthistorisches Museum) 

Repoussoir was an important special effect of the 17th century. Vermeer used it in The Art of Painting, above. The great dark shape of the drapery drives our eye to the traceries of the map on the far wall.

El Río de Luz (The River of Light), 1877, Frederic Edwin Church (Courtesy National Gallery of Art)

The Dutch Golden Age painters particularly loved repoussioras a way to pop drama into the flat, Dutch landscape. So did the Hudson River Schoolpainters. The example above, is by Frederick Edwin Church. Church was keenly interested in the flora and fauna of the tropics. There’s a canoe in the distance and waterfowl in the middle-foreground, but the tree on the left conveys most of our factual information about the scene. But it’s still a framing device, and what lies beyond is even more important. That’s our impression of the terrifying sublimity of the steaming riverbed beyond. (You can look at the painting in detail here.)

Nunda Farm, by Carol L. Douglas. This is not repoussoir, but rather a path drawing you into the composition.

Repoussoir is still extensively used in modern photography and landscape painting. It is a different effect from creating a path into the composition. I’ve given you an example of that in Nunda Farm, above, where the corn stalks draw your eye through the composition.

Repoussoir gone bad, by Carol L. Douglas. Why do you think the evergreen on the right fails to draw you into the composition?

I’ve also given you a failed sketch by me as an example of how repoussoir can go wrong. I was searching for a way to give perspective to a scene of unbroken snow and darkness. The small pine at the right doesn’t exist in the real scene. I abandoned this composition because the tree conflicted with, rather than enhanced, the main subject. Why do you think it didn’t work?

Hedgerow in Paradise, by Carol L. Douglas. I’m deliberately blocking the viewer out here. Why do you think that is?

Hedgerow in Paradiseis a painting of a farm in Bloomfield, New York. This is an area of delicate beauty, where the flat lake plains are tentatively breaking out into gentle rolling hills. I intentionally chose to let the long view sit alone, giving the viewer no framing and no path into the subject. In other words, there’s no real foreground, just a scene set in the middle distance.

Hedgerow in Paradise, reimagined with repoussoir. How does it change the composition?

Above, I’ve imposed a tree in the foreground. Does it add to or distract from the subject? How does it change the meaning of the composition?

In your work, do you have something similar to Hedgerow in Paradise? Your assignment is to do a sketch based on that painting or drawing, reframing the composition using repoussoir. If you don’t have a painting like this, use a photograph from the internet. I’m interested in the before-and-after. I used Photoshop, but you can do a simple sketch. It doesn’t need to be complicated. How is the scene changed with repoussoir? Do you like it better or not?
Repoussoir is a technique that’s particularly applicable to the midwestern plains and to ocean views. I’ll be stressing it at my Rochester workshop because of the delicacy of the glacial landscape at Mendon Ponds, but it works well with water, too.

Everyone needs a hobby

When your job is what most people think of as a hobby, what do you do for fun?
Lady Standing at a Virginal, 1670-72, Johannes Vermeer

My reenactor friends have an all-consuming passion that I sometimes envy. They shimmy out of their office clothes each Friday, reach for the worn cotton frock or woolen tunic, and spend the weekends trudging through mud, carrying water, marching in the heat, whittling, sewing, slopping hogs, or pursuing whatever other aspect of pre-modern life floats their boat.

