Overview of Camera Lucida for Artists

Imagine an optical device that allowed you to see what you wanted to paint or draw as if reflected on your piece of paper. All you'd need to do would be to trace the subject, no more struggling to get the perspective or someone's features accurate. Sounds too good to be true? Well, a camera lucida does do this.

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What Exactly Is a Camera Lucida?

Camera Lucida made by Ancient Magic Art Tools

Marion Boddy-Evans

Isn't there some catch? Well, while a camera lucida may help you get accurate perspective or capture facial features quickly, as with any instrument it's only as good as the person using it. Your results will only be as good as your drawing and painting skills. You still have to decide what to put in and leave out and make marks with a pencil or brush. So, how does it work?

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How Does a Camera Lucida Work?

How a Camera Lucida Works

Marion Boddy-Evans

At the diagram shows, there are two mirrors in the 'eyepiece' of a camera lucida: a normal one and a half-silvered (one-way or semi-transparent) one. The object is reflected from the first mirror onto the half-silvered one. Your eye sees this reflection and simultaneously looks through this mirror to see the paper too, so it appears that object if on the paper. It's "magic" done with mirrors.

The camera lucida was invented in 1807 by a British scientist, William Hyde Wollaston (1766-1828). Camera lucida is Latin for "light chamber". (Read Wollaston's original patent document.)

Where Can I Get Hold of a Camera Lucida?

You can buy a modern, ready-made one from a few companies who make replicas.

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How to Use a Camera Lucida

How to use a camera lucida

Marion Boddy-Evans

A camera lucida reflects a subject so that it appears to be on your piece of paper, enabling you to simply trace it. The following is based on using a camera lucida made by The Camera Lucida Company, but they all work similarly.

Setting Up a Camera Lucida

Set up the drawing board up at an angle of 40 degrees; putting it on your lap and resting it against the edge of a table works well. Put a piece of paper on the board, up to A3 in size. Swing up the arm with the 'viewing lens' up, twist the 'lens' so that the small eye hole is at the top. When you look through this, you should be able to see the whole piece of paper and the scene as if reflected on it.

What to Do if You Can't See the Piece of Paper or Subject on the Paper Check

the position of the camera's viewer. Are you looking down towards the paper? If so, it's a question of getting the balance of light between your subject and the paper right. Place a piece of black paper on the drawing board; if you can now see the subject, you should light it more. If you can't see the piece of paper because the subject's too strong, use a lamp to throw a bit more light on your paper. At times you'll find there are parts that are too light or too dark to see detail; you could fiddle with getting the light balance just right, or simply use your other eye or look up at the actual scene to see what's there.

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What Kind of Results to Expect From Using a Camera Lucida

How to use a camera lucida

Marion Boddy-Evans

A camera lucida can't teach you how to choose what to put in or leave out of a drawing or painting, nor what kind of marks to put down. But, by eliminating the need to measure while you're drawing to get the perspective accurate, it will increase the rate at which you work and free you up to experiment more as you haven't invested so much time in one picture. The two pen figure studies above were both done in five minutes (they're done on A2 paper).

How Do I Make Something Bigger or Smaller?

There isn't a 'zoom' control on a camera lucida; you need to move closer towards your subject or further away.

How Do I Copy a Photograph Using a Camera Lucida?

Screw the two brackets provided onto the end of the drawing board then prop up the piece of the card against this. Attach your photo to the card and then proceed as for any other subject except that you could place the drawing board flat on a table if you wish.

Tips for Using a Camera Lucida

  • Mark a few key points in your subject and check regularly to ensure that these are still aligned.
  • Draw with something that works smoothly; if you work too vigorously you work, the arm holding the 'eyepiece' will wobble.
  • If you're seeing an unwanted reflection of something directly above you, eliminate this by rotating the 'eyepiece' slightly.
  • If this doesn't work, try attaching a small piece of black card to the top so it sticks out over the mirror.
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David Hockney's Theory About the Old Masters Using a Camera Lucida

David Hockney's book Secret Knowledge


In his book Secret Knowledge, the artist David Hockney set out his controversial thesis that various Old Masters used a camera lucida and other optical devices. According to Hockney, this can be seen in the shift in the style of portraiture in the fifteenth century.

Hockney's research was first made public in an article by Lawrence Weschler called The Looking Glass in The New Yorker magazine in January 2000. Weschler published a follow-up article Through The Looking Glass in 2001 which contains paintings and drawings Hockney used to prove his theory (all reproduced in Secret Knowledge).

Why All the Fuss?

In part, it was the fact that a painter, albeit a distinguished one, was treading in the realm of art historians. In part it was most of Hockney's evidence was circumstantial, that there was a lack of corroborative evidence (though Hockney said that the lack of preliminary sketches by some prominent portrait artists was evidence of their use of optics). And in part, it was the belief that an artist should achieve their results by skill alone, not 'cheat' by using optical aids. There has been much debate, without a conclusive answer being reached, and it probably never will be, given the lack of corroborative evidence. If you look at the visual evidence Hockney presents it's clear that optical devices were used, but the question remains: to what extent?

But it doesn't detract from the work of the Old Masters unless you require an artist to achieve results by with any technical assistance. After all, as Hockney says, "The lens can't draw a line, only the hand can do that ... look at someone like Ingres, and it would be absurd to think that such an insight about his method undercuts the sheer marvel of what he achieves." Strange how there haven't been similar objections to the use of perspective rules and grids by artists.