Drawing aids in art, forerunners of photography or other useful utensils comparable to brushes

In the 19th. Century, photography was discovered in a search for finding a method to produce much faster, easier and cheaper the images of nature.

First this was aplied to portraiture & landscape images. Artist's designed drawing instruments to serve as an aid in the production of their work. Within this context, photography was the "ultimate" result of this search & challenge.

Before the dawn of photography and the use of the, since long in existence, Camera Obsura to produce images by nature other drawing instruments were invented and used.

The Silhouette Chair, the Camera Lucida, and the Physionotrace apparatus are perhaps the most intriguing examples of this history. On this page, I hope to show the various images produced with these Precursors of photography.

Left: Physionotrace by Chrétien. Lester Smith collection, London.


However, within the precursors of photography, I draw my attention especially to my favourite, the Physionotrace, invented by Gilles-Louis Chrétien in 1784.
Similar to a silhouette, the physionotrace always shows a profile portrait.
In case of the silhouette (invented by A. de Silhouette*) the profiles are entirely black paper cut-outs.

The Physionotrace portrait however shows every detail of the sitter, including his or her clothing. The physionotrace apparatus, a mechanical wooden instrument with a viewfinder, worked as a pantograph devise. This invention of Chrétien enabled the artist to quicly draw a portait of the sitter for a reasonable price.

The apparatus reduced all the drawing skills of the artist to a smaller size and engraved it in copper. By this method, this pantograph drawing aid produced small copperplates (master negativ) that could be printed again and again.

The original, and rare, plates can be seen as a forerunner of the photographic negative since the basic purpose was the same. A cheaper method to produce a quantity of images in a short time. Of course, here ends any further comparison with photography. But this is a major resemblance!.


Until today, no original physionotrace apparatus is been traced. (The CNAM apparatus in Paris disappeared) Only one drawing, depicting the apparatus, is known in the print collection of the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris. (See image above right) The physionotrace copper prints, made in a short time of history, are rare collectables too.

Allthough the physionotrace technique was able to produce faster and cheaper portraits of the sitter, they still were a novelty for the aristocracy. Very often these portraits depicts well known sitters with a high status in society. The finding of 5 physionotrace portraits illustrates this. For this reason, this type of portraits is not easy to find because very often still kept in family archives.

Many of the physionotrace images in collections are produced by the inventor Gilles-Louis Chrétien (1754 - 1811). Portraits made by Quenedey (1756 - 1830), his associate since 1788, are also found. Other names seen on physionotrace images are Fouquet, Fournier and Bouchardy.

Due to their typical appeareance, physionotrace portraits can easily be identified. Very often the identity of the maker is engraved in the copperplate, beneath the portrait, e.g. Dess. aux Physionotrace et gravé par Quenedey, Rue Neuve de Petits Champs no. 15 à Paris, 1808 (see most examples below) Click here for further reading on this technique.


Portraits au Physionotrace

Alfonso Maria de Aguirre y Gadea Yoldi
Le Comte de Yoldi (35 of age)

married with

Helena de Bouligny (29 of age)

collection Veerle Van Goethem



Portraits au Physionotrace

Jacques Marie-Louis
Comte de Reetheeren Ameloo
& du St. Enyoise

collection Veerle Van Goethem

Anonymous [
Dess. aux Physionotrace et gravé par Quenedey, Rue Neuve de Petits Champs no. 15 à Paris, 1808

collection Thomas Weynants


Portraits au Physionotrace

Gadzo de Coopmans
professeur à l' université
de Franecker


Geörgius de Coopmans
recteur de l' université
de Franecker

collection Veerle Van Goethem




The Idea of portrait making with the aid of tracing a shadow is obvious and because of this very old. A good 17th. Century example is seen in Joachim von Sandrart copper engravings. (1679)

On the left we see a putti holding a lantern to cast the shadow of a man on the wall. This indoor scene is performed by artificial light.

The other engraving (mouve mouse over) is depicting the same idea of shadow tracing. In this outdoor scene, the sun is used as an omnipresent light source to trace the silhouettes of the men.

The subsequent 3 Physionotrace copper prints are shown here with the kind permission of Lester Smith. The physionotrace is perhaps the ultimate result of silhouette portraiture.

A good reference source on the Physionotrace can be read in:
"AVANT LA PHOTOGRAPHIE,  LE PHYSIONOTRACE" by Henri Koilski & Serge Negre (Musée Arthur Batut, cahier n°1) 1989
"Un précurseur de la photographie dans l'art du portrait à bon marché" by Lefebvre-Ducrocq. Lille 1906
"Un Photographe de l'époque de la Révolution et de l' Empire. E. Quenedy, portraitiste au Physionotrace (1756 - 1830) Sa vie et son œuvre" René Hennequin, 1926 - 1927



Portrait au Physionotrace
collection Lester Smith


As seen in all physionotrace portraits on this pages, mostly the copper engravings were not improved by coloring.
However, beautiful hand colored physionotrace images do exist.
These ameliorated portraits are more rare compared to the non-manipulated images.