I love painting and can’t imagine doing anything else. But twenty years ago when I picked up my brushes full time, I never thought for a moment about what it meant to start earning money in one’s primary avocation. Nobody can focus on one thing to the exclusion of everything else. This is embarrassing to admit, but I have no hobbies, unless you consider cleaning up after the elderly dog a hobby.
When my friend Dennis told me he is an accountant with the soul of an artist, I realized that, in some ways, I’m an artist with the soul of an accountant. So why not take up accounting for fun? I looked into the possibility of joining an investment club. That could be profitable, I thought. Of course, once it’s profitable, it’s no longer a hobby.
Music panels from the Ghent Altarpiece, 1430-32, Hubert and Jan van Eyck
When my kids were young, I took up gardening. This was easy, since I was raised on a farm and had extensive experience with shovel and rake. Gardening is a brilliant hobby for young parents. It allows them to keep a sharp eye on the youngsters without appearing to hover.
As so often happens, that hobby started to balloon. Pretty soon I was planting and maintaining sprawling gardens at the corner church, and schlepping my wheelbarrow over there three times a week.
Today my schedule involves too much time on the road during the peak gardening months. I can barely keep the weeds at bay in the small foundation beds we have.
Before children, I used to play the keyboard and guitar and sing. I wasn’t a complete moron at any of those things. I’d had instruction from well-regarded musicians. However, my first cancer treatment left me with lung problems that ruined my voice.  My piano taunts me from across the room, but after 28 years I doubted I remember much about it.
The Bagpiper, 1624, Hendrick Terbrugghen. I even have the tam!
A few days ago, I sat down and played. I was every bit as bad as I expected, but the funny thing is, in some ways playing the piano really is like riding a bicycle. The keys are all there where I left them. As for my voice, it’s a mess. But my husband doesn’t mind the caterwauling. He just puts on his headphones and turns up the volume while I run through my vocal scales. If I can just remember to never open the windows, we should be fine.

Who sez art doesn’t pay?

The Concert by Johannes Vermeer was one of 13 pieces, worth $300 million, stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston on March 18, 1990. This was the largest art heist in history and remains one of the great mysteries of the art world.
I came across this factoid in a dumb novel recently: art crime is the third most lucrative criminal trade, after drugs and weapons. The FBI estimates the trade in stolen art and antiquities to be $6-8 billion annually.
This ought to come as no surprise when Christie’s and Sotheby’s together turn over about $11-12 billion a year.
These statistics don’t begin to address the dollar value of the estimated 650,000 pieces looted by the Nazis in Europe. The value of that work is, simply, incalculable.
Poppy Flowers by Vincent van Gogh was stolen from the Mohammed Mahmoud Khalil Museum in Cairo, Egypt in 2010. The same painting had been stolen from the same museum in 1977, but was recovered ten years later in Kuwait.
My studio assistant, Sandy Quang, is finishing her MA in Art History. Like all liberal arts majors, she’s worried about getting a job, since she’s internalized the message that art careers don’t pay. But that’s nonsense, as a recent kerfufflewith President Obama pointed out: arts graduates are both working and satisfied with their jobs. After all, sellers need art historians to authenticate and research their product. Furthermore, ours is an intensively-designed world. From our cars to the pens in our hands, everything we touch must be both beautiful and symbolic of our values. That’s all the work of artists.
The Storm on the Sea of Galilee by Rembrandt van Rijn is another painting stolen in the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum heist of 1990. These paintings have never been recovered.
It’s no surprise that, when there aren’t enough precious works of art around, people will either forge or steal the stuff they want. But that should tell us something about art—it’s neither meaningless nor valueless. The vibrant criminal art economy tells us that art matters.

Sorry, folks. My workshop in Belfast, ME is sold out. Message me if you want a spot on my waitlist, or information about next year’s programs. Information is available here.

Paintings, paintings everywhere!

The Amathus sarcophagus (5th century BC, Cyprian archaic period) was excavated by General Cesnola in Amathus, Cyprus and purchased from General Luigi Palma di Cesnola in 1874. Frankly, it’s absurd to talk about intellectual property rights for objects purchased from tomb robbers. 
I believe that our shared art heritage should be available to all (especially the parts that were plundered in the first place). The Metropolitan Museum of Art  recently announced that it has released 400,000 digital images of its collection into the public domain. While the Met has always had images online, the new database includes high-resolution views suitable for scholarly study.
Two misconceptions need to be cleared up. First, this is not the Met’s whole collection, which numbers far more than 400,000 items. Also, no online viewer can “let you see the pieces as you might if you visited the museum in New York City, in person,” as one breathless reviewer wrote. There is no substitute for a real walk around a museum.
George Caleb Bingham, Fur Traders Descending the Missouri, c. 1845. It’s a lot more fun to see this in person and enter the inevitable debate about whether that’s a cat and if so, why it’s on a boat. But when it’s on the internet, it’s definitely a cat.
On the other hand, many of these objects can’t be viewed in the museum at all, since they’re not on display. That makes this online collection invaluable.
The Met is following a general trend in the art world to make access to artwork easier. The Farnsworth Art Museum bucks this trend, and I wish they’d stop. There is so much that can be learned from studying the technique of a master painter, and not all of us can go to Rockland to look at Andrew Wyeth’s preparatory sketches. (But if you want to, join me for my workshop in Belfast this summer.)
Young Woman with a Water Pitcher, 1662-65, Johannes Vermeer. To choose one work to demonstrate the breadth and depth of the Met’s collection is impossible, so why not start here?
The Met allows dissemination of images for scholarly purposes. What does that mean? Essentially, it means anything that isn’t for commercial gain, like reprinting images on umbrellas, scarves, and coffee mugs—those rights they reserve for themselves alone.
You can view the Met’s collection here.

