Unpacking a Facebook Comment: A Discussion on Art Tools and Insults

Unpacking a Facebook Comment: A Discussion on Art Tools and Insults

This morning I was mulling over a couple of ideas for a new blog post when I got distracted by and started responding to a Facebook comment on my previous post: ‘Can You Really 'Cheat' at Art?’.  The comment reads: 

A lucida is not cheating. You can tell the difference when someone with talent and training uses it compared someone who doesnt/isn't. What I find reprehensible is your constant and flagrant lies about who used these. The Lucida was not invented until 1806.

None of the "old masters " used this.

Ingres did not use this. He had skills.

Please stop insulting talented people.

As my mind started picking apart the comment, I realized I had found my next blog topic. Sometimes embracing a distraction is the most productive thing to do.

I have no argument with the first part of the comment, they are expressing their opinion on cheating in art—that is all fine and great. But then they abruptly transition to accusing me and/or my company of flagrant and reprehensible lies. Then self-contradictingly asserts that mentioning the tools an artist may have used is insulting them. This is what I would like to unpack and address.

In the same way my teenaged son constantly corrects his younger siblings on every trivial or perceived incorrect statement, this comment makes a fair point. The LUCY Drawing Tool is an improved camera lucida. The camera lucida was not invented until 1806. The term "Old Masters" generally refers to the most recognized European artists—working between the Renaissance and 1800. So by this logic none of the “Old Masters” could have used the camera lucida. That is technically true. And sometimes in advertising you can’t regress into the murky minutia of the past and tease out every nuance. But as my teenaged son will hopefully find out some day—the more you learn, the less you know.

The camera lucida was patented in 1806 by William Hyde Wollaston, but the optical principles involved were described nearly 200 years earlier in Johannes Kepler’s “Dioptrice”. When a thing is patented and when a thing is first used or known do not always coincide—especially when you are dealing with something as fundamental as reflecting light. No one knows if anyone built or used a reflective device like what became the camera lucida before Wollaston, but there is no reason they couldn’t have.

And of course, the knowledge of and use of the camera obscura goes even farther back and includes the entire “Old Master” Renaissance era when Leonardo da Vinci was sketching hundreds of diagrams of the camera obscura, including the one below. The camera obscura is a predecessor of the camera lucida. In both cases ‘camera’ means chamber or room. ‘Obscura’ means dark. ‘Lucida’ means light. The name camera lucida was chosen both to pay tribute to its forerunner and to juxtapose the way the two devices operate.

The point is there is not just one type of optical device that was used in art, but myriads of methods and tools made and used over the centuries. That is why we distinguish between device classes like camera lucidas and earlier predecessors like the camera obscuras when possible or [in order to avoid going in to confusing and unnecessary detail] use general terms such as ‘tools like this’ or ‘similar devices’. The LUCY drawing tool is not the camera lucida invented in 1806, nor is Wollaston’s lucida a camera obscura, nor is the obscura described by da Vinci the same as the one Vermeer would have used, but one cannot dismiss the evidence for the use of optics in art by conflating and quibbling about what tool was used when by who. The commenter may not like or agree with it, but our statement and belief that great artists of the past used tools like this is no less a lie than their insistence that they did not. A certain amount of evidence exists, and people make up their own mind about what may or may not have happened in the past. That's how historical science works.

Now quickly on the idea that talking about the history of optics in art is somehow “insulting talented people”. This commenter first acknowledges that they can tell the “difference when someone with talent and training uses” a camera lucida, inferring that even if an artist uses these sorts of tools, they still need talent and training to produce exceptional work. The commenter then turns around and infers that our stating that an artist with talent and training may have used an optical device to help create their exceptional work is “insulting talented people”. You can’t have it both ways. Of course, using any of these tools still requires talent and training, practice and patience.  This accusation of insulting talented people is groundless. Giving people tools to help them achieve their full potential is not cheating and acknowledging the tools that help achieve greatness is not insulting.

I’ve spoken my piece. I have no problem with different opinions or beliefs. Read and research, wonder and walk around; think whatever thing you want. But if you accuse me of lying—you may get a wordy response 😉.

Comments 51

Paula on

Tools are exactly that .. tools. Even when I have attempted to sketch and paint a scene from someone’s photo or a drawing, the end result is always going to be different from theirs, most often vastly so.

Kudos on such a fabulous article and a subject that needed addressing.

Robin Barnhart on

I’ve been able to draw all my life. With time and practice, these skills increase. I purchased one of these when you first started selling them and have only used it a couple of times. It did not stop my talent or increase it. It just help speed up the original drawing process.

All His blessings,

matt on

I am very happy you developed this simple and affordable product. I got mine years ago when I first discovered it online. I wouldnt be surprised if some people call the Mahl Stick cheating.
Some people can’t learn perspective without a foundation, this device trains the eye to see where teaching can’t. Art snobs are everywhere in every time period and many historical masters disagreed with the common ideas of their day, especially self appointed critics.
Your advertising is very appropriate and direct and thank you for doing the hard work to bring this to market.

