A History of How Optics Has Helped Artists Create Better Paintings

Technology in optics may have helped artists throughout history to surpass their predecessors in execution, but true artistry lies in vision as well as skill.
Jason Socrates Bardi, Editor

For centuries the Renaissance has been renowned as a time of artistic genius and innovation. Architecture, sculpture and painting in particular saw rapid improvements in realism as skilled hands began working in oil paints. But did technological tools enable these unprecedented advances or was it technical skill alone? 

Physicist Charles Falco wondered that very question a few years ago when he heard famed contemporary artists David Hockney asking if scientific inventions might have aided the old masters.

“When David Hockney had an article written about him in New Yorker magazine I contacted [him] and I happen[ed] to be in Los Angeles. I visited and saw what he was doing and it ended up being by far the most intense scientific collaboration of my entire career,” said Falco.

“What David Hockney had collected for himself were color photo copies of all the paintings from Western Europe that look to him [like] something other than simple eyeballing, as his term, were used. I looked at the paintings and one in particular caught my eye on my very first visit, and it was clear to me that optics had been used,” said Falco.

The painting was Lorenzo Lotto’s Husband and Wife from the early 16th century. 

Falco noticed something odd about the table covering’s geometric pattern. As the pattern recedes from view, it also slips out of focus. Falco recognized this as a telltale sign of an optical instrument, and theorized that Lotto had employed a curved glass to magnify individual parts of the scene as he worked. 

“We've published, I forget exactly the number, something like eight scientific publications. The scientific community has largely received these as really very interesting. We calculate things, we have equations, we have estimates; any scientist can plug in numbers and see we've done this correctly. The art history community isn't so thrilled with what we've done,” said Falco.

Falco points to the camera lucida, a simple invention that allowed artist to trace complicated scenes. However, Falco maintains that the camera lucida can't be compared to the sophisticated technologies employed by more masterful painters. 

“When you project images at half-life size and small depths of field and things are upside down, it's much more difficult than you might think. And so Ansel Adams people think well photography solves everything. I defy most people to take a photograph as nicely composed, nicely exposed as Ansel Adams did with photographs. So photography optics doesn't solve everything, but largely people sort of think it does. I think that's one resistance of art historians,” said Falco.

Undeterred, Falco looks forward to discovering new evidence of optical technology in historical works. In particular, he's interested in the ways masterful artist surpassed the science to create true works of art. 

“If you go to a museum like the Metropolitan Museum in New York, the best paintings are on the wall, 95 percent of their collection is in the basement. One premise I have, is the lesser artist, the ones that are not quite accomplished, would not have been able to obscure the features of the optical projection as well. If I can show a particular feature was created with use of optics, but some aspect of that feature deviates from what optics did, why did the artists do that?” stated Falco.

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Jason Socrates Bardi is the former News Director of the American Institute of Physics and a longtime science writer.