Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Techy Tuesday - The Intersection of Art and Engineering

Before the invention of the camera, artists were concerned with capturing images out of reality.  They could make a living doing portraits of the well-off, and could sell well done pictures of other things, but "art" as it's commonly spoken about today: impressionistic, abstract, cubist, and things like elephant dung on paintings of The Madonna, just weren't done.  Artists were too busy capturing reality to paint how they felt about reality; too busy capturing the sublime to submerge crucifixes in urine.  There was, of course, the constant development of technique from perspective in the 14th Century to Rembrandt's famous developments in shading and shadows, and more; but by the 17th century, capturing reality in a painting was pretty well developed.  Consider, for example, this well known painting by Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer, "Girl With a Pearl Earring":
This is a painting of an almost striking reality, very much like a photograph.  In fact, that might not be a coincidence. 

In a recent short blog entry, Design Engineering blogger Elisabeth Eitel goes over the evidence that Vermeer obtained his hauntingly lifelike results through technology, in particular by use of a camera obscura.  The story is contained in a movie called Tim's Vermeer that can occasionally be found in small theaters and probably through the streaming services (that link will open the movie trailer). 
The movie is by inventor Tim Jenison and his friend Penn Jillette (the Vegas magician) who directs. It shows how Jenison works more than eight years to accurately recreate the art of 17th-Century Dutch Johannes Vermeer, the painter of such highly realistic Masters as Girl with a Pearl Earring and The Concert.

Not only that, but Jenison uses all the tech-based techniques Vermeer used — with heavy reliance on a camera obscura.
Cameras obscura are totally enclosed thin-walled boxes with holes on opposing walls. Light travels in straight lines from the scene being painted through a small hole, cross, and project through the opposing hole as an upside-down image on any surface put in front of it.

 With this device, Vermeer captured scenes with the shimmer and accuracy of a snapshot ... 150 years before photography.

What I find fascinating about this is that Vermeer presaged the use of photography for capturing reality by substituting his meticulous work for film.  He essentially became the film.  In an age when artists meticulously painted individuals, Vermeer was (to be crass) tracing pictures in the camera obscura.  It's not as easy as that; people do move and an optical system based on a pinhole doesn't present a great image.  Still, it wasn't painting everything freehand.

I've often thought that if the majority of the great painters had a modern camera to speed their work, they'd use it.  This lends to support to that idea. 


  1. I'd love to know what Galileo would do with today's technology.

    Probably pictures of cats with captions. Written mirrored, of course.

  2. Actually he could have gotten similar results using a camera lucida.

  3. In 2001, artist David Hockney first published his theory that artists secretly used optical devices such as mirrors and lenses to create their paintings as early as the 15th century. His book “Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters” included examples from Flemish and Italian art that illustrated his thesis: Caravaggio, Velázquez, da Vinci, and other hyperrealists used optics and lenses to create their masterpieces. The camera obscura was, of course, a primary tool.

    His book is most fascinating. I remember sitting on the floor to open the box my copy was shipped in -- and I did not move from that spot until I had read the entire thing. I also remember being surprised that his work was so widely and emotionally criticized. Now I am a traditionalist and much prefer the classics in art, music, and literature, but I also like science (and sciency things). I found his idea and the evidence to support it were well researched and presented as neatly as a court case. A review of a new, expanded edition of his book can be read at:

    Hockney’s book, and the attendant controversy, long preceded the movie you discuss in this post. He commented on the Jillette & Teller film, Tim’s Vermeer, in a Jan 2014 article published in the Hollywood Reporter:

    If the subject interests you, I highly recommend a reading of Hockney’s book, which is available on Amazon.