Arts: Did Ingres use a camera?

After examining Ingres's brilliant portrait sketches and experimenting with a camera lucida, one of our greatest artists considers the secret history of mechanical aids for drawing

What I am about to say is speculative on my part but is based on visual evidence and my experience of drawing. Artists are generally secretive about their methods, especially about mechanical devices such as cameras and photography - not necessarily the same thing, the camera being much older than the photograph. The photograph is merely the chemical invention of how to fix a projected image, and was first seen in about 1839.

I have always deeply admired the drawings of Ingres. I first came across them more than 40 years ago as an art student in Bradford. They were held up as an ideal in drawing: sensitive, full of character and uncannily accurate about physiognomy.

In January I saw the Ingres exhibition at the National Gallery three times, bought the catalogue and, after a little dallying in Paris, returned to Los Angeles. I read the catalogue from cover to cover and noticed that it rarely, if at all, talked about technique. It was fascinating about the characters Ingres portrayed, but an artist might ask another question: how was this done?

I had been intrigued by the scale of the drawings: why so small, almost unnaturally small, for such accuracy? I looked at them and then blew some up on a Xerox machine to examine the line more closely. To my surprise, they reminded me at times of Warhol's drawing - lines made without hesitation, bold and strong - but I knew that essentially Warhol's were traced. Could these have been done the same way?

The faces in the portrait drawings by Ingres have likenesses that one feels are true. Like real faces, each is very different, but likenesses are achieved by the relationship between the eyes, nose and mouth. Mouths are especially difficult to draw and paint (as John Singer Sargent said, "A portrait is a painting with something wrong with the mouth"). The mouths on these drawings were most clearly visible but drawn very, very small. To anyone who has drawn faces from life they seem uncanny. I found myself fascinated by them and kept studying the reproductions.

I now digress. Someone gave me the Taschen complete works of Van Gogh. At $50 it was an absolute bargain. I looked through it and felt at the end that I had had $50 worth of pleasure already, so all that was to come was free. I left the pages open at the great painting, Harvest at La Crau, with Montmajour in the Background. On the left-hand page was a drawing. At first glance the painting and the drawing appeared the same. But then I compared them and realised they were quite different. In the drawing everything seems closer to the viewer than in the painting. I noticed this because I know the effect cameras have of pushing the distance away, as I had been dealing with this in my Grand Canyon paintings. Van Gogh's painting did not seem to have been done from the drawing.

I kept pondering this, and then looked at The Prisoners in the Courtyard based on Dore's engraving made at St Remy in 1890. I looked up the Dore, and got my assistant Richard Schmidt to photograph it and put it on a transparency, the same scale as the reproduction. They fit precisely. The exact outlines, the negative shapes - very precisely. Much too precise for what an artist might call "eye-balling" it. This would mean either that a copy of the engraving, carefully squared up, exists, or that Van Gogh used some other mechanical means. Perhaps in a hospital in St Remy there might have been an epidiascope for lectures or medical diagrams. He might have immediately seen the possibilities of transferring the engraving to his canvas, and I'm sure he would not have hesitated to use this technique. This in no way diminishes the deeply moving painting - it is more interesting than the engraving. To add colour to black and white would have pleased Van Gogh (there is a painting of his mother in the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena done from a photograph, and Van Gogh mentions he wanted to add colour to this image). So, back to Ingres.

I looked closer and closer and began to think that some mechanical device must have been used here. I remembered many years ago buying a camera lucida: I tried it for a day, found it too difficult to use, and forgot about it. So I asked Richard to nip down to our local art store and buy one - I knew they would have one. I made a drawing of Richard using it. It is a very simple device - quite small, really just a prism, but it enabled me to place the eyes, nose and mouth very accurately. I then drew from direct observation.

It is merely a tool to place positions very precisely. You have still to be extremely observant and skilful with the pencil and only Ingres could make drawings like this. When I first suggested my theory to art historians they seemed horrified, as though this knowledge would diminish the work. Why, I don't know. Who else made drawings as good as these? Ingres witnessed the birth of photography. His rival Delaroche made the statement, on seeing the daguerreotype, "From today painting is dead." He perhaps meant that the hand inside the camera had been replaced with chemicals.

I think the history of photography and painting in the 19th century has yet to be explored. People hide things - trade secrets as it were - but it is interesting to note that Degas, a great admirer of Ingres, was fascinated with photography. Cezanne did not care for Ingres and his work is very unphotographic. It seems to me that there is an interesting story here, and not just about the biographies of the sitters. Delaroche couldn't have foreseen that his remark about photography wasn't going to apply forever. Few people can see that, even today.

The period of chemical photography is over - the camera is returning to the hand (where it started) with the aid of the computer. All images will be affected by this. The photograph has lost its veracity. We are in a post-photographic age. Even in movies this is happening, in Jurassic Park and the new Star Wars. What it means I do not know. There is a deeply disturbing side to all this, yet also a thrilling one. There is a minimum of two sides to everything - and perhaps an infinity of sides; exciting times are ahead.

50 New portraits by David Hockney using the camera lucida will be on show at the Annely Juda Gallery, 23 Dering St, London W1 from 30 June to 18 Sept as part of the exhibition Space and Line. Also included are the pastel drawings Hockney made for his Grand Canyon paintings which are now on show at the Royal Academy's Summer Exhibition until 15 Aug. This article first appeared in the RA magazine

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

Arts and Entertainment
Game of Thrones will run for ten years if HBO gets its way but showrunners have mentioned ending it after seven

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
Mans Zelmerlow will perform 'Heroes' for Sweden at the Eurovision Song Contest 2015

Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth (Heida Reed) and Ross Poldark (Aiden Turner) in the BBC's remake of their 1975 original Poldark

Poldark review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor
    How to make your own Easter egg: Willie Harcourt-Cooze shares his chocolate recipes

    How to make your own Easter egg

    Willie Harcourt-Cooze talks about his love affair with 'cacao' - and creates an Easter egg especially for The Independent on Sunday
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef declares barbecue season open with his twist on a tradtional Easter Sunday lamb lunch

    Bill Granger's twist on Easter Sunday lunch

    Next weekend, our chef plans to return to his Aussie roots by firing up the barbecue
    Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

    Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

    The England prop relives the highs and lows of last Saturday's remarkable afternoon of Six Nations rugby
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?

    Cricket World Cup 2015

    Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?
    The Last Word: Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing