My wife, who is an artist, recently picked up a copy of David Hockney’s book Secret Knowledge: Recovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters. She’d been having a discussion with an artist friend of hers about whether it’s wrong to use tracing, or other optical aids, when doing illustrations or paintings. In the book, Hockney advances the highly controversial theory that the dramatic surge in visual realism that occurred in the early 15th century was propelled by the use of optical projection techniques. The old masters, he claims, used mirrors, lenses, and the camera obscura to capture the outlines of the people and objects they painted.
Hockney says that a newly-available form of visualization led him to this conjecture:
Now with colour photocopiers and desktop printers anyone can produce cheap but good reproductions at home, and so place works that were previously separated by hundreds of miles side by side. This is what I did in my studio, and it allowed me to see the whole sweep of it all. It was only by putting pictures together in this way that I began to notice things; and I’m sure these things could only have been seen by an artist, a mark-maker, who is not as far from practice, or science, as an art historian. After all, I’m only saying that artists once knew how to use a tool, and that this knowledge was lost.
It all sounded perfectly plausible to me, but the art world isn’t buying it. Hockney’s critics cite a research paper by Microsoft’s Antonio Criminisi and Ricoh’s David Stork in which the authors show that Hockney’s central example — a painting of a chandelier — exhibits more irregularity than you’d expect if it had been rendered using an optical aid.
It’s fascinating stuff. I was already thinking about interviewing some folks at Microsoft Research about the state of computer vision, so maybe this will be the place to start.
But meanwhile, I’m left wondering about the context of the debate. Setting aside for the moment whether Hockney is right or wrong about the old masters’ use of optical aids, would they have been wrong to have used them in the way he suggests? Is that cheating? Should it diminish our appreciation of the work?
The art world says yes, it is cheating and does cheapen the work. But Hockney doesn’t see it that way. These optical aids, he argues, were just tools used by professionals who wisely chose to automate where they could in order to free up time and energy so they could add creative value where it mattered most.
My wife’s artist friend concurs. It’s not that she can’t draw freehand. She can and she does, but she also uses tracing techniques to identify landmarks and — because it’s commercial work she’s doing — to speed up some of the foundation-laying drudgery.
I’m sure the analogy is imperfect but, to a software guy, this all sounds very familiar. There are right and wrong ways to rely on software tools and frameworks, but I don’t think less of programmers to rely on them in the right ways. On the contrary, I think less of programmers who don’t.