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Camera Lucida: An Optical Illusion for Artists

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What Exactly is a Camera Lucida?
Camera Lucida made by Ancient Magic Art Tools

The left photo shows what you see when you look through a camera lucida: the subject reflected onto the paper you're going to use, and your hand when you move it into view. If you move your head while working, your lines and subject won't align (right).

Photo © 2009 Marion Boddy-Evans. Licensed to About.com, Inc.

Imagine an optical device that allowed you to see what you wanted to paint or draw as if reflected on your piece of paper. All you'd need to do would be to trace the subject, no more struggling to get the perspective or someone's features accurate. Sounds too good to be true? Well, a camera lucida does do this.

Isn't there some catch? Well, while a camera lucida may help you get accurate perspective or capture facial features quickly, as with any instrument it's only as good as the person using it. Your results will only be as good as your drawing and painting skills. You still have to decide what to put in and leave out, and make marks with a pencil or brush. So, how does it work?

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