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Vermeer: eye and brain

Vermeer’s Camera Obscura

Vermeer, that amazing Dutch artist of the 17th century, may have used the Camera Obscura to create some of his exquisitely painted images of Dutch interiors with figures and still life. A great artist using a camera? Copying or tracing? Only for the child, the amateur or the incompetent, surely?

Leaving school in the 1950’s I went to art school and trained to be an Art teacher–four years in Art practice and one in education at the uni in those days!  We spent 4 years learning to draw, design, illustrate,print, paint or whatever. Students attended night classes as well as during the day: what mattered was to put in the miles required to develop a high level of skill in various art disciplines and some unique form of expression.

Copying from mechanical images of any kind was considered to be cheating…it just wasn’t done….ever! We drew from life or from Greek casts… But times have changed in the production of art. The idea that Vermeer could have used the camera obscura to trace the broad outlines of the elements in his paintings had never crossed my mind and I cannot recall art historians discussing it.

However since looking at Steadman’s book I am convinced that Vermeer used the camera wholesale. He already possessed amazing drawing skills. He used light and shade in the interiors of houses to illuminate the space, the people and their everyday objects. His subjects are so well observed and intelligently placed within the rectangle. He builds the picture to allow for his rendering of space through use of light and shade, the converging lines of the floor tiles, placement of objects partly obscuring one another and size differences.

The Camera and the Artist

The camera obscura (a type of pinhole camera) acts in the same way as in the eye: as light falls on the retina or the artist’s screen the image is upside down.

The Brain and the Eye

However, the eye is an outgrowth of the brain. Not only do you see the image on your retina the right way up,  the brain  adjusts size, distance, movement and many other things.

The camera and the eye

In real life our brain maintains constancy of size. We don’t ever experience the apple getting bigger than the man’s head (below), only the camera does that.
The camera does not adjust for size: the brain does

Painting by Kirstine Sadler

You can tell when a portrait artist works from photographs because they get the sizes wrong. The parts of the body that are nearest to the camera lens are enlarged. Look at the sizes of the two feet in this painting. A very beautiful painting, well constructed but it is not as we experience it psychologically.

Australian artist Megan Roodenrys’ model (below) is seated with his forearm hooked round his knee and nearest to the camera. The camera optics have been used rather than the eye and brain system. The lower arm appears oversize relative to the face,  not quite as extreme as the man holding the apple, (above) but obviously worked from a photograph. What is interesting is that as you keep looking the arm seems to become even bigger. As onlookers we gradually become desensitised to these differences.

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Painting by Megan Roodenrys

2 Comments leave one →
  1. August 5, 2013 1:42 pm

    Have a look at my website to see how Vermeer could have transferred projections directly from a camera obscura to a canvas.
    There is strong feeling in the art historical community about whether or not Vermeer might have used this device.
    In my view the use of the camera does not diminish the brilliance of Vermeer.
    (See also the remarks by Martin Kemp in his book ‘Science and Art’)

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