Patti on

I agree with all of the above – I’ve been an artist all my life, I’ve sold some fine art paintings, also hand built sculptured ceramics in our local stores which sold very well. I’ve basically used a photo that I’ve taken to reproduce in oils or acrylics or pencils or watercolors, and also in creating ceramics. I’ve watched awesome portrait artists on TV, and most of them took their camera to work from – an enlarged photo beside their easel, whilst their subject sat posed in front of them for hours. They could more easily sketch out the shape of the subjects which gave them a good start at having a very good portrait finished in a 4 hour time slot. It is no different using a camera than using the Lucida camera. And even though most of the 6 artists used the camera to get their work started quickly, every portrait looked quite different of the same posing subject. Some artists would also strike up conversation with the subject to learn their personality, to help make personality become part of the portrait. That’s where the true artistry shows up – not a simple outer frame of the subject, but of the colours used and how those shapes and colours, light and shadow are applied to achieve a ‘feeling’ (which could also be interpreted differently by each artist). That’s what any good artist always wants to achieve, and why some people will even be brought to tears by looking at a painting. I am always open to learning new ways of achieving great effects, but that is not what the Lucida helps me do. It’s a simple way to begin, a good tool, nothing more. So if any person feels the Lucida is cheating, or they feel threatened by it, then perhaps they are not aware of the true meaning of art.

Heidi on

I went to a David Hockney exhibition at the Fitzwilliam Museum last year in Cambridge, England. He definitely used a camera lucida in drawing portraits, as explained in the description alongside the portrait, “Martin Kemp”. I could post them if you allowed jpg. The museum presented a portrait by Jean-Auguste Ingres (1780-1867), “Portrait of Mrs. John Mackie”. The museum believed Ingres to have used an optical device like the camera lucida. In fact the room was all about using the camera lucida in art. Lots of professional artists use optical helps. I bought your Lucy, and it helped me accurately render a watercolor portrait of my sister. Thank you indeed.

Jon Griffiths on

Thank you for this short elucidating essay. For me, it shed new light (and no heat) on this deeply considered issue. Your FB commenter should be urged to read what Martin Kemp has written on this topic.

Jeanne on

I agree with all that was already said so I won’t reiterate it. I will say that what popped into my mind was that there are people that use the grid method to draw their subject. That is a tool and it has been used for years and no one calls that cheating.

Ron Henningsen on

I agree with your comments and perspective. A an instructor once told me “you can always try to pick the fly poop out of the pepper but you will never get anything else done”.
Complaining just because you have a means to do so doesn’t make for a valid complaint.

Diana Kazmaier on

Thank you…I just read a well written and very informative article/blog. The background information was fascinating.

Thomas Agerton on

Well put response. I would assume everyone has an opinion, but wouldn’t it be nice if this person would dig a little deeper into the device in question before making statements like this, especially with no working knowledge of the device. Not all of us carry the Michaelangelo gene. Just saying!


Having read your blog I agree with you. As far as what the “old” masters used unless you were there you don’t know what they used. Just because some Art History Professor said they didn’t, or some “author” said they didn’t doesn’t make it so. And with respect to insulting talented people, I don’t really hear any “talented people” complaining. The use of the Lucy is only in a technical application different than using an art projector. If you’re so stupid or narrow-minded to think that the “old masters” or any master would not grab the chance to have such a tool in their artbox then you really need to rethink your position.

Eva on

I whole heartedly agree with your observations. Thank you for taking the time to respond to the commenter. I believe that someone who makes such negative comments such as these, are making knee jerk responses without true knowledge of the actual facts. IMO

Elisabeth Thacker on

Good morning. I have made my living for the past 40 years as an artist. Not trying to toot my own horn, but I (and many others) consider myself a ‘very talented’ artist (as the commenter referred to) and I have never had one art lesson in my entire life. What I have is genuinely a natural talent. Even though I have produced well over 1000 portraits, I am not a Vermeer or one of the other artists mentioned, but I do pride myself in doing ‘photo-realistic’ portraiture, etc. That being said, however, I would be the FIRST to ‘admit’ (I’m not sure if that it really the correct term) to using a light box in some of my work…and that simply because I am usually on a deadline. Now, I could work completely from scratch with no ‘cheaters tools’ at all, but the project would end up taking twice as long. I use the light box simply for proper placement of facial features and take it on my own from there. Now that I am semi-retired I can work at my own pace, but still rely on that light box for perfect feature placement. I recently purchased the Lucy drawing tool but haven’t had the chance to use it yet. I’m sure I will be thrilled with the option to add it to my artist’s toolbox of ‘tricks’…and we all have them. If a ‘camera obscura’ tool was drawn by da Vinci, who’s to say he didn’t use one while painting the Mona Lisa or other masterpieces? And, if it’s good enough for Leonardo, it’s good enough for me. I doubt if anyone would have called him or Vermeer ‘cheaters’ to their faces. I have never and do not now consider myself a ‘cheater’ by using a tool that simply saves me time and guarantees a satisfied customer. So, call me a cheater if you will but I will continue using the tools and methods I have learned over the years and am happy doing so!

Fred on

Using a Lucy can provide a good sketch for a person with talent. Is it cheating as a “paint by numbers” situation?
I have used a grid over a photo and squares on my paper to create a good sketch. How is that different from the Lucy? A sketch is a starting, skill adds depth and detail.

Debra Rob on

You must mean imply not infer. I know what you mean, but it’s distracting to the reader.

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