The Essential Vermeer Glossary: Q - Z

Samuel van Hooghstraten
Samuel van Hoogstraten
(1627 - 1678)

This glossary contains a number of the terms in this site which may not be clear to all readers. Some of these terms are also discussed as they relate to Vermeer's art. Each of the four sections of the glossary can be accessed from the menu top of each page of the glossary entries. In the near future, each word in the site's text which is listed in the glossary will be signaled by an icon that will link directly to that term.

An engraving of Samuel van Hoogstraten, Dutch painter and writer on art. Although Van Hoogstraten painted genre scenes in the style of De Hooch and Metsu and a few portraits, as a painter he is best known as a specialist in perspective and tromp l'oeil paintings. One of his "perspective boxes" which shows a painted world through a peep-hole, is in the National Gallery, London. Only in his early works can signs be found that he was a pupil of Rembrandt. Hoogstraten traveled to London, Vienna, and Rome, worked in Amsterdam and The Hague as well as his native Dordrecht. He was an etcher, poet, director of the mint at Dordrecht, and art theorist. His Inleyding tot de hooge schoole der schilderkonst (Introduction to the Art of Painting, 1678) is an invaluable source for understanding Dutch 17th-century art theory and also contains one of the rare contemporary appraisals of Rembrandt's work.

Raking Light

Raking light is, the illumination of objects from a light source at a stringly oblique angle almost parallel to the surface (between 5º and 30º with respect to the examined surface). Under raking light, tool marks, paint handling, canvas weave, surface imperfections and restorations can be visualized better than with light coming from different angles. In some instances raking light may help reveal pentimenti or changes in an artist's intention. In the case of wall paintings, raking light helps show preparatory techniques such as incisions in the plaster support.

The term "raking light" may also be used to describe the strongly angled light represented in illusionist painting, although not strictly from 5º and 30º. Raking light gives volume to objects and accentuates texture. It is best used to create a dramatic and moody image.

Painters instinctively avoid the lowest angle of raking light because it divides solid objects into to essentially two parts: a face would be half in light and half in shadow. Moreover, raking light create cast shadows that run parallel to the picture plane so they do not suggest spatial recession as well as shadows that are cast backwards by light originating from a higher angle. Since it is easier to evaluate an object’s form, color and texture when it is illuminated rather than when it is in shadow, the a wider angle of light is generally preferable. Often, painters use a three quarters light which reveals the great part of an objects surface but creates at the same time a good sense of volume.


A type of representational art in which the artist depicts as closely as possible what the eye sees. Realism attempts to represent people, objects, or places in a realistic manner as opposed to an idealized way; also, a later 19th century art movement in France which objected to the idealized style of Romanticism by creating works that depicted a more faithful view of everyday life.

Without underestimating the efforts of (Dutch) interior painters to make their works seem realistic, it is important to be aware up to what point we are dealing with modified reality.

Many mid-seventeenth century Dutch genre paintings, including those of Vermeer, depicted elegant interiors of the upper middle-class. These pictures reflect concepts that were important in Dutch culture such as the family, privacy and intimacy. However, it is likely that the world of exquisite refinery of Vermeer's compositions did not accurately portray the world he actually observed.

C. Willemijn Fock, a historian of the decorative arts, has demonstrated that floors paved with marble tiles were extremely rare in the Dutch 17th-century houses and that only in the houses of the very wealthy where floors of this type were sometimes found, they were usually confined to smaller spaces such as voorhuis (the entrance or corridors. Fock reasons that the abundant representations of these floors in Dutch genre painting may be explained by the fact that "artists were attracted by the challenge involved in representing the difficult perspective of receding multicolored marble tiling."

Vermeer should not be considered a realist painter in the strictest sense of the word. He frequently modified the scale, the shape of objects and even the fall of shadows for compositional or thematic reasons. His scenes, moreover, appear highly staged. One of the most striking examples of this modified reality is a so-called picture-within-a-picture, The Finding of Moses, which appears on the back wall of two of his compositions. In The Astronomer it appears as a small cabinet size picture whereas in Lady Writing with her Maid it appears as an enormous, ebony-framed picture. Which one, if either, was true?


A French label given to an Italian cultural movement and to its repercussions elsewhere. For Italy the period is popularly accepted as running from the second generation of the 14th century to the second or third generation of the 16th century.

Characteristic of the Renaissance is the steady rise of painting and of the other visual arts that began in Italy with Cimabue and Giotto and reached its climax in the 16th century. An early expression of the increasing prestige of the visual arts is found on the Campanie of Florence, where painting, sculpture, and architecture appear as a separate group between the liberal and the mechanical arts. What characterizes the period is not only the quality of the works of art but also the close links that were established between the visual arts, the sciences and literature.

