An eye to writing


This is the camera lucida. I came across it when visiting the Fox Talbot museum at Lacock. Although the museum is about the birth of photography, the link between artistic forms of making images is not ignored. The original design of the camera lucida was by William Hyde Wollaston in 1807. It used a four-sided glass prism whose angles allowed all of the light from the object to travel to the eye. The light from the paper can still pass through the prism to the eye, allowing sight of the action of the pencil on the paper. A small peephole is placed just above the prism to force the eye to the optimum viewing point.

The illustration of an artist using it, above, show that his left eye sights through the microscope enlarging his image, while his right remains on his work. You might be able to detect that he needs to anchor the paper so that it cannot move.

How interesting! I emailed a microscopy artist about this, thinking it would be a valuable aid, an alternative to the present practice of using the microscope and drawing/painting alternately.

If you are suddenly gripped with a desire to have a camera lucida, Apple, of course, have an app. Essentially your ipad hangs over the edge of a table focussing on the image on the floor while you busy yourself at recording it on the table. Alternatively, you can shell out and buy a modern version of it here. Camera Lucida

In learning about this device, my thoughts were, as usual, about how this might relate to the novelist’s writing process. One eye on the detail, the other on the work as a whole. For instance, in crime writing the detail in an early chapter can be crucial in the denoûment; the fine detail of a character’s movement may highlight his or her personality. Working on the detail has to be relevant to the whole novel – we don’t want to read the inner label of someone’s raincoat, its colour and shape if that character is never to appear again and is pretty incidental to the plot.

A novelist including a detail is indicating to the reader ‘this is important.’ A novel with broad brush strokes and little detail is usually unsatisfying.

I liked the concept of the work being anchored so that it couldn’t move. Writers do need to keep theirs constantly in mind, which is why many entomb themselves from diversions until the heavy work is done.

Another interesting thought: the artist or writer is working simultaneously with input and output. The input is noticing the detail in the first place. The artist has to put his eye to the peephole. The writer has to turn his eye to the movement or setting that others might miss.

It’s a matter of detail. The output should be enriched by that silent activity.

A final point for writers: the original use of the Camera Lucida was to allow the artist to gain the correct perspective in his drawing of an image such as a building. Writers have much more freedom in the use of their perspective. Aren’t we lucky!


Published by

Rosalind Minett

Author of historical trilogy, A Relative Invasion. Rosalind has an extensive background as a psychologist.

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