The Camera Obscura and Painting

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Premier of "Tim's Vermeer". Photographed by Angela Weiss/ Getty Images

Since the advent of photography, there has been a somewhat uneasy relationship between photography and painting. Even though the word, "photography,"  means "drawing with light" when translated from its Greek roots, many painters are reluctant to admit that they work from photographs. But many painters now use them as references, and some even work from them directly, by enlarging and tracing them.

Some, like well-known British artist David Hockney, believe that Old Master painters including Johannes Vermeer, Caravaggio, da Vinci, Ingres, and others used optical devices such as the camera obscura to help them achieve accurate perspective in their compositions. Hockney's theory, officially called the Hockney-Falco thesis (includes Hockney's partner, physicist Charles M. Falco) postulates that advancements in realism in Western art since the Renaissance were aided by mechanical optics rather than merely being the result of improved skills and abilities of the artists.

The Camera Obscura

The camera obscura (literally "dark chamber"), also called a pinhole camera, was the forerunner of the modern camera. It was originally a darkened room or box with a small hole in one side through which rays of light could pass. It is based on the law of optics that states that light travels in a straight line.

Therefore, when traveling through a pinhole into a dark room or box, it crosses itself and projects an image upside down on the opposite wall or surface. When a mirror is used, the image can be reflected onto a piece of paper or canvas and traced. 

It is thought that some Western painters since the Renaissance, including Johannes Vermeer and other Master painters of the Dutch Golden Age that spanned the 17th century, were able to create very realistic highly detailed paintings by using this device and other optical techniques.

 

Documentary Film, Tim's Vermeer

The documentary, Tim's Vermeer, released in 2013, explores the concept of Vermeer's use of a camera obscura. Tim Jenison is an inventor from Texas who marveled at the exquisitely detailed paintings of the Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675).  Jenison theorized that Vermeer used optical devices such as a camera obscura to help him paint such photorealistic paintings and set out to prove that by using a camera obscura, Jenison, himself, could paint an exact replica of a Vermeer painting, even though he was not a painter and had never attempted painting.  

Jenison meticulously recreated the room and furnishings portrayed in the Vermeer painting, The Music Lesson, even including human models accurately dressed as the figures in the painting. Then, using a room-sized camera obscura and mirror, he carefully and painstakingly proceeded to recreate the Vermeer painting. The whole process took over a decade and the result is truly amazing.  

You can see a trailer and information about the documentary here at Tim's Vermeer, a Penn & Teller Film.

David Hockney's Book, Secret Knowledge

During the course of the filming of the documentary, Jenison called upon several professional artists to assess his technique and results, one of whom was David Hockney, the well known English painter, printmaker, set designer and photographer, and master of many artistic techniques.

Hockney has written a book in which he also theorized that Rembrandt and other great masters of the Renaissance, and after, used optical aids such as the camera obscura, camera lucida, and mirrors, to achieve photorealism in their paintings. His theory and book created much controversy within the art establishment, but he published a new and expanded version in 2006, Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters (Buy from Amazon), and his theory and Jenison's are finding more and more believers as their work becomes known and as more examples are analyzed.

Does It Matter?

What do you think?  Does it matter to you that some of the Old Masters and great painters of the past used a photographic technique? Does it diminish the quality of the work in your eyes?  Where do you stand on the great debate over using photographs and photographic techniques in painting?

Further Reading and Viewing

Vermeer's Camera and Tim's Vermeer 

Jan Vermeer and the Camera ObscuraRed City Projects (youtube)

Painting and Illusionism, Johannes Vermeer: The Art of Painting 

Vermeer and the Camera Obscura, Part One 

BBC David Hockney's Secret Knowledge (video)

Updated 6/24/26