The period of the Renaissance brought with it many important changes in the social and cultural position of the artist. Over the course of the period there is a steady rise in the status of the painter, sculptor, and architect and a growing sympathy expressed for the visual arts. Painters and sculptors made a concerted effort to extricate themselves from their medieval heritage and to distinguish themselves from mere craftsmen. At the beginning of the Renaissance, painters and sculptors were still regarded as members of the artisan class, and occupied a low rung on the social ladder. A shift begins to occur in the 14th century when painting, sculpture, and architecture began to form a group separate from the mechanical arts. In the 15th century, the training of a painter was expected to include knowledge of mathematical perspective, optics, geometry, and anatomy.

Although the influence of the Italian Renaissance was felt throughout Europe and in the Netherlands as well, it is interesting to note that none of the great masters of Dutch painting felt the necessity to go to Italy to adsorb its lessons first hand. Van Ruisdael, Hals, Vermeer and Rembrandt all stayed in the Holland, close to their own culture.


From the French verb meaning to push back. Repoussoir is one of the pictorial means of achieving perspective or spatial contrasts by the use of illusionistic devices such as the placement of a large figure or object in the immediate foreground of a painting to increase the illusion of depth in the rest of the picture. Caravaggio had become famous for his paintings of ordinary people or even religious subjects in compositions. Repoussoir figures appear frequently in Dutch figure painting where they function as a major force in establishing the spatial depth that is characteristic of painting of the 17th-century. Landscapists too learned to exploit the dramatic effect of repoussoir to enliven their renderings of the flat uneventful Dutch countryside. Repoussoir formulae is still used in landscape painting and is influential in photography as well.

Vermeer adapted various examples of repoussoir to his own compositions that he had derived from other Dutch paintings. The looming figure of the officer in The Officer and Laughing Girl is very similar in color and shape to the repoussoir figure in The Procuress by Gerrit Honthorst.

The most spectacular example of repoussoir in Vermeer's oeuvre may be found in the Art of Painting. The large foreground curtain on the left-hand side of the painting seems to have been just drawn back to let the viewer enter the pictorial space. Both the curtain's warm tone and the heavy impasto paint application makes it appear even nearer to the viewer.

This kind of repoussoir was generally placed on the left-hand side of the composition tend to rapidly scan images darting from the left to the right as when reading. By consequence, Vermeer's repoussoir is suited to be looked at by the reading eye, which, after a brief moment's delay at the repoussoir, is directed toward the key moment of the representation of the painter and his model and explores the rest of the painting thereafter.

"Rough" & "Smooth" Style

Years before Frans Hals developed his characteristic free handling of paint or Gerrit Dou specialized incredibly meticulous brushwork, Dutch artists and art lovers already distinguished between two main painting styles: ruwe or rauw, ("rough") and nette, fijn, or gladde ("clean," "fine" or "smooth"). The rough style was also associated with the losse style ("loose").

Rembrandt’s first pupil, Gerrit Dou, developed, or rather, brought the fine style to full fruition in the 1630s. Smooth painters went to incredible lengths to achieve the perfect, polished illusion of reality. The time Dou spent on his minutely detailed works is legendary: according to some of his contemporaries it took him days to paint a tiny broom the size of a fingernail. It is said that by sitting down quietly in his studio an hour before he began to paint, Dou was able to defeat one of the mortal natural enemies of the smooth style; dust.

Fine painting, which gave rise to the modern term Leiden Fijnschilders, was a particularly practiced in Leiden. In their own time, a fijnschilder, or "fine painter," was simply someone who could make a living through art and was distinguished from a kladscilder ("house painter"), both of whom, were enrolled in the Saint Luke Guild. Today, art historians adopt the term fijnschilder for a group of fine painters who worked in Leiden, Gerrit Dou, Gabriel Metsu, Pieter Cornelisz. van Slingelandt, Frans van Mieris the Elder and Adriaen van der Werff. However, the school only came into its own after Metsu had moved. it is most likely that fijnschilders worked at least partially naer het leven (from life).

In 1604, Karl van Mander, the Dutch painter and art theoretician who first codified the rough and smooth manners, advised artists always to start by learning the smooth manner, which was considered easier, and only subsequently choose between smooth and rough painting. A later Dutch art theoretician, Gérard de Lairesse wrote:

…he who practices the former [smooth] manner, has this advantage above the other, that being accustomed to neatness, he can easily execute the bold and light manner, it being the other way difficult to bring the hand to neat painting; the reason of which is, that, not being used to consider and imitate the details of small objects, he must therefore be a stranger to it; besides, it is more easy to leave out some things which we are masters of than to add others which we have not studied, and therefore it must be the artist’s care to learn to finish his work as much as possible.

