Traces of Lucidity

Museum of Forgotten Art Supplies
from © Lou Brooks


When I was a grad student I asked my teacher Marshall Arisman how to use the ancient lucigraph tracing machine in SVA’s illustration studio. He cocked his head back and laughed in my face. “You never used one of these? Good for you, I am not going to teach you!” I can’t find a picture of the exact model, but it had a big black bellows and a fan that sounded like a helicopter landing. Similar specimens can be found in Lou Brooks’ Museum of Forgotten Art Supplies.

Prof. Pablo Garcia's collection of camera lucidas.
Prof. Pablo Garcia’s collection of camera lucidas.

Tracing devices, or optical drawing aids are not new. Camera comes from the Latin word for room or chamber, and obscura and lucida from dark and light. The camera obscura is the older and larger device. Aristotle knew of the device. It works with a pinhole or lens and projects a 2-D image on a surface. The camera lucida is a portable optical device that works in bright light.

Dürer's woodcut of a draftsman using a drawing aid.
Dürer’s woodcut of a draftsman using a drawing aid.

Fine artists often deny using such tools. Some illustrators are more honest. Norman Rockwell used Bosh and Lomb’s Balopticon, a projecting device with a 400-watt bulb. He said, “The balopticon is an evil, inartistic, habit-forming, lazy and vicious machine! It also is a useful, time-saving, practical and helpful one. I use one often—and am thoroughly ashamed of it. I hide it whenever I hear people coming.”

Copan Stela detail by Catherwood and sketch from the "Maya Decipherment" blog.
Copan Stela F (detail) by Catherwood and sketch from the “Maya Decipherment” blog.

I wrote about Frederic Catherwood when I was in the Yucatan in 2011. Catherwood braved disease, insects, snakes, and war to complete his illustrations for John Stephen’s “Incidents of Travels in Central America, Chiapas, and the Yucatan.” Catherwood hacked away jungle and rigged a camera obscura in a black tent in the tropical sun. His drawings, circa 1840, are so meticulously detailed that they enable epigraphers to decipher the glyphs today. Many such glyphs were lost to erosion or looters by the time photographers arrived decades later. The illustration above is from Dr. David Stuart of the University of Texas Austin’s Maya Decipherment blog. 


Yesterday, I (and 2499 others) contributed $30 to a Kickstarter campaign to produce a 21st century camera lucida. Dubbed the NeoLucida it will be assembled in Pittsburgh. I will be getting one to try.

demo photo from NeoLucida Kickstarter
demo photo from NeoLucida Kickstarter

The NeoLucida is the brainchild of two art professors: Pablo Garcia, who teaches Contemporary Practices at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and Golan Levin, Associate Professor of Computation Arts at Carnegie Mellon University. The NeoLucida Kickstarter was so popular it sold out within 16 hours.

They write: “Our first batch of NeoLucidas will also be our only batch—because, as we’ve explained, we’re doing this as a fun intervention, not to start a business. Once we’ve finished distributing the NeoLucidas, we will publish our designs, CAD files, and all of our supplier data pablo-golan.largewith a liberal Creative Commons and Open-Source Hardware (OSHW) license, so that anyone who wishes can continue the project (including, potentially, commercially). Our design and other manufacturing information will appear on, Instructables, Scribd, and other appropriate sites.                              Sincerely, Pablo & Golan

Sorry I am such a slow typist. Had I posted this yesterday, you might have gotten in on the deal. But take hope in the fact that this is an open source provocation. Someone else will surely build on this idea. The video on the NeoLucida Kickstarter site is still worth a visit. It is a case study of a pitch perfect Kickstarter campaign. My favorite part is when Prof. Garcia earnestly explains “our suppliers require a minimum order of 500 prisms and thumb nuts.” Thumb nuts! The NeoLucida will come with a postage paid card to permit users to send their line art to an online collection. There may even be a book. I plan take my NeoLucida to Mexico and trace a glyph.

UPDATE: May 10. New limited edition of $40 NeoLucidas is slated to be announced on Kickstarter this evening at 6pm EST, link here.

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