Camera Lucida: A Device to Help You Draw

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The author makes use of his camera lucida device.
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Diagram shows the parts and materials of the camera lucida.

It takes some talent to capture an object or a scene with pencil or pen and paper, and unfortunately, many people who have the desire to draw can’t seem to muster up the required skill. If you fall into that category but are an able wielder of saw and drill (or have a friend who is), you can make a simple device called a camera lucida …which will allow you to trace on paper a subject that you see reflected by a prism or a piece of glass-like material.

How to Build It

Although there are some commercially manufactured camera lucidas that use expensive prisms, lenses, and multicoated glass, my workable design is made of two small scraps of wood (an 8″ length of 2 X 8 and a short piece of 1 X 2) …a 24″ section of 3/8″ dowel …two nuts, bolts, and washers …a 1″ angle brace …a small screw clamp …and an 8″ X 10″ sheet of thin plexiglass. As you can imagine, then, the cost of constructing this tool is low or–if you have appropriate leftovers from previous projects–nonexistent. And your carpentry skills don’t have to be first-rate to handle this job, either, because a camera lucida whose measurements deviate a bit from those listed here will usually achieve the same results.

The main component of this “artist’s friend” is the plexiglass sheet. An 8″ X 10″ size is ideal if you’re using a standard sketch pad, but it can be bigger or smaller if you prefer. Whatever the plastic’s dimensions, drill a small hole (the size of those in the ends of the angle brace) that’s centered 3/4 inch from one of its shorter edges. When that’s been accomplished, attach the angle (which can be purchased at most hardware stores, usually two to a pack) to the plexiglass, using a nut, bolt, and washer.

Next, drill a hole of the same diameter, from edge to edge, through the 1 X 2 scrap, to which you’ll attach–with the other bolt, nut, and washer–the free side of the angle. Before assembling these parts, however, change to a 3/8″ drill bit and make another bore through the middle of that same small piece of wood, to accommodate the dowel.

Finally, center a second 3/8″ hole at a point 1/2 inch from one end of the 2 X 8, insert the dowel, slide on the screw clamp (which will hold the reflecting surface at the desired height), and then attach the plexiglass assembly.

How to Use It

Once your camera lucida is completed, place the drawing paper under the plexiglass and look down through the plastic. Now, pivot the plexiglass sheet until you see, in it, a reflection of the object you wish to sketch. Then adjust the assembly, moving it up to make the reflection smaller or down to make it larger. When you look through the transparent sheet you’ll see not only the reflected view, but also the piece of paper below. All you have to do, then, is simply trace the outline of the “mirage.” (You’ll find that the camera lucida works best when the device is in the shade and the scene to be sketched is in full sunlight.)  

When you first start using this tool, stick to simple line drawings. As you improve, work your way up to landscapes, portraits, etc. To produce more colorful art, you can go on to paint inside the sketch lines, adding the proper hues in the appropriate places. Doing so will be much like working with a paint-by-number picture …except that nature, instead of numerals, will be providing the color clues.