The quality of the coloring in physionotrace images needs to be very high and performed wit a lot of skill to avoid the loss of detail which is one of the main characteristics of this late 18th. Century miniature portrait technique.

Due to the tradition of miniature portrait painting these skills were still available in the physionotrace era and therefore, the coloring found on these images is mostly of good quality.

Nevertheless, this coloring will always hide some of the details seen in most physionotrace prints.
The earliest portraits partly lack the high detail of the later examples.
There certainly is an evolution to more rich and detailed images.
A skilled physionotrace engraver produced images that are very close to nature and photographic reproduction.


Of course, not only the skill of the engraver is responsible for these highly detailed physionotraces. Due to the pantograph technique, which reduce the original drawing, the copper "negative" or copper plate is a reduced copy of the original.

Other drawing aids connot profit of this advantage because because the artist needs to trace the "projected" image of the Camera Obscura or the Camera Lucida.
An in depht article about the possible use of optics in art can be found here.
Or read some FAQ on the web site's of Charles Falco or David Stork.

On the right, we see a man at work drawing with the aid of a Camera Lucida, an optical instrument that is very cumbersome to work with withouth the necessery skills and expierience. (Cover of a late Camera Lucida manual.)

The Camera Obscura has a much longer history, different variations and applications. The fact that artists in the 18th. & 19th. Century used several optical devices as an aid in for their creative work never was secret knowledge!


No matter we see images of the sun projected onto the ground in the woods, or we hold a vintage photo print in our hands, watching a movie in the cinema, all three were produced by a Camera Obscura. The latter was not invented but discovered in nature through observation of the optical phenomenon.


But the answer on the question if artists' were using optical devices as far as early 13th. Century still remains a secret. The knowledge if the latter is true or not simply needs evidence.
The theory in recent literature concerning this early use is very interesting indeed, but risky because not based on evidence but provocative assumptions.

No matter the future answer on the above question will be positive or negative; the skills of the artist is what makes a work of art, with or without the use op optics.
A more important gaol to achieve is to free all art works that uses any kind of aid, optical or not, from a negative connotation. A brush is an aid too!
A Camera Obscura, a lens, a mirror, etc. are nothing more than a useful aid, similar to a brush, in the production of an artwork. On the left we see a detail of a Camera Lucida as used by Fox Talbot.

The Camera Obscura is a much older devise (and natural phenomenon) and already described in Islamic science during the middle ages. However, in the latter case, it was not used at all in art, according to Professor Martin Kemp in a detailed e-mail.

Right: Camera Obscura produced by E. Leybold's nachfolger, Cöln a/Rh.

Both for Camera and Magic Lantern collectors, the Camera Obscura is an important ephemera item since the latter is the basic concept behind these two.
The Camera is capturing an outside scene and brings it inside his darkened room. The Magic Lantern illuminates an object inside and projected it outside in a dark room.

The Birth of Photography
For the "Price One Penny" the general public could read about this new art oficially born in 1839

The Saturday Magazine
(No 435, 13th April 1839) describes the dawn of photography in his article:

"On Photogenic Drawing"
"At the commencement of the present year, considerable surprise was manifested by the public at the announcement of the startling discovery of a mode, by which natural objects were made to delineate themselves, without the aid of the artist's pencil. The beautiful miniature landscape, which the camera obscura produces, was made to paint itself upon paper ; and that with a fidelity and minuteness so extraordinary, that a microscopic examination was necessary to bring out all its details. A distant building represented in one of these landscapes was depicted even to the number of bricks in the façade, and a pane of one of its windows being broken and mended with paper, was faithfully represented and detected by the microscope" sic.

Obviously the two pioneer photographical processes, the daguerreotype, as seen left, and the calotype, as described above, were very differnent processes.
However the historical importances and invention seen in both was the use of the camera obscura as an instrument to drawn images of nature with the aid of light without the use of the artist's hands.

In a lot of photo histories, M. de Silhouette is introduced as the inventor of the "silhouette" technique. A Finish reader brought to the following passage by Gisele Freund to my attention.

According to Gisele Freund, writer of Photography & Society (Photographie et Société, 1974), this is wrong. Freund writes:

"Monsieur de Silhouette was not, as has been claimed, the creator of the cutouts that put his name into common usage. The actual inventor is unknown. The word silhouette, which includes by extension all figures seen in shadowed profile, appeared in the middle of eighteenth century. Its etymology is quite unusual. Named Controller General in 1750 when France was heading toward bankruptcy, M de Silhouette levied, with some difficulty, certain public taxes to boost government revenues. For a time he was considered the savior of the French State, but the deficit was too great and he was forced to delay certain payments while suspending others entirely. His popularity plummeted, and the public became spiteful. A new style of clothing appeared: narrow coats without pleats and breeches without pockets. Without money to store in them, what good were pockets?
These clothes were said to be styled à la Silhouette, and to this day, anything as insubstantial as a shadow is called a silhouette; in short time, the brilliant Controller General had become no more than a shadow of himself."
Gisele Freund 1980; p. 12-13. Photography & Society. London and Bedford:

USA. The topic is indexed to Cf. René Hennequin, Edm. Quenedey, portraitiste au physionotrace, Troyes, 1926

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