"The smooth manner of painting had been associated with descriptive tasks, for example flower painting or animal painting, well before the successes of the Leiden school, and in many parts of Europe. But the Dutch had made a specialty of it. Karl van Mander… linked the modern smooth manner of the legendary mysteries of Jan van Eyck’s technique. Even Van Eyck’s underpainting was ‘cleaner and sharper’ [suyverder en scherper] than the finished work of other painters.’"1

The question remains whether the smooth manner is truly more suited to evoke the illusion of reality than the rough manner is difficult to answer. While it is true that the smooth manner captures texture, form and detail with incredible efficacy, the rough manner, practiced by great artists like Velásquez, Rembrandt or Titian, is capable of evoking a sense of lifelikeness and naturalness that makes even the reality represented in the best smooth painting look frozen and artificial.

It is believed that the rough manner stimulates the activity of the eye far more powerfully than painting with a smooth surface. The unequivocally completed, clear and polished work of art tends to exclude the spectator from participating in the picture. The roughly finished painting demands an intellectual response from the beholder because the painter of the rough manner deliberately exposes the working processes to the spectator making him party to the artifice by which the illusion is achieved. The smooth painter, instead, deliberately conceals his manner and isolates the viewer from the picture making process, which may, is some subjects give rise to a sensation of deception. The rough painter, instead, hides nothing.

To best appreciate the two styles, it was recommended that art lovers adjust their viewing distance: farther away for a roughly painted work, close up for a finely executed one. Rembrandt’s rough manner has been traditionally assumed to have been a factor contributing to his personal financial troubles in later life.

The fundamental of painterly representation is firmly rooted in Dutch painting in the works of Rembrandt, and in Spanish painting, with Velásquez.

Both of these great artists "were working against the prevailing norms of smooth or fine painting, and, for both, the example of late Titian was cited as authorization of their increasingly broken and irregular handling of paint. In a remarkable trajectory that echoed Titian’s, Rembrandt moved through his career from being a founding father of the Leiden fijnschilders...—those painters who, with invisible brushstrokes and 'the patience of saints and the industry of ants' (as one contemporary author described it), took the illusionistic depiction of objects to a new level—to his culmination as the undisputed extreme exponent of the rough manner. In his late works, the paint surfaces have the density of rock faces.

"The rough manner in Dutch painting was a conscious aesthetic choice and was described in Rembrandt’s day as lossigheydt, 'looseness'—the equivalent of the sprezzatura of the Italian writer Baldesar Castiglione (1478–1529), who drew parallels between the effortless nonchalance of courtly behavior and the loose, seemingly careless touches that the artist applied with his brush. The epitome of lossigheydt or sprezzatura in Rembrandt’s art is his masterpiece, the Portrait of Jan Six (Amsterdam, Six Collection), in which the paint seems to have massed spontaneously into the gorgeous fabric of the sitter’s clothes and the powerful passages of his face and hands. Seventeenth-century Spanish art theory, similarly, had terminology for loose, expressive brushstrokes: they were referred to as borrones or manchas, words loaded with the same significance as ‘sprezzatura.’"2

"Seventeenth-century painters and art lovers had terms to describe the notable changes in painterly technique and compositional method that accompanied the 'gentrification' of Vermeer's work in the 1660s. Whereas the relatively grainy texture of bread, carpets, and bricks in the early words would have been seen as rouw or rough, the even polished of the Girl with a Wìne Glass or Woman Holding a Balance was explicitly net, neat or smooth. By his increasing commitment to the smooth style, Vermeer essentially sided with the manner that was gaining market and connoisseur favor after mid-century. However different his paintings look from the miniaturist neatness of Gerrit Dou, Frans van Mieris, and Gerard ter Borch, they, too, must have been admired especially in the decade that saw a lesser interest in the rough painting associated with Rembrandt and his students and followers. The smooth manner typically went along with more genteel and elegant themes. The rough brothel scenes of the 1620s and 1630s, so often painted with Caravaggesque uncouthness, now became sublimated in more slyly humorous paintings in the neat style."3


Saturation refers to the purity of color and measures the amount of gray in a particular color. A color with more gray is considered less saturated, while a bright color, one with very little gray in it, is considered highly saturated. The amount of saturation does not affect the basic hue of a color but it does alter the color’s intensity. Saturated colors are considered bolder and tied to emotions, while unsaturated ones are softer and less striking. Vermeer carefully balanced a few areas of strongly saturated colors with larger areas of soft grays and browns.


