The British artist David Hockney argues in his book Secret Knowledge that:

from the early 15th century many Western artists used optics--by which I mean mirrors and lenses (or a combination of the two)--to create living projections

His basic idea is that tools like the Camera Obscura and the emerging science of optics created technological methods that allowed artists to create effects like realistic perspective.

But his views have offended some in the mainstream art world. As an Amazon review of the book reports:

Hockney concedes that his opinions have been attacked by the mainstream art world that has complained that "for an artist to use optical aids would be 'cheating'; that somehow I was attacking the idea of innate genius".

Is Hockney's thesis convincing? Did some of the great artists use technological aids to create their masterpieces?

  • Is this an ad for Tim's Vermeer? :-) Given it is a controversial question about art history, what sort of evidence would you find convincing?
    – Oddthinking
    Jan 23, 2014 at 0:08
  • @Oddthinking Tim's Vermeer triggered the question by reminding me of the original Hockney argument, but actually the movie makes an even stronger claim which might merit a different question. This one is just aimed at the idea that some tech (mirrors, lenses etc) was used. I'm convinced; why are art historians not also convinced? Are there good argument against? I'd accept evidence of non-technology approaches that generate the same effects, if plausible.
    – matt_black
    Jan 23, 2014 at 0:48
  • Maybe it is a matter of history, not possibility of using any tech, that "mainstream" art historians reject the hypothesis. With a rewording, the history.se site might be able to give you some helpful information. At that time, there was a radical change in everything, music, art, religion, government, science, etc. I would not be surprised if there was overlap.
    – user11643
    Jan 26, 2014 at 16:22
  • @fredsbend I imagine that a question on history.se might ask related but different questions. This question (I think) works here because the core claim is that, in the absence of written documentation, many experts think they can see evidence of technological assistance in artworks. That a solid scientific claim for skeptics.se. I'm sure we could debate related claims on history.se, but the scientific claim fits here.
    – matt_black
    Jan 26, 2014 at 16:29
  • @matt_black: Hockney's tried to imply that artists used a technique which, from a practical perspective, simply doesn't work, and discredited the notion that painters used optical devices. I would think that an art historian whose view wasn't clouded by Hockney's fallacious theory should find Tim's Vermeer compelling. Good artists (or even minimally-competent ones) can render perspective without optical devices, but people are biologically incapable of judging tonal shifts over a large area without optical assistance. An artist with a Vermeer painting might experiment to see...
    – supercat
    Jan 11, 2019 at 20:26

1 Answer 1


It's a currently unproven issue without a clear-cut answer

  • there is no direct historical evidence
  • there is controversial evidence obtained by providing some mechanism which could have worked

Prof. Charles Falco claims to have proven it via optical methods, but David Stork rejects the claim. That there is no historical evidence is my own assumption, since if it was presented, it would trump any discussion how the paintings could have been made.

When David Hockney wrote in his book Secret Knowledge that he had “rediscovered” secret methods of the great painters, asserting that “from the early 15th century many Western artists used optics—by which I mean mirrors and lenses (or a combination of the two)—to create living projections,” he sparked a debate that would motivate new lines of inquiry and research in a multitude of disciplines including art history, optics, image analysis, and more. Charles Falco later claimed he had proven Hockney’s findings scientifically. In the last three “Artful Media” articles, David Stork presented applications of computer imaging for analyzing paintings, some of which challenge those claims. In this article, Falco defends his original findings.


For more information, the wikipedia page on the Hockney-Falco thesis does a good job of describing the controversy.

  • 1
    There certainly exists evidence that it is possible to produce paintings of very good quality without use of optical apparatus since there are artists alive today who routinely do precisely that. Further, the quality of perspective rendering that can be achieved using tools like rulers will often be just as good--if not better--than what could be done merely by tracing an optical projection. Even if it's not possible to show what artists used hundreds of years ago, it's certainly possible to show what they don't require today.
    – supercat
    Jun 15, 2015 at 19:13

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