Art and the Camera

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.

vermeer man big

Vermeer: Officer and the Laughing Girl (1665-78)

However there is, to date, not a single piece of direct evidence to support this suggestion: there is not one example of a camera obscura (or even a single part of one) that dates from the 17th century, there are no written documents to confirm such devices were employed by artists of this time, no receipts for related materials or other unambiguous hints. In fact, it is only the paintings themselves that have been used to


Artist and Camera Obscura

support  the hypothesis that 17th century artists were using this device. A great artist using a camera? Copying or tracing? Only for the child, the amateur or the incompetent, surely?

Leaving school in the 1950ʹ′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.

At that time copying from mechanical images of any kind was considered to be cheating…it just wasn’t done….ever! We drew from life or from nature 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 reading Steadman’s book I am convinced that Vermeer used the camera. 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 chequered floor tiles, placement of objects partly obscuring one another and size differences.

The Camera and the Artist’s eye

The camera obscura (a type of pinhole camera) acts in the same way as in the eye.

The Camera and the Eye

The Camera and the Eye

As light falls on the retina or the artist’s screen the image is reflected 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. That is why we see things differently from the camera.

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

size constancy

The camera does not adjust for size: the eye/brain system does!

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.

Painting by Megan Roodenry

Painting by Megan Roodenry

Australian artist Megan Roodenrys’ model (right) 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.

sadler_big foot

Painting by Kirstine Sadler

Look at the sizes of the two feet in the painting above. A very beautiful painting, well constructed but it is not as we experience it perceptually in life.

Now look again at Vermeers’ painting. The woman seems to be tiny, like a doll, compared to the bulk of the soldier at the same table. Like the elbow on the portrait above, the male figure nearest to the camera seems out of proportion to the tiny woman. A camera could have created this image. This does not however detract from Vermeer’s art and his amazing skill.

For recent attempt to produce a Vermeer:


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