In 1604, the term schilderachtig, which corresponds approximately to "painterly" or "picture worthy," was used first in the Schilder-boeck by Karel van Mander (1548-1606). However, schilderachtig refers to two separate qualities: on one hand the image that best demonstrates an artist’s painterly ability and at the other hand to describe those subjects fit for an artist, allowing for free imagination and invention. Schilderachtig implied values close to the Dutch such as rustic simplicity, naturalness and a love for the unadorned. The idyllic world of the past as well as curious unusual or even ugly had become worthy of the painter's attention. Rembrandt could find an audience for the old run-down farm houses outside of Amsterdam and Vermeer an old house along a secluded Delft canal. However, "whether or not the painterly was used to describe an artist’s activities or his pictures, it was always used as a concept in connection with the artistic ambition to take one’s point of departure in reality, or at least portray the motif as it could appear in nature. 'I have followed the ‘schilderachtig’ saying (a saying common among painters) that ‘the best painters are those who get closest to reality’ wrote the painter and poet Gerbrand Bredero (1585-1618) wrote in 1618."4 After the middle of the 17th century the term shifted in meaning and was used to denote painting of buildings, cottages and people marked by aging and weathering, subjects that did not fit in well with the tenets of the upcoming classicist painting.

Around the end of the century, painter and art theorist Gérard de Lairesse made a passionate plea that art lovers stop applying this word to pictures of old people with very wrinkled faces or dilapidated and overgrown cottages, and reserve it for well-proportioned young people and idealized landscapes.

School (of painting)

In reference to painting the word ”school” is used with various meanings. In its widest sense a school may include the painters of a single country, regardless of date such as “the Dutch School.” In its narrowest sense, it denotes a group of painters who worked under the influence of a single artists as in, the “School of Raphael.” In a third sense, it applies to the painters of one city or province who worked under some common local influence, and with some general similarity of design, color, or technique, such as “the Florentine School."

Painters of a specific geographical area were once bound together more closely than in modern times. In order to sign and sell their works, they were required to belong to the Guild of Saint Luke, the corporation of artists and artisans which regulated the local art commerce and assisted painters in illness and old age. Each guild had a clearly defined set of rules, traditions and a system of apprenticeship that compelled young painters to work for a term of four to six years with a recognized guild master. Thus, an important master might stamp his manner of working on a large number of pupils, some of whom would be more than willing to acquiesce to the tastes of local collectors who had guaranteed their master’s prosperity.

The “School of Delft,” or the “Delft School,” belongs to the third type of school, although its “members” would probably not have been aware that they belonged to any school at all. They were, however, bound by their obligatory guild membership and could not have avoided contact with each other is such a small town as Delft. For further information on the School of Delft, click here.

Scumble - Scumbling

In a certain sense, scumbling is the opposite of glazing. The term scumbling refers to the use of opaque paint thinly applied over a dried layer of different colored paint. Glazes are also applied thinly but only inherently transparent pigments are employed for the purpose. Another difference between the two techniques is that glazes are applied over lighter-toned paint layers while scumbles are generally applied over darker ones. The difference produces two completely different optical effects. Scumbles produce pearly opalescence or a soft smoky effect while glazing creates a deep jewel-like one. Scumbles tend to appear cooler (bluer) in hue, especially when applied over warm dark browns of the underpainting. Scumbles seem to advance towards the surface of the canvas while glazes create depth. By manipulating the optical effects of these two valuable techniques in tandem, the painter may enhance depth and atmosphere of his work.

Scumbling can also be used to create smooth transitions from light to dark or to subtly alter the tone or hue of the underlying paint layer. In order to scumble, the artist first picks up a bit of paint with his brush and then wipes away surplus paint with a cloth. In a sense, the paint is then "scrubbed" or "rubbed" over an underlying dry paint layer. Little or no medium is required since it would make the paint flow. If applied lightly, scumbles remain attached to the highest relief of the paint surface but if they are rubbed with vigor they will penetrate into the interstices of the canvas grain. Fingertips and the ball of the hand are very good tools for fine scumbling.

It is sometimes said that Titian discovered that a light, opaque tone could be rendered semitransparent by the addition of a bit more oil and/or simply by scrubbing it on thinly with a stiff brush. A scumble over a flesh tone would produce an analogous effect as powder on a woman's face; that is, it makes its texture appear softer. This is a useful device when painting women and young people of both sexes. Scumbling may be used to modify the color of a given area after that area is dry. Such an application tends to soften transitions of tone from the previous sitting that were done too harshly. If used properly, it confers a higher degree of refinement to the image.


Holland is more intimately linked to the sea that any other nation on the earth. It is not surprising, therefore, that a number of Dutch artists devoted their careers to seascapes. "The sea was significant in a variety of ways to the Dutch. They were constantly warring with it in the struggle to increase and retain their land. On the other hand, the sea was the source of their wealth and their economic stability. The United Provinces was a great maritime trading nation; this was the backbone of its economy. The Dutch relied on the sea for a crucial part of their food supply. The herring, so often represented in still life paintings, was indeed a national treasure. Salted, it remained edible and provided sustenance during the long sea voyages that promoted Dutch prosperity, and it also enriched the economy as a major item for export. The sea was also the scene of their military successes. Dutch national heroes were admirals rather than generals; the great tomb sculptures in Dutch churches are tombs of admirals. Paintings of seascapes reflected the specific maritime interests of the Dutch people, and there seems to have been a large market for them in the seventeenth century.

