A photograph of the NeoLucida in use, demonstrating a subject's image superimposed on the drawing surface.
Courtesy Pablo Garcia and Golan Levin A photograph of the NeoLucida in use, demonstrating a subject's image superimposed on the drawing surface.

Crowdfunding has become an increasingly fascinating vehicle for realizing projects that might not otherwise see the light of day. As Elizabeth Evitts Dickinson's recent article indicates, platforms such as Kickstarter and Indiegogo have enabled architects to carry out a variety of endeavors—from design exhibitions to actual built projects. Until this past week, however, I wouldn't have expected that architects would also use crowdfunding to resurrect an obsolete and controversial visualization technology. 

The NeoLucida is a Kickstarter offering proposed by Pablo Garcia and Golan Levin. The project is modeled after an early 19th-century device called a camera lucida, an optical tool that enables one to draw from life by effectively conflating the desired subject with the drawing surface—thus enabling highly accurate representations. According to Garcia and Levin, production of the camera lucida diminished with the development of photography, and a working device cannot be found for less than several hundred dollars today. The story gets really interesting when Garcia and Levin highlight the historical controversies surrounding the camera lucida: 

"By the mid-1800s, camera lucidas were everywhere. Indeed, the device is so effective in assisting accurate life-drawing that, according to the controversial Hockney-Falco hypothesis, it's now believed that many of the most admired drawings of the 19th century, such as the Neoclassical portraits of Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, could only have been made with a camera lucida. This becomes astonishingly clear if you try one—an experience we hope to share with as many people as possible, through this Kickstarter." 

What? The Old Masters used an optical device to increase the accuracy and lifelike qualities of their works? Were they cheating? Does Hockney's hypothesis, expressed in this BBC documentary

, hold truth? 

The question of technology's role in enabling art seems silly in today's world of omnipresent Photoshop-manipulation, or in the emerging realm of 3D-printed simulacra of existing physical objects. Regardless of what the Masters actually did, the success of the NeoLucida project—which went viral in a matter of a few days—suggests that there is a broad audience willing to resurrect the technology in the form of an updated, cost-effective design (the first 2500 backers were able to purchase a NeoLucida at $30 each). 

What fascinates me about the NeoLucida is its decidedly old-tech approach to drawing. When one can use a tablet device today to trace a virtual pen over a digital image, what makes the NeoLucida so captivating? Is it the ability to re-engage physical media in a new (old) way? Is it the exciting possibility of drawing from life—rather than from a digital capture of it? Will the NeoLucida transform contemporary drawing and art history pedagogy, or simply allow a fleeting rediscovery of an obsolete technology?

Blaine Brownell, AIA, is a regularly featured columnist whose stories appear on this website each week. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.