The Mirror – The Master of Painters

Article by Darren Rousar.

Orazio Gentileschi, Two Women with a Mirror (1620)Orazio Gentileschi, Two Women with a Mirror (1620)

For representational artists who paint what they see, a fresh eye is often a necessity. I would imagine that we’ve all had the experience of coming back to a painting, after a few days away, and seeing glaring errors which we had not previously noticed. That common experience highlights part of the problem. The longer we look at our source, the more our perception dulls. Add to that the fact that as we paint, the errors we make tend to change our perception. It is as if our mind says, “I painted it that way so it must be correct.”

What to do, besides a self-enforced break?

Leonardo da Vinci considered the mirror the master of painters. Translators sometimes take his meaning to be, “the mirror is our teacher.” One might accurately say, the mirror gives us a fresh eye.

When you wish to see whether the general effect of your picture corresponds with that of the object represented after nature, take a mirror and set it so that it reflects the actual thing, and then compare the reflection with your picture, and consider carefully whether the subject of the two images is in conformity with both, studying especially the mirror.

Leonardo da Vinci
Leonardo’s direction, above, was not a one time prescription.

“The mirror ought to be taken as a guide, that is the flat mirror for within its surface substances have many points of resemblance to a picture; namely that you see the picture made upon one plane showing things which appear in relief, and the mirror upon one plane does the same. The picture is one single surface, and the mirror is the same.”

Here, he points out the fact that both the mirror and your picture are two-dimensional planes. The mirror visually flattens nature for you, much like closing one eye does.

“. . . it is certain that if you but know well how to compose your picture it will also seem a natural thing seen in a great mirror.”

The translation for ‘compose’ may not be exact. Essentially, Leonardo is telling us that the degree to which we accurately paint the picture is the degree to which it will appear real in the mirror.

“I say that when you are painting you should take a flat mirror and often look at your work within it, and it will then be seen in reverse, and will appear to be by the hand of some other master, and you will be better able to judge of its faults than in any other way.”

This is Leonardo’s explanation of a fresh eye.

“It is also advisable to go some distance away, because then the work appears smaller, and more of it is taken in at a glance, and a lack of harmony or proportion in the various parts and in the colours of the objects is more readily seen.”

I put this last quote in as it fits with the fresh eye concept. That said, it also fits with our main subject, the mirror. More about that, farther down.

What was a mirror in Leonardo’s time?

Titian, Venus at Her Mirror (1555)Titian, Venus at Her Mirror (1555)

Although Leonardo does speak of a ‘great mirror’ in one of the quotes, it is likely that, prior to Baroque times, large mirrors were not commonly available. Before then, mirrors were either hand held or small and encased in a frame. Additionally, most mirrors were not glass. They were highly polished metal. This 19 part article is a good source for information about mirrors in the Renaissance, even though it is not directly related to artistic practice. The first paragraph, here, provides an interesting account of what it took to create large, flat mirrors.

Rubens, Venus at Her Mirror (1615)Rubens, Venus at Her Mirror (1615)

Solomon J. Solomon, in his book The Practice of Oil Painting (1911) does Leonardo one better:
“It is well-nigh impossible, unaided by the glass, to discern, or reproduce, with any pretense at fidelity, the subtleties of a form which we wish to realise. Reference to the hand-glass through which the model and the drawing can be seen at the same glance cannot be made too frequently, and we must make certain that the characteristics of the one tally with those of the other.”

Carefully re-read Solomon’s words. You will notice that, like the initial Leonardo quote, he suggests that both the painting and the subject be viewed in the mirror, together. This suggestion does not necessarily imply a Sight-Size setup. However, it is perfectly suited to it.

I hope that Solomon’s wisdom has got through: “It is well-nigh impossible, unaided by the glass,” to accurately reproduce what one sees, much less to accurately see. Hyperbole or not, the mirror is a much needed tool.

deLaszlo-mirrorPhilip deLászló, using a mirror while painting a portrait.

Philip de László, of whom I wrote about here, had an opinion on the subject as well:
“[The] chief value [of the mirror] is that it gives me a new view of both picture and sitter and therefore enables me to discover any faults there may be in drawing, or in the relations of tones. It acts like the fresh eye which can often perceive defects that the painter, having got accustomed to them, has failed to detect. I take a look in the mirror from time to time as a sort of self-criticism. At any rate the mirror is an honest critic.”

So, now that I’ve made my point, how does one actually use a mirror?

There are three ways.

The first, as seen in the photo of de László (above), is to stand in your viewing position and choose a dimension from which to compare. Let’s say, the distance between the tip of the model’s nose and the cheek. You must feel sure that you have drawn or painted that dimension correctly on your artwork for it is this dimension which will help you to correctly position yourself when using the mirror.

Next, while still in position, pivot away from the subject. At this point, with mirror in hand and angled in such a way as to allow you to see the subject and artwork within it, you ought to be able to shift, ever so slightly, so that the chosen dimension appears the same between the reflected image of your subject and that of your artwork. In other words, when using the mirror, the distance between the tip of the nose and the cheek should appear identical between the model and the painting, just as it did when you were directly viewing the setup. This is how you can be certain that you are properly viewing the reflection of the setup.


The second way of using a mirror is to stand in your viewing position and hold the mirror across your eyebrows. Tilt it until you can see the reflection of the setup within it. In my opinion, this way is less effective than the other. While I have no proof, I feel that an upside down reflection (as happens in this method) is less of a fresh eye than one which is reversed (as in the other method). My feeling is that, since our eye’s lens flips the image upside down and then our brain flips it right side up, somewhere in there is a visual awareness of the inverted image. Regardless, in my experience, I tend to see more errors when viewing the setup in reverse.

Mirror 2The image on the left shows how I am holding the mirror.
The image on the right shows what I am seeing when doing that.

The third way is to mount a large mirror to the back wall of your studio, or put one on wheels. I have done both at various times. When I was using the wall-mount, I framed the mirror in a heavy duty picture frame and installed cross-braces across all four corners. I then mounted to mirror to the wall using large hinges. The mount was on the side of the mirror farthest from my light source. The hinges allowed me to pivot the mirror and in that way I had an easier time correctly positioning myself when using it.

In many ways the wheel mount version was easier to use and it gave me more options for positioning my setup.

Both a wall mounted and wheel mounted setup allows you to do something that the other ways do not and that is, get some distance. This is what I alluded to earlier, relative to the last Leonardo quote.

It is also advisable to go some distance away, because then the work appears smaller, and more of it is taken in at a glance, and a lack of harmony or proportion in the various parts and in the colours of the objects is more readily seen.

Leonardo da Vinci

You see, when using a mounted mirror (which is one that you do not have to hold), it is possible to position it and yourself in such a way that you can almost double the distance from your setup. This is both literal and visual distance. The tricky parts are in finding the proper angle of the mirror as well as where to stand. This is not something which is easily explained but has to be experienced. If you have a large enough mirror, give it a try. You might use a spare easel to support it if you would prefer to not mount it on wheels or a wall.

Regardless of which way you choose, you should work from the mirror in the same way as you do when viewing the setup directly. Squinting, flicking your eyes back and forth, etc., are as useful and as important regardless of how the setup is being viewed.

Remember what Solomon said, referencing the mirror cannot be made to frequently.

Keep Calm and Use Your Mirror.

Drawing with confidence.

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