"A number of Dutch artists whose work consisted mainly of other kinds of subjects painted seascapes as well. Jan van Goyen, for example, painted numerous coastal scenes and purely marine subjects. Jacob van Ruisdael and Aelbert Cuyp also painted seascapes. Some artists, however, specialized in seascapes. Most marine painters were experts on ships."5

Vermeer is not know to have ever painted a seascape. However, the maps which hang on the background walls of his compositions often remind the viewer of the fundamental role that the sea played in the lives of many Dutchmen. In the late Love Letter, an ebony framed seascape hangs directly behind the maid and mistress who has presumably just received a letter from her loved one. This picture-with-a-picture mostly likely was intended to clarify the meaning of the composition as it refers to the loved one of mistress' who is not present. Ships at stormy seas often were connected to the idea of uncontrollable the passions of the lover's heart. But the seascape in Vermeer's composition seems to be relatively calm. In Dutch emblematic traditions a calm sea represents a good omen for love.

Self Portrait

Selft Portrait, Jean Fouquet
Self Portrait
Jean Fouquet
Gold cameo and black email on copper
Louvre, Paris

A self-portrait is a representation of an artist, drawn, painted, photographed, or sculpted by the artist. Although self-portraits have been made by artists since the earliest times, it is not until the Early Renaissance in the mid 15th century that artists can be frequently identified depicting themselves as either the main subject, or as important characters in their work. With better and cheaper mirrors, and the advent of the panel portrait, many painters, sculptors and printmakers tried some form of self-portraiture

"Jean Fouquet's self-portrait (c. 1450), a small picture created in gold on black enamel (see image left), is seen as the earliest clearly identified self-portrait that is a separate painting, not an incidental part of a larger work. However, self-portraits are known to go back as far as the Amarna Period (c. 1365 B.C. ) of Ancient Egypt. Pharaoh Akhenaten's chief sculptor Bak carved a portrait of himself and his wife Taheri out of stone. This is significant because Bak and Taheri were not like the rich and powerful who could afford the privilege of a portrait therefore the artist must have had another reason for creating this work of art. Sean Kelly points out in his book The Self-Portrait, A Modern View, while we know a number of self-portraits from the ancient world, we also know very little about the psychological motivations which inspired them.

"Though Dürer is credited for being the first artist to consistently create self-portraits, Rembrandt is given credit for being the first artist to intensely study of the self through art."6

It wasn't until the 19th and 20th centuries, when scholars studied Rembrandt's oeuvre as a whole, that it was discovered how very many times the artist had portrayed himself. The number is still a matter of contention, but it seems he depicted himself in approximately forty to fifty extant paintings, about thirty-two etchings, and seven drawings. It is an output unique in history; most artists produce only a handful of self-portraits, if that. And why Rembrandt did this is one of the great mysteries of art history.

Most scholars up till about twenty years ago interpreted Rembrandt's remarkable series of self-portraits as a sort of visual diary, a forty-year exercise in self-examination. In a 1961 book, art historian Manuel Gasser wrote, "Over the years, Rembrandt's self-portraits increasingly became a means for gaining self-knowledge, and in the end took the form of an interior dialogue: a lonely old man communicating with himself while he painted.

Art historian Ernst van de Wetering sets forth a view that has gained a number of adherents over the past few decades. The "self-portraits" (there was no such term in the seventeenth century) could not have been made for the purpose of self-analysis, he claims, because the idea of self as "an independent I who lives and creates solely from within" is one that arose only in the Romantic era, after 1800. In the literature of Rembrandt's day, he contends, personality was seen primarily as being bound to certain immutable types discussed in classical sources. Van de Wetering basically sees that Rembrandt's "programme" in these self-portraits was to make paintings for which there was a ready market. He points out that a detailed inventory of Rembrandt's possessions made in 1656, when he faced bankruptcy, included no portrayals of the artist by himself.) In self-portraits, artists in Rembrandt's day and previous eras sometimes included a painting in the genre for which they were best known, as an example of their style. In the case of Rembrandt, he was most noted for his eccentricity of technique and for his tronies and depictions of one or a few figures. So, in making his self-portraits, which Van de Wetering contends were probably all seen as tronies in their day, Rembrandt was making the kind of images art buyers expected of him, which had the added attraction of being depictions of their maker and exemplars of his unusual technique.

Susan Fegley Osmond, "Rembrandt's Self-Portraits", THE ARTS, January, 2000.

According to a succinct description in an auction catalogue of 1696 (the Dissius estate sale in Amsterdam) which featured twenty-one Vermeer paintings, the artist had at one time or another depcited a "portrait of Vermeer in a room with various accessories uncommonly beautifully painted by him." Unfortunately, this "uncommonly beautiful" work is currently missing or has not survived. But over the years various works have been candidated as Vermeer self portraits including the Art of Painting even though the artist who is depicted at work in this masterpiece has turned his back to the viewer.

