Almost two years ago, I got a beat on the documentary Tim's Vermeer, in which inventor and engineer Tim Jenison ventures to recreate a Vermeer masterpiece with a method he proposes Vermeer himself may have used. To do this, he first manufactures a device that resembles the camera lucida, a 19th century drawing tool that superimposes the subject being observed by the artist onto the drawing or painting surface. In this way, both the subject and drawing are viewed simultaneously, and the drawing process feels more like tracing.
Jenison then came up with a complex system of mirrors and lenses to be combined with the camera lucida, which he then applied practically by building an exact replica of the Music Lesson room. With almost zero painting experience, the technique allowed him to recreate the painting almost exactly, capturing even the finest details, such as on the embellished harpsichord and the individual stitches of the draped Persian rug.
The possibility of copying from real life without the need for sight lines or a camera or grid lines is quite inspiring, and the documentary brought out my inner painting nerd. When I went home that night, I immediately built my own mirror tool and set out to try reproducing the camera lucida device demonstrated by Jenison. I used a small mirror from a makeup compact, wire, and a wooden base. I was building it from memory and so there was a lot of trial and error. But after some finagling, I came up with a stable device and tested it out by copying the cover of a Vermeer book, featuring "Girl with a Pearl Earring". It took a few minutes to adjust to this new way of seeing, using a reflection as a drawing map, but after a certain point, it clicked. The effect felt revolutionary. It would have taken me hours to reproduce that drawing with gridlines, or just observationally there would have been a lot of erasing and correcting. But the drawing took me only 45 minutes and it just came into being as naturally as though I were developing a photo.
That week, I was still itching to buckle down on my own experimentation and sat down to do some internet research on any other attempts to replicate Jenison's discoveries. But strangely, there seemed to be a complete absence of investigations of the technique online. So instead, I went to see the documentary again, this time equipped with a sketchbook in which I jotted down notes and drew some diagrams of Jenison's setup throughout his process.
As the credits rolled, I was struck by how this documentary was receiving mixed reviews. Across the aisle, a group of women entered a lively discussion on whether the documentary was a hoax, and how a man without any painting experience could possibly produce something so grand. One or two called into question the legitimacy of the entire system, and said they would like for someone with artistic experience to replicate it. Perhaps I was taking these comments too personally after having obsessed over the possibilities that could spring from Jenison's exploration, but I spoke up and told the women I had tried the technique and can confirm that it works perfectly well, and I am seriously considering incorporating it into my own paintings. We exchanged our thoughts on the subject for several minutes with several other groups getting involved, until the theater attendant had to shoo us out to prepare for the next showing. Who would have thought that an earnest artistic endeavor could polarize people so strongly!
A couple years since the documentary's release, there are now a few blog posts here and there with assorted attempts at the technique. Some are successful, others dismiss the whole thing as a Penn and Teller hoax. But quite contrary to this viewpoint, I am convinced that Jenison's technique is brilliant and potentially groundbreaking in observational drawing and painting. I can back this up with hard evidence from my experiments, culminating in a complete oil portrait produced entirely with the Jenison method. I have not had quite the budget, time, or resources to reproduce Jenison's full set up with a large lens and back mirror, which may be used to paint an entire space rather than a small image propped on a vertical plain, but my initial sucess with the first step leaves no doubt in my mind that it is entirely possible.
Along the same lines of Tim Jenison's creation, a company recently released a product called the Neolucita, or "The 21st Century Camera Lucida". It is an updated version of the camera lucida that allows an efficient superimposing of a contained subject onto the drawing or painting surface. I have been craving a chance to try one out, though always seem to check when it is out of stock. However, I've just placed an order and am expecting it shortly. Stay tuned for an update!
I was in the city this weekend and stopped by Kremer to restock the pigment pantry. And then my mom surprised me with the new set of retouching brushes. This is all in preparation for a very dear project coming up involving a diner from 1940s upstate New York. All those bricks should be interesting...
Kremer Pigmente is a shop in NYC that specializes in fine pigments and raw materials for painting. The place is a gold mine for both classic colors and zany brights. I picked up some cold-pressed linseed oil and dammar gum for varnish, as well as some fresh gold ochre and titanium white, but also invested in a turquoise that I thought would do well for a street sign in one of my paintings. Also got my first glass muller, which makes paint mixing a lot more efficient and breaks up the powder so it can dissolve into the oil more fully. Had to splurge on a fantastic set of retouching brushes as well. Painting heaven. Can't wait to go back.
George Kremer was also featured on one of my favorite Radiolab episodes, about color. That particular segment is about the color Gambodge, and it starts at 15:47 if you're curious: http://www.radiolab.org/story/211193-perfect-yellow/
Check out Kremer here, you can also order online: http://www.kremerpigments.com
Finished product. This painting is teeny tiny.
