Art through the camera lens

Captivating. Ageing. Brilliant. Rotten. Just some of the terms used to describe Paul Emsley’s portrait of the Duchess of Cambridge, unveiled at London’s National Portrait Gallery in 2013. A painting of its time it may be, but the techniques used to create the work date back centuries. Emsley, who uses Winsor and Newton Artists’ Oil Colour, only had two sittings with the duchess; for the rest of the time he had to refer to photographs. Our resident artist, Mathew Gibson, has been investigating the technique.

Accuracy across the ages

In Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters, David Hockney argues that paintings by Jan Eyck and other northern European artists in the early 15th century were so accurate they would have been impossible to make exclusively from observation. He identified the use of concave mirrors, like a shaving mirror, to project an image onto a painting surface which could then be traced. This reversed the image – which Hockney argues is why so many drinkers found in Flemish tavern scenes are left-handed.

Richard Whincop, There's no place like home
Richard Whincop, There’s no place like home


Leap forward a hundred years and Italy welcomes the camera obscura. This allowed artists to use the light coming through a pin hole in a darkened room or chamber to be projected onto a canvas. Combined with a lens and mirror, the image could be focused and positioned upright, ready for tracing. Hockney suggests that Caravaggio used a camera obscura to make his life-like paintings. No under-drawing has ever been found in a Caravaggio and occasional distortions in scale could be caused by re-focusing of the lens. Hockney also points to Vermeer’s paintings as being just the right size to fit a projection made in a camera obscura.

The camera lucida followed – a device that didn’t need a dark room. It was light, portable and allowed the artist to see the subject and the drawing surface at the same time. Its faint projections could also be traced. Joshua Reynolds, the founder of the Royal Academy in London, had a camera obscura and a camera lucida, disguised as a book. Hockney argues that many of these methods are little known because artists were keen to protect the secrets of their trade.

In the 20th century, Andy Warhol, David Salles and Roy Lichtenstein, to name but a few, used projected images in creating their works. And today’s artists continue to use photography in all its forms.

Richard Whinchop, The Lavant Baptism
Richard Whinchop, The Lavant Baptism


Computers, canvases and creativity

Contemporary artist Richard Whincop uses photographic technology to create his paintings:

“I adapt my photographic sources very freely, often using elements from several different photos. I combine them into a composition on Photoshop. Once I am happy with the mock-up, I begin painting.

“I work in Winsor & Newton Artisan Water Mixable Oil Colour because it gives me the handling qualities of oil, but without the use of volatile solvents. Blocking-in with washes can create different effects according to whether I use water or the Artisan thinner, and, using a combination of the oils and fast-drying medium, I can control drying times, create glazes etc.

“With a studio at home it means I can wash brushes in water and I don’t fill the house with the smell of turpentine. As the work progresses I refer less to the original mock-up. The painting has to transcend the source photographs, integrating all the elements and unifying them into a coherent image.”

Thea Penna, Lila Pearl IV
Thea Penna, Lila Pearl IV


At home with her camera

Thea Penna uses photographs as the starting point for her paintings:

“I divide the photograph into a grid and do the same with the canvas. I can then translate the imagery from each square of the photograph directly into each square of the canvas. My paintings are of scenes around my home, with my family as the main subjects. It’s rare that I use the information from one photograph alone. I usually work from a selection of shots and from life.

“I use Winsor & Newton Artists’ Acrylic [now called Professional Acrylic] on canvas. I couldn’t use anything else as this is the medium I feel so comfortable painting with and I just love the results. I work in layers and build up my paintings quickly, so it is important for the paint to dry quickly. The ‘no colour shift’ you get from Winsor & Newton Artists’ Acrylic suits my work perfectly, as you know exactly what you see is the finished result. I like to work in a small area at home. This is another reason I use acrylics: they are clean to work with and have low odour.”

Photography on a grand scale

A fan of Winsor & Newton Professional Watercolour, Nicholas Phillips creates sets and characters much as Caravaggio and Vermeer would have done. He then photographs them, using the images as the basis for his paintings:

“The selected photo is traced and transferred onto paper ready for the watercolour. Typically the largest part of the ‘creative’ process goes into thinking out the scene: selecting props, the lighting, costumes, assembling the ‘set’. I’ll take three or four hundred shots hoping the shutter will catch that one moment which will be transferred into paint.

“Particularly in reproduction, the paintings ‘look like photographs’. I hope when seeing the real work people can tell they are paintings, but not because brush marks are evident – I want the process of the paint’s arrival on the surface to be a bit of a mystery, certainly not an act of artistic bravura.”

Photography now another tool for artists

From the introduction of oil paint until the invention of photography, painting was the main way of producing a “life-like” image. With chemical photography now almost redundant and advances in technology appearing limitless, it speaks volumes for the adaptability of artists that painting remains such an exciting medium.

Thea Penna, Self-portrait
Thea Penna, Self-portrait


*Lead image: Thea Penna, Self Portrait (Triptych), 2011, acrylic on canvas, 12 x 24′, courtesy the artist