While the Dissius self-portrait has disappeared, the pose, the glance, the fancy costume and the lateral position of the figure on the left of the composition of Vermeer's The Procuress (1656) all suggest it a self-portrait by Vermeer. This grinning figure, who clutches a cittern in his right hand and seemingly cheers to both the viewer and his companions with a glass of beer, is a typical Caravaggesque merry drinker popular pictured frequently brothel scenes of the Utrecht Caravaggists. The semi-comical figure serves as a kind of third-person "fictional narrator," within yet partially extraneous to the scene which unfolds. He wears a fanciful black doublet with broad slashes on the sleeves and so-called shoulder-wings. A similar figure appears out of Gerrit Dou's At the time of the Procuress was painted the painter was nearly twenty-four.


A technique, theorized and developed by Leonardo da Vinci, in which the transitions from light to dark are so gradual they are almost imperceptible; sfumato softens lines and creates a very natural soft-focus effect. This slight blurring of contours was associated with the realization that air has a mellowing effect comparable of smoke or vapor. "Fumo" in Italian means smoke. Leonardo advised that "the painter, depicting figures and objects distant from the eyes, should put in only blots, not detailed but with distinct outlines."

Vermeer, in his individual way of rendering sfumato, let areas of paint slightly overlap at the transition areas along contours in order to create a special luminous effect around his pictorial motifs. The result of this technique can be seen, for example, around the skirt of The Milkmaid and the Young Woman with a Water Pitcher, but also between the floor tiles in The Music Lesson.

Another extraordinary use of sfumato in Vermeer's oeuvre can be seen in the late Guitar Player. The strings of the guitar are blurred and appear that they had been just plucked. Curiously, the Spanish master Velásquez, with whom Vermeer's painting have been compared even thought there are no historically proven ties between the two masters, also experimented with blurred contours to convey the sense of movement in the spinning wheel of the Las Hilanderas (The Spinners) c. 1657.


In painting, there are two kinds of shadows that occur when light shines upon an object, cast shadows and a form, or attached shadows.

Cast Shadows
In the simplest terms, a cast shadow is a shadow that is projected on a form nearby by an object which occludes the light which emanate from the principal light source (multiple cast shadows are caused by multiple light sources, usually avoided in painting). Each object which blocks light has a cast shadow associated with it. The shape of the cast shadow, which appears to be separated from the object which casts the shadow, is determined not only by shape and dimensions of the object that blocks the light, but by the surface form on which the cast shadow falls as well as the direction, origin and intensity of the light—and, crucial for the painter, the point from which the shadows are observed. An example of a cast shadow is a shadow of a tree that falls on the ground below, or the shadow cast upon the tabletop from an apple sitting on it. The farther a cast shadow is from the object the lighter and softer are its edges. A general rule for painters is that cast shadows are darker than any part of an objects attached shadow.

"Attached shadow (chiaroscuro) is not universally used in depiction, but even where it is mastered skillfully, it is not generally accompanied by the use, let alone the mastery, of cast shadows - cast shadows are rare until the European Renaissance.  After the Renaissance, shadows in European painting were canonised and shadow painting was the subject matter of a number of painting treatises. During a circumscribed period in history, the depiction of cast shadows has been the object of a representational struggle. Painters of the early Renaissance appear to have been fascinated by shadows, and to have learnt over about one century how to depict them in a geometrically and perceptually adequate or satisfactory way." 7

Attached Shadows
An attached shadow is an area of an object which does not receive light directly from the light source but is not blocked (cast) by another object. In real life situations, attached shadows are less defined that than a cast shadow and are more difficult to paint.

It is not enough to darken the local color(s) of the object with black or brown paint as amateur painters usually do. When painting attached shadows, the painter must take into consideration many variables: the intensity of the light, the overall chiaroscural scheme, the color and texture of the object whose shadow it belongs to. And, shadows are generally much more true to nature if they are painted thinly.

The adequate depiction of cast and attached shadows is essential for creating the illusion of volume, mass and depth. Without shadows, objects have no substance do not seem real. Understanding the subtle variations of attached and cast shadows requires careful observation: squinting at the subject to see tends to simplify the relationships between lit and unlit areas of the scene and make figure-ground making value relationships clearer. In the 18th century, the so-called Claude glass was considered an indispensable tool for an amateur landscape artist. Named for French 17th-century painter Claude Lorain, the Claude glass is a black mirror, slightly convex, that serves to concentrate and frame scenery, as well as simplifying the color and tonal range. This created an image with the qualities of a painting by Claude and made drawing scenery much simpler.

