Optics and art

self-portrait projection for etching or painting
Francis demonstrates a self-portrait projection

In 2000 David Hockney posited a theory that Old Master artists had used optical technology to make their depictions of the observed world, including portraits, still lives, and landscapes.  Hockney showed that it was possible to use either concave mirrors or camera obscuras to make projections of subjects that could be traced or used as a template to make drawings and paintings. This procedure involved the subject being placed in bright light whilst the artist made use of the optical projection in a darkened room.

Hockney did not believe that self-portraits could be made using projections as it seemed this would necessitate the artist being both in the light and in the darkened room simultaneously.

In 2016 the Institute of Physics Journal of Optics published Francis’s theory that showed it was possible for self-portrait projections to be made in such a way that artists could use them. It also presented strong visual evidence from Old Master self-portraits that suggested this projection system had been used.

Self-portrait projection demonstrations

Rembrandt Self-portrait system for etching using cosmetic mirrors:

Rembrandt Self-portrait system for etching using first surface mirrors:

Rembrandt Self-portrait system for Painting:


Francis’s presentation on Rembrandt, Old Masters, and Self-portrait Projections

Self-portrait projection system diagram
A self-portrait projection system

Francis’s theory involves the use of a concave mirror with a flat mirror. A concave mirror projects an image in the manner of a lens. In the self-portrait projection system the flat mirror reflects the projection made by the concave mirror so that it appears in front of the artist where it can be used as a template.

Institute of Physics Introduction to paper:

Did cutting edge optics help Rembrandt draw self-portraits?

Institute of Physics paper:

The paper includes diagrams that explain the self-portrait projection system:


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