Come paint with me in Belfast, ME! Information is available here.

The genius isn’t inside the camera

An artist drawing a seated man onto a plane of glass through a sight-vane, from the fourth book of Albrecht Dürer’s Four Books on Measurement.
Last month, a number of people sent me Vanity Fair’s pieceon engineer Tim Jenison’s painstakingly-complex recreation of Johannes Vermeer’s The Music Lesson. Jenison faithfully built the room and objects depicted in the painting, and then repainted the scene using a version of a camera obscura. In the end, he discovered what any freshman art history student could have told him: yes, it’s possible that Vermeer used a camera obscura. He’d have hardly been alone.
Sir Robert Hooke’s portable drawing machine should be familiar (in concept) to any of my plein air painting students. There is nothing new under the sun.
The peculiar properties of the pinhole camera were known and described in antiquity from Greece to China. In the west, the principles behind it were analyzed and described by the eleventh century Arab scientist, Ibn al-Haytham. In the 13th century, Roger Bacon described the use of a camera obscura to watch solar eclipses. Leonardo da Vinci puttered with one, and even came up with a proto-telescope based on it:
…in order to observe the nature of the planets, open the roof and bring the image of a single planet onto the base of a concave mirror. The image of the planet reflected by the base will show the surface of the planet much magnified.
Above, A man drawing a can, and below, A man drawing a recumbent woman, in foreshortening through a frame with a network of squares on to a paper also with squares, in order to be able to reduce or enlarge proportionally, both from the fourth book of Albrecht Dürer’s Four Books on Measurement.
Filippo Brunelleschi (1377-1446), sculptor, architect, artist and engineer, is generally (and perhaps falsely) credited with the invention of linear perspective in art. He also created a device to demonstrate that perspective, which we call Brunelleschi’s peepshow, but which is in fact a version of a camera obscura:
“[He] had made a hole in the panel on which there was this painting; … which hole was as small as a lentil on the painting side of the panel, and on the back it opened pyramidally, like a woman’s straw hat, to the size of a ducat or a little more. And he wished the eye to be placed at the back, where it was large, by whoever had it to see, with the one hand bringing it close to the eye, and with the other holding a mirror opposite, so that there the painting came to be reflected back; … which on being seen, … it seemed as if the real thing was seen: I have had the painting in my hand and have seen it many times in these days, so I can give testimony. (Antonio di Tuccio Manetti)
A Man Drawing a Lute, from the fourth book of Albrecht Dürer’s Four Books on Measurement. 
Albrecht Dürer was not a visionary in the manner of Leonardo, but he was peerless in investigating and recording his experiments. Several woodcuts of drawing aids come down to us from him, so we know he used them. Nevertheless, using a camera obscurawas not the only thing he could do; the man could draw brilliantly. Very few living artists today could duplicate his Young Hare or Large Piece of Turf, neither of which relied on optical tools.
Courtyard of the Former Castle in Innsbruck without Clouds, 1494, Albrecht Durer. Was it done with a drawing device? Perhaps. Does that make it less brilliant? I don’t think so.
Ultimately, it doesn’t matter whether Vermeer used an optical device. That’s the one thing Tim Jenison’s experiment proves. It’s ultimately nothing more than a fair copy of a masterpiece, such as art students churn out every day. Vermeer’s incalculable genius is safely his own.
Artists used the camera obscura until the development of photography made it obsolete. Here are four camera obscura drawings by Canaletto from the early 18th century.


Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in Maine in 2014 or Rochester at any time. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops!