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gavin young and the camera obscura

“Almost unworkable”: this is how artist Gavin Young describes the camera obscura as a technical aid to artists. Yet there’s genuine enthusiasm and excitement in Gavin’s voice when he talks about the device. In fact, during the course of our 40-minute phone conversation, he returns to the subject several times. There’s clearly something about the images that a camera obscura can project that capture the artist’s imagination. And so, in the build-up to Gavin’s upcoming solo show here at the gallery, we set about finding out what that certain allure might be.

But firstly, a very brief and basic introduction to the camera obscura (not to be confused with the Glasgow-based indie pop band of the same name), which translates from Latin as dark chamber. Feel free to skip ahead if you’re already ofay with the device and technique used. In a nutshell, you take a dark box, or room, obscure the light, put a pinhole at one end, direct the pinhole towards the chosen subject, and the light passing through the pinhole will project an image of the subject onto the opposite wall of the box (albeit upside down and reversed). The image will be best viewed in the dark, so, cover yourself and the box with a dark material for optimum effect. Also doubles as a handy Halloween costume. Perfect. If you then add lenses and mirrors, the image produced can be enlarged, turned the correct way around, focussed, or even distorted in some way. Simple, right? See this Youtube video if you’re still confused. (national geographic)

The use of the camera obscura in painting is not a recent one. Art historians have long theorised that artists such as Vermeer and Canaletto used the device as an aid to adding realism of depth, perspective, detail and scale to their early sketches and works. Academic Phillip Steadman investigated Vermeer’s possible use of optical science in his book Vermeer’s camera: uncovering the truth behind the masterpieces, pub. 2001, concluding that it was probably a large room type camera obscura which the artist used. Inventor Tim Jenison has also spent many years trying to unlock the secrets of Vermeer’s technique, as documented in the film produced by Penn and Teller, Tim’s Vermeer, 2013. He explored many possibilities, including both the room type camera obscura set-up, as well as a mirror comparator (below). David Hockney, in his book Secret Knowledge, pub. 2001, goes even further, suggesting that there is much evidence that artists as far back as the 15th century were using early optical technologies, such as lenses, mirrors and prisms, and that this heavily influenced the photo-realistic painting that was developed by the great masters. In essence, the use of optics helped to raise the bar amongst painters, and a new level of realism was from then on expected by patrons.

Ah ha! I thought to myself, feeling quite smug, this explains the intricate detail and unusual scale which creates the photo-realistic finish of Gavin’s still life paintings such as tea time (above): a piece that I regularly pass by in the gallery, longing to reach through the canvas and grab one of the delicious looking fondant fancies (mmm, cake…). Wrong. Turns out that the whilst the artist did make early attempts to use an optical setup similar to one of Jenison’s to create this piece (below) - seemingly pretty complicated, involving multiple lenses and a great deal of time to get the image just right and in proportion - he was so unhappy with the results that he sanded down the original painting and completed the finished piece simply by eyeballing alone. As David Hockney expressed in his book, “optics don’t make marks – they only produce and image, a look, a means of measurement. The artist is still responsible for the conception, and it requires great skill to overcome the technical problems and to be able to render that image in paint.” And there is definitely an interesting look in terms of both composition and tone to tea time. Gavin feels the tones and colours produced by the original camera obscura image influenced the final work. It also accounts for the stature of the piece – it’s slightly smaller than life-size: something that the artist has long admired in Vermeer’s work:

[his work] “feels like it’s a lens effect, as things in the distance appear in focus even though they are really far away. There’s a strange scale to them. The lens has a curved effect on the optical field, which you see in photographs and with cameras. For that time, this was so unusual.”

Gavin was first introduced to the camera obscura as an art student back in the 90s, whilst studying at Duncan of Jordanstone, in Dundee, and quickly became fascinated by it. Around the same time, he had seen the work of Vermeer first hand during a trip to Amsterdam and was also aware of Canaletto and other painters who had used the camera obscura to help depict their verdute, or views. After graduating, a serious health issue which affected his eyesight, making it painful to study a still life scene in detail for too long, led Gavin back to the camera obscura. The artist found that the blurry and often out of focus image produced by the camera obscura actually helped him by eliminating too much detail. Colours became concentrated and clear, which was appealing. In his own words:

“there’s a kind of a magical thing about looking at a camera obscura image: you immediately think that it arrests you. It grips you somehow. It cuts off any extraneous information and just focuses that. It’s like it’s got a mysterious strange quality, it’s so clear and that’s the way it grips you.”

Sounds enticing. Paints an almost romantic image doesn’t it? Even someone with limited artistic skill could give it a go perhaps? Perhaps not. This is where Gavin describes the device to me as being “almost unworkable”:

“your hand gets in the way of the shadow and you need some filtered light to see the marks that you’re actually making. That’s not too much of a problem: you can overcome this, get a sketch in proportion, but when you take it away you think, nope! I could have drawn that from life better because the lines are horrible! But if you’re drawing smaller than life size then it’s actually accurate from that point. You couldn’t have done that from life. It’s the colour and the light and the tones that are more appealing.”  

And there really is something compelling about the images produced by a camera obscura: the warmth of colour and vignette around the edge of the image, causing it to gradually fade away into the background. It’s somehow nostalgic and surreal at the same time.

Surprisingly not put off by his earlier attempts, Gavin also tested the workability of the camera obscura en plain air, perhaps much-like Canaletto did. Apparently, capturing scenes was cumbersome, to say the least. Attempting to balance the device on your knee, whilst holding a paintbrush and palette, whilst getting some kind of focussed image was difficult and no doubt frustrating. Choice words were probably used. To compensate for this, Gavin would take a ‘portable’ camera (below) out into the field to get studies which were created by peering into the camera obscura and then taken back to his studio to ‘square up’ and work from the blurry image. So how did Canelletto make use of the camera obscura? Gavin believes that the artist probably used one for his sketches, because they appear quite rough. “They’re not refined, like his paintings. Sketches look like they’ve been traced on a projector. Caneletto may have used it like that but had a good enough knowledge of colour and light etc.. and living in Venice to be able to work them up into faithful scenes.”

But what about the fact that out in the field the image projected will most likely be constantly shifting and changing? Gavin sees this as part of the appeal:

Unlike a photograph from a camera, which is dead within seconds, the camera obscura image is alive. You see people going past, birds flying, clouds going past on the sheet of paper. All that’s incredibly appealing for an artist as it’s a live image that you’re responding to. Colours are super clear. The contrast is something you don’t see in a photograph. Plus, it’s a live image, it’s moving. As an artist you’re still choosing the cloud formation, where the shadows are going to be etc… there are a lot of creative decisions to make.

For a few years, Gavin worked on five or six pieces with the camera obscura, as well as experimenting with other optical devices, such as Jenison’s mirror comparator. However, he was never wholly satisfied with the obscura pieces. So, is it farewell to the pesky camera obscura? Not according to Gavin. In fact, my phone call took the artist away from revisiting a piece started some time ago using the device, titled Cycle Commute (above). It seems that recent re-workings of older pieces have sparked the artist’s interest once more and he is now looking to incorporate it somehow into his newer works, which are created largely from imagination. I don’t know about you, but I can’t wait to see the results.  

Gavin Young’s Camera Obscura pieces can be seen as part of Resipole Studios’ upcoming Autumn show, which runs from 8th September until 26th October. For more information, visit the artist's page on our website.

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