I was doing some reading on standard painting sizes and remembered that in France they not only sell canvases based on size, but also on rectangular shape. For this they use three basic ratios expressing how many times the smaller dimension goes into the larger. Sometime in the 1800s, the French split these three ratios into categories: Figure (~1.3 ratio), Landscape (~1.5), and Marine (~1.8). Making sense of these numbers is easy when you think that 1.0 is a square (because every side is equal and so they go into each other exactly once), so the farther away from that you get, the longer the rectangle.
So if you want a canvas that is 18cm in length, you must then decide if you want:
Each size increment has a number (0-120), so you could go in the store and ask for a "size 8 marine", and they would know exactly what you want. The table below is useful in laying out all of the options. Of course, outside of France, art suppliers often already produce canvas sizes using this system. I just haven't come across any distributors selling them in that fashion.
For my paintings, I'm pretty loyal to the 1.5 ratio that I photograph in (3888 x 2592 pixels), putting me at Landscape. However, this last painting was 5" x 7" with a ratio of 1.4, meaning more of a Figure ratio than I'm used to. This ended up working out nicely -- I find that vertically oriented paintings can easily seem too tall and elongated (whereas extra length in a horizontally oriented painting creates more of an expansive, panoramic feeling) so the slightly more concise ratio eliminated any distracting and unnecessary height.
I just stretched two other frames, one at 13" x 19" (landscape), the other 15" x 27" (marine). The second will be exciting not just because it is more than half a foot bigger than any paintings I've done in the last couple of years (and when your paintings are as small as mine, half a foot is a lot), but it will also be a much longer composition. It makes me think of letter boxing in film, and the difference between full screen and wide screen (though not quite as abrupt a shift).
And to think I've always turned my nose up at math!
I remixed some of my older paints today and made a short video of the process. Because I only use a tiny dollop of each color every day, I make just enough paint to fill canisters that are about the diameter of a quarter. There's no need to make more than I'll use in a couple month's time, and that way I continually make myself freshly mixed batches of color.
I find that with certain colors it's better to add a little extra linseed oil or the paint develops a crust after a few weeks, rendering it unusable and a waste. The extra oil just means that I need to stir the paint every so often to prevent it from settling and congealing. The texture is like commercial oil paint diluted with linseed oil to make it creamier and less pasty.
Every color mixes differently. Titanium white pigment sinks into the oil almost immediately, so it is very easy to overdo it and make it too milky. It can still be usable like this, but it's a slippery slope. Colors that you've mixed with a highly diluted white may seem the right hue when you apply the paint, but it can dry much darker and you may waste time having to go back and fine tune the luminosity. On the other hand, yellow ochre takes longer to absorb the oil, so you have to be patient and allow the pigment to catch up while mixing. You can see that I added oil to the white only a few times and quite sparingly, while with the yellow I added it incrementally and over a longer period of time. The white ends up being light and whippable, while only toward the end does the yellow reveal all the oil I've added, shifting to a heavy, soupy consistency.
Although I can control the outcome to an extent, the consistencies are largely inherent in each pigment's properties. So for instance, cadmium red tends to be very easy to mix and turns out almost the consistency of soft butter. Ultramarine blue is the opposite. It is definitely the hardest to mix and the most difficult to keep. The pigment tends to dissolve and float in the oil almost instantly, but as soon as it goes in the canister it separates and hardens at the bottom like a cake of cement. It requires a lot of upkeep and constant remixing, though luckily it is very potent and it doesn't take much to do the job when mixing with other colors.
Here's the shorter version with white.
A little more painting nerd talk, for the last two years I've been using pigments from Sinopia Pigments, a company based out of San Francisco. They have a great selection of high quality pigments and binders. I invested roughly $100 in my current palette of 13 colors and cold-pressed linseed oil from Sinopia back in 2011, and I've only recently run out of yellow ochre and white. Using pigments is a very cost effective way to be a painter because you typically get more colors to choose from, the pigments are pure and higher quality, and you can hold onto a jar or bag for years at a time. You can also make watercolor with the same pigments and gum arabic diluted in water. Even egg tempera, wax, or acrylic paint if that's your bag. Of course, my paintings are pretty small, so I can get by on a 75g jar ($20.00) of cadmium red medium for years, whereas larger-scale painters might need a 500g bag ($85.00) for it to last as long. Cadmium red is my priciest color though, so don't let that scare you. A 75g jar of yellow ochre can start as low as $8.00 and 500g at $17.00.
I'd look into Kremer Pigments as well, which is based out of New York City (and was featured in the Radiolab about color!) I once ordered some Cellulose glue and Damar gum from them and received both only a couple days later. Their prices run about the same as Sinopia, and because they are on my side of the country, I can probably expect them to arrive a little sooner than Sinopia if I'm in a pinch. I did cave and pick up a cheap jar of titanium white at Utrecht recently, though I wouldn't recommend Utrecht for all your pigments. The stores don't generally carry any pigments beyond your basic rainbow.
Anyway, the above paint will be going on the below painting. The foreground is very wintery but the background will be springy. Stay tuned.
Hannah Dunscombe is a painter and portrait artist based out of Brookline, MA.