Painters typically represent less detail in the shadowed areas rather than the illuminated areas. Detail in shadow subtract from sensation of natural light and the painting surface overworked. By rendering shadows flat and relatively devoid of detail, the painter enhances through his medium the unsubstantial nature of the shadow itself.

Seventeenth-century artist were keenly aware of the proper rendering of shadows. The painter and art theoretician Samuel van Hoogstraten, warned against overworking shadows lest they become hard:

But whether you begin or end with the shadows, you should split them up in your mind into lesser and greater, and depict each in a flat manner, according to its darkness; for by working them too much, and melting them in, all your work would turn to copper; and you would even lose the capacity to judge it. Don’t allow yourself to be bothered by small modulations [kantigheden] in a soft shadow, nor by the fact that, when viewed from close by, a darker one can be seen in the middle of it; because the force will be all the greater if you hold it at arm’s length…

From inspecting his theory and his practice, it would seem that what Hoogstraten wanted was a drawing built out of crisp contrasts, in which light and shade were clearly articulated, both between and within themselves.8

Vermeer himself greatly minimized detail of his shadows, especially the core shadows. For example, the core shadow of the blue attire of the blue morning jacket of the Woman in Blue Reading a Letter is rendered almost entirely with a single tone of unmodulated dark blue. This pictorial strategy not only enhances the sensation of natural light but simplifies the planimetric composition of the painting into large masses of dark and light which can be more comfortably assimilated by the observer. However, the drastic simplification of Vermeer's shadows may not only owe to Dutch practice recommenced by Van Hoogstraten but to the peculiar image produced by the camera obscura (known to have been employed by Vermeer) which, in situations of all but exceptionally strong illumination, does not evidence tonal variations in shadowed areas of objects.

Sinking In

George O'Hanlon, "Paint Glossary", Natural Pigments website, 2011. <>

In the technique of applying successive coats of color to a picture, the oil in each superimposed coat can sink into the previous one (especially if the latter is not perfectly dry), resulting in color that appears dull. Before applying fresh paint, therefore, the artist may spread a thin coat of oil or medium over the colors already laid, in order to match the tone and hue of the fresh color, uniting the new layer with the previous. This is called "oiling out," and the thin glaze of medium is called a "couch." Sinking-in of the vehicle should be distinguished from that of the pigment: in the former, the surface becomes dull, in the latter it becomes shining from the supernatant oil. Sinking-in is also the result of a ground that is too absorbent or unevenly absorbent, draining the paint layer of its vehicle. Using too much thinner with paint, weakening the binder’s capacity to form a film and exposing pigment particles to the air, can also cause sinking-in.

Sitter - Model

A person who poses for the figure(s) to be represented in an artist's work

Women are seem to be the central focal point of many of Vermeer's paintings. "Vermeer painted about 49 figures of women, but only 12 men, and no children (despite having an extremely large family himself). This emphasis on women is logical in the work of an artist who was entirely devoted to the painting o interiors, as the domestic space was the realm which society had assigned to women. Nonetheless, while for De Hoogh and Maes the home was a setting for maternity and domestic tasks, Vermeer was alert to the appearance of a new type of woman, better educated than her predecessors and more absorbed in her interior life. It is not my chance that among the innovations of interior paintings we find a sensibility towards the intimate psychology of individuals, given the concept of an interior life was developing at just this time. Street life and family life became more separated in houses at this period and more private spaces and areas for withdrawing begun to appear." 9

Oddly enough, the only historically documented sitter in Vermeer's oeuvre was Vermeer himself who posed for a now lost self-portrait cited in the 1696 Dissius auction of 21 Vermeer paintings. The remaining women and men who populate the artist's extant interiors remain anonymous. Perhaps it is the fact has encouraged much speculation by scholars and public alike as to just who they may have been.

Due to the intimate nature of Vermeer's art, there has been a certain inclination to link Vermeer's own family members to the sitters of his paintings, some of which seemed to have posed more than once. The economic advantage of employing sitters from the artist's family willing to pose long hours without pay would be obvious. This fact would not be without precedent. Gerrit ter Borch, a fellow Dutch artist whose discreet genre interiors probably inspired some of Vermeer's own compositions, frequently used members of his own family as models, in particular his step-sister Gesina. The tenderness with which Ter Borch portrays this woman on numerous occasions indicates his fondness for her.


Material applied to a surface as a penetrating sealer, to alter or lessen its absorbency and isolate it from subsequent coatings. Traditional sizes for paintings may have been rabbit skin or fish glue. Parchment was also used. Size also serves to protect the canvas, as oil paint in direct contact with the canvas will cause it to become weak and brittle.

Traditional size for oil was a solution of rabbit skin collagin heated with water. Although this has been used for hundreds of years it is know known by conservators to cause more problems than it solves. Since the size continuously absorbs moisture from the atmosphere, causing it to continuously swell and shrink, over time, this constant flexing causes the oil paint on top, which is quite brittle, to crack. It is now believed to be the main cause of cracking in old oil paintings.


