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Historical Materials: Drawing Technique

Historical Materials  »  Drawing Technique  »  Mechanical vs. Free Hand

Mechanical vs. Free Hand

Some have interpreted Lane’s drawings as possessing two distinct styles: one, spontaneous, fluid, representational, sketchy, and free; the other, static, uniform, dry, precise, and mechanical; maintaining that for the first style, Lane drew freehand, and for the second he used an optical drawing instrument. (1, 2) Distilling Lane’s drawing vocabulary into these two categories may overlook certain conditions such as scale and distance from subject, drawing surface (i.e. paper texture), and speed of execution – and may oversimplify his technique, and this corpus of work.

The role of optical drawing instruments in nineteenth-century American landscape drawing has been widely addressed. This scholarship combined with renewed interests in artists’ optical drawing instruments—incited by the publication of David Hockney’s Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters (3)—brings the possibility that Lane used some type of camera lucida to the forefront of this discussion. (4) Not only was the camera lucida popular when Lane was active, it was expressly promoted for facilitating landscape and topographical drawing. (5) While recent scholarship has made the case for Lane’s use of a camera lucida, and this is not a new idea, there are several important points that refute this claim. First, Lane’s lithographs and oils, as well as contemporary accounts, all assert his particular skill as a draftsman and suggest that he would not have required the aid of a camera lucida. (6) Second, there were numerous reports by the earliest users that attest to the instrument’s failings, and today scholars skeptical of the camera lucida’s widespread use point out how difficult it is to use, therefore, why would a facile draftsman burden himself with such a device? (7) The following criticism resonates particularly for Lane:

It is not an easy mechanical solution for translating visual imagery onto paper. In fact, it requires tremendous skill in use and no highly competent artist or draftsperson would waste the time required to set up and use the instrument in the field when it is so much more efficient and instantaneous to sketch with eye and hand. (8)

Finally, and perhaps most persuasively, on numerous occasions Lane drew from a boat on the water, a situation that excludes using a camera lucida. Drawing with the camera lucida requires that both the subject and artist’s eye remain completely motionless and the condition of absolute stillness is impossible to achieve in a floating boat. There are also several sketches drawn “while at anchor,” a condition that would have allowed a more leisurely pace, but even without wind, movement due to currents and tides would have prohibited the use of a camera lucida.

Accepting the premise that a camera lucida was incompatible with drawing from a boat prompts a closer look at Lane’s boat drawings. Fairly distant scenery, lack of foreground topography and often a rapidly drawn, sketchy, and economical line characterize these drawings. Yet these same features can be found in Lane’s land views. Overall, when comparing the boat views to the land views—both the overall interpretations as well as the individual types of marks used—one finds many similarities as well as variations, so the comparison is not conducive to tidy categorizing as, done from a boat (free hand), or done on land (with an optical drawing instrument). 

Lane’s pencil drawings offer endless combinations to compare and contrast and this exercise makes clear that an attempt to characterize his range of style and all the variations in mark making and line quality is an incredibly complex endeavor.There is no documentation or inherent evidence in the drawings to prove that Lane used a camera lucida. In fact, this discussion suggests the opposite: Lane followed the time-honored draftsman’s tradition and fundamental premise of contemporary drawing manuals and drew free hand.

– Moyna Stanton

Comparisons of Drawings

BOAT: North View of Owl's Head, 1855 (inv. 132) /  LAND: South East View of Owl's Head , from the Point of the Island, 1855 (inv. 129) 

These two different views of the same subject are remarkably similar in their manner of description and level of detail and finish. They are also both executed on papers characterized as (relatively) smooth. With a delicate outline, Lane defined the contours of the hills and salient features of the coastline, in each applying similar amounts of detail and emphasis to record a recognizable view. The evergreens are similarly handled in each picture using traditional notations to describe this type of tree. While the land view may be slightly more tightly rendered, both drawings display an exactitude and control associated with Lane's compositions drawn on smoother papers.

BOAT: North East Harbor, Mount Desert, 1850 (inv. 183) / LAND: Camden Mountains and Harbor from the North Point of Negro Island [Curtis Island], 1855 (inv. 174)  

In these two views with expansive terrains observed from a great distance, the line qualities and overall interpretations are alike, and again, there is no question they were drawn by the same hand. In both compositions Lane used an outline that is stitched together with many small lines which conveys a (more) hesitant quality, and short, scallop-edged lines to denote foliage in a very generalized manner. Both scenes are sparsely populated with buildings and the degree of finish in the two boats in the North East Harbor, Mount Desert, points to a more relaxed pace consistent with an anchored boat.

BOAT:Stage Rocks and Western Shore of Gloucester Outer Harbor, 1857 (inv. 106) / LAND:View from Newport Beach near Manchester (inv. 165) 

These two compositions vary more significantly in topography than the previous two comparisons, but both are essentially rock studies and both convey Lane’s ability to capture these highly descriptive and tactile coastal features in a confident and facile manner and with sufficient detail and tone to create pleasing as well as accurate depictions.

BOAT (as proposed by Eric Ronnberg): Bear Island from Western Side of N. East Harbour, 1855 (inv. 136) / LAND: Western Shore of Gloucester Outer Harbor, 1857 (inv. 107) 

Both of these drawings of distantly observed land masses represent more tonal approaches to the subjects, and as such, not only do they bear many similar qualities in overall approach, technique, and mark making, neither conforms to the very linear style of a camera lucida drawing.


1. Lisa Fellows Andrus, Measure and Design in American Painting (New York and London: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1977), 206–13.

2. K. Quinn, S. Kelberlau, and J. Woodward, "Rediscovering Fitz Henry Lane’s View of Coffin’s Beach on Cape Ann," Antiques Magazine, (July 2006): 66–69.

3. D. Hockney, Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Technique of Old Masters (London: Thames & Hudson, 2001).

4. Camera lucida (Latin for “light room” as opposed to camera obscura “dark room”) encompasses three varieties of instruments: the prism camera lucida of which Wollasten-type was most popular, Alexander’s Graphic Mirror, and Varley’s Graphic Telescope in John H. Hammond and Jill Austin, The Camera Lucida in Art and Science (Bristol, 1987), 3–77. For Lane’s drawings, the prism camera lucida is this variety has been proposed and was considered for this discussion.

5. Unfortunately for this discussion, Hockney’s treatise focuses on using the camera lucida for drawing portraits.

6. G. McCormick, “Fitz Hugh Lane, Gloucester Artist, 1804–1865,” the Art Quarterly 15 (1952): 298.

7. “Of all the drawing aids the camera lucida was, perhaps, the least cumbersome to use, but there is little doubt that it was the most difficult to master” in Hammond and Austin, 81.

8. Ross Woodrow, Painter and Professor, Queensland College of Art, Griffith University.

Citation: "Drawing Technique." Fitz Henry Lane Online. Cape Ann Museum.§ion=Mechanical+vs.+Free+Hand (accessed June 16, 2024).
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