Details of Vermeer's Painting Technique

Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window, Johannes Vermeer
Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window
Johannes Vermeer
c. 1657–1659
Oil on canvas, 83 x 64.5 cm.
Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden


The Italian word impasto can be translated as "pasty mixture." In regards to painting technique, the term indicates a thick, opaque layer of paint that is immediately evident to the observer's eye. Impasto was often used to represent the important areas of the painting since it tends to attracts the eye far more than those the surrounding areas of smoother paint. The light which falls on the irregularities created by the brush stroke produces a sparkling effect which reinforces the material reality of the object represented.

The visual effect of impasto passages was even greater in Vermeer's times since hand-made paint could be made ad hoc, leaner than paint which is now sold in tubes. A great deal impasto relief in the Old Masters' works has been destroyed by the pressure of heavy hot irons used for relining degraded canvas supports..

An excellent example of the use of impasto can be seen in the girl's head and jacket of Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window. The build-up of thick paint accentuates the effect of reflected light as well as the physical presence of the figure's high forehead. The illuminated parts her yellow bodice were also executed with abundant impasto made of a mixture of thick white lead and lead-tin yellow, the most brilliant yellow pigment available in seventeenth century.

Although the young girl in this paintings is very small in respect to her surroundings (especially when compared to Vermeer's later single-figure compositions), she nonetheless captures the viewer's attention due not only to her elegant posture and lovely profile, but to the use impasto.

Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window, Johannes Vermeer