Golan Levin and Pablo Garcia, both art professors, created the NeoLucida, a near replica of an old tool that Renaissance-era painters were rumored to have used.

The original camera lucidas have been long discontinued, are hard to track down, and aren’t cheap.

When Levin and Garcia revived the tool, they kept the original technology intact, only incorporating a new gooseneck handle for greater flexibility.

The NeoLucida creates an augmented reality effect for the artist: By peering into the prism, they can see the subject’s image appear on paper, right underneath their drawing hand.

The technology is incredibly simple: just a prism on a stick.

Levin and Pablo aren’t trying to launch a business, or even a product. Their mission is to disrupt art education.

The NeoLucida, left, as compared to the original camera lucida.

Kickstarting: A $30 Optical Tool For Drawing With Camera-Like Accuracy

The NeoLucida, a simple optical drawing tool, is set to disrupt the way artists work.

It’s a widely held belief that the Old Masters were exactly that: masters, such as da Vinci and Vermeer, who painted in flawlessly precise freehand. There are savants with steady hands, no question. But there are other techniques to consider, which David Hockney (an artist of our age who also pioneered iPad art), expounds on in Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters, in which he lays out exactly how European painters used mirrors and lenses to create their compositionally perfect portraits.

That surprised Golan Levin, an interaction designer and a tech performance artist of sorts—and one of Fast Company’s people shaping the future of design in 2012. Why? "Mostly because it seemed like a truth, but none of my colleagues talked about it," he tells Co.Design. Levin teaches at Carnegie Mellon and also sits on the admission staff. "All these students come to me from high school, and they think art equals painting, and painting equals realistic painting. They’re being set up to believe they need superhuman powers."

Pablo Garcia, an art professor at the School of the Art Institute in Chicago, has been hip to the (controversial) idea for some years and has amassed an extensive collection of optics. He offered to let Levin try out a camera lucida, one of the tools Hockney says the Old Masters used to capture their subjects more realistically. Levin loved it, and the duo decided to make a 21st-century version.

A camera lucida is a simple machine: A small prism reflects the image of the subject so the viewer can see their own hand, plus the image, and trace a more accurate rendering onto the paper. The effect isn’t far off from the Google Glass video demos we’ve been seeing. There are layers of images available in your line of sight—for you to use in some smart way. But the only lucidas still available are collectibles, and run a price tag north of $300—more than Levin and Garcia believed college students would pay. As it turns out, manufacturing just several lucidas costs $20,000, but each additional prism costs just pennies.

Which is why the NeoLucida sells for $30. It’s perfect for Kickstarter. Since launching the product on May 8, Levin and Garcia are already hearing from people who missed out on the first 2,500 they made available. But unlike most other runaway Kickstarter hits, this isn’t—or wasn’t—supposed to be a business. "This whole thing is a performance, or an intervention, or just artwork," Levin says. Luckily, the project had enough demand and interest so that just two days after going live, Levin and Garcia confirmed that there will be an unlimited second production run, conducted by professional manufacturers.

The effects of getting the NeoLucidas out into the market should be interesting. Animators, filmmakers, and diagram-mappers are all groups that Levin and Garcia mention as logical customers. Because for all the advancements we get with graphic illustration and photography, people still want roll up their sleeves and draw like an old master.

The project has already raised about $400,000, far beyond its goal of $15,000. Support the campaign here.

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7 Comments

  • ye

    This product piqued my interest by the said science behind it. A portable mini projector that could conveniently double up as a tripod is quite nice to have around.Yet, I could not help but remain to categorise the item under novelty or as a supplementary tool or drawing equipment, at most.I have to agree with several comments made by the others here like Sandi, Richard and Bongbong.Probably, this product could help at some point to fastrack a certain rendering task, when needed. But it's ridiculous to be utterly dependent with this contraption and then thoroughly claim one's self to be the legit professional.Let us not lend others to be beguiled and let's be careful not to hurt the ire of the devoted advocates of realism with the use of this marketing angle or agenda, as the situation is actually the very opposite of this product's claims!“All these students come to me from high school, and they think art equals painting, and painting equals realistic painting. They’re being set up to believe they need superhuman powers.”
    Actually,  it's really more like... art = being very human, driven by a lot of passion to create/ re-create/ craft or translate beauty or life as one perceives. Never had it been otherwise as based from personal experience.
    What these students could be better off set up to believe is that while there are indeed certain tools and techniques that can help speed up or perhaps 'simplify' the process of creation to some degree (very much like how digital technology and graphics eventually went side by side, to begin with), it's still gonna be a lot about the in-depth understanding of the principles of art and its components and then a lot of patience in practice that can only happen over time.

    Being an artist is a serious and life engaging profession. It's not something you can just re-pack and sell through a vendo machine. Let's get real with that concept as well.

    It takes more than a tracing tool to make art happen! It goes as deep as how one could get in touch with his subject, his deep understanding of the same object, proportion, depth, lighting, etc. etc. etc. or else, however sophisticated this gadget may seem, it will still remain a kid's tool that can only help render an art piece to a certain amount of decency.

    As with any other things authentic and lasting, and as hard as it could be for others to follow thru, there's really no simpler way nor magic to it.

    I think, the product is cool. But the marketing principle has to be reformed. All the more that it will just mislead some aspiring students, and its product ending up simply as a passing hype or fad.

  • sand1234

    I can draw anything. It is a skill that I was blessed with and that I have honed over many years of practice. I have never used a light box or anything to trace, however, I would not ever dismiss this. I am intrigued and could see this as something very useful. I think the difference is whether or not it is used as a tool to augment already developed skills, or a crutch for someone who is looking for a short cut, and as such will never develop those skills.

  • Richard

    “All these students come to me from high school, and they think art equals painting, and painting equals realistic painting. They’re being set up to believe they need superhuman powers.”
    This sort of tool does nothing to change the (flawed) impression that art = realism, this is just telling everyone that now you can do it if you buy this tool. It's no different than selling a photoshop filter that turns a photo into a sketch, it's just an illusion that you are capable of doing it. It would be better instead to promote the idea that good art does not require such precision. 

    This is basically a tracing tool, and from my point of view, a very antiquated and imprecise way of going about it. If you really want to draw well, it takes an extreme amount of determination. Once you've got a handle on it, THEN implement the tools that make the process faster. Otherwise, just find a different way to draw things.

  • Andy

     Tools that level the playing field can also demystify the process. Once a student is aware that realism doesn't require magical skills or god-given talent then they are perhaps more compelled to discover something truly interesting in what they are making. As opposed to pursuing realism solely to match a "photographic-like" quality.

  • BongBong

    Of course, a real "master" of their craft understands the underlying geometry of things and do not rely on tracing.