A sketch is a rapidly executed depiction of a subject or complete composition, which is usually produced in preparation for a more detailed and completed work. "Despite the interest in the outdoors, the Dutch landscape painters rarely painted their. His usual practice was to make sketches of scenes that caught his eye; then, returning to his studio, he would begin to paint, using his drawings for reference. And since he might use as many as a dozen drawings from different locations in a single painting, the final scene was often entirely the product of his imagination."10

Many Dutch painters also sketched their initial idea directly on the canvas (see in-depth investigation of Rembrandt's drawing techniques in Ernst van de Wetering (Rembrandt: Artist at Work). Although a great number of sketches on paper by Rembrandt have survived, very few of them were intended as preparatory works for his painting compositions.

Although no preparatory or final drawings of Vermeer remain, this does not necessarily mean that he had not at some time or the other produced them. Drawings, although collected by some connoisseurs at the time, did not have the same value as they do today and considering that Vermeer's preparatory drawings might have been done in a more schematic rather than expressive style, it is not unreasonable that they were not deemed of great value. A single "folio" such as the ones listed in the artist's death inventory may have contained his precious drawings which could have been lost or destroyed.

As odd as it may seem, it is possible that Vermeer was able to transfer the final image of his composition without having ever realized any kind of material sketch or drawing. Philip Steadman, in his study of Vermeer's use of the camera obscura (a sort of precursor of the modern photographic camera widely known by painters in Vermeer's time), conjectures that the artist may have actually traced the image projected by the camera obscura directly on the canvas. The camera obscura, which certainly served Vermeer as a compositional aid, would have rendered preparatory drawing superfluous. Although some scholars still strongly dissent with Steadman's arguments, a growing number have begun to concede they have a strong rational base and moreover are in conformity with Vermeer's pictorial and expressive objectives. (For detailed information on the subject, read Steadman's Vermeer's Camera: Uncovering the Truth Behind the Masterpieces, or visit his web site at:

Spatial Depth

See also, overlap.

The creation of a convincing illusion of three-dimensional depth, or spatial depth, in artworks is considered a major achievement of the Renaissance although various techniques had been employed to achieve depth from Antiquity onwards. Color was no longer primarily symbolic and the relative scale of various figures was determined by their religious significance, as was the case in medieval "Last Judgment" paintings and frescos. Renaissance painters  realized that objects appear to get smaller as their distance from the observer increases and that color, the manipulation of detail and chiaroscural values could all enhance the sense of depth. Willem Seitz, a painter and art historian, maintains that "through one pictorial device or another the greatest percentage of the world's paintings has dealt with the representation of space."11

Pictorial depth can be achieved by a number of methods. Since depth is not really present in painting (except for the discreet overlapping of different paint layers) its sensation must be communicated  by exploting a series of so-called visual depth cues. Depth cues can be applied singularly in different parts of the painting (e.g.  overlap) or over the whole design (e.g. perspective) but are most effective when used systematically in unison.  Each cue communicates different visual information.

The cues used in painting to achieve the illusion of depth are called monocular cues. Monocular cues can be perceived with just one eye or both eyes. On the other hand, binocular cues are based on information gathered from both eyes (e.g. stereopsis, eye convergence, shadow stereopsis ).

The principal  means of creating the illusion of three dimensional depth on a flat surface are overlapping, changing size and placement, linear perspective, and relative hue and value. For the oil painter depth may also be also enhanced by exploiting the inherent physical and optical properties of paint itself.

Overlap, or occlusion,  is the strongest cue for depth and overrides all other cues when a conflict seems to be present. When one object occludes part of another object there must be space between them although simple overlap by itself does not furnish clues at what distance they are from one another. Objects that occlude seem  nearer  while objects that are occluded seem further away. The viewer must be able to recognize the partially overlapped  object otherwise the two objects might appear to be sitting side by side.

Size and scale -  Larger objects tend appear closer and smaller objects appear further away.

Linear perspective  is a technique which  allows artists to simulate or construct the appearance of three dimensional space on a two dimensional surface in a rational manner.  The property of parallel lines converging in the distance, at infinity, allows us to reconstruct the relative distance of two parts of an object, or of landscape features. An example would be standing on a straight road, looking down the road, and noticing the road narrows as it goes off in the distance. It is one of the major innovations of European art, with an extraordinary impact on western visual culture from the 15th to the 19th centuries.

Relative hue, value, focus, texture and detail provide various clues of visual depth such as:

  • Things with more detail, sharper or larger textures  are seen as closer
  • Things with few detail, sharper or larger textures  are seen as far away.
  • Things with darker colors look closer.
  • Things with lighter colors look further away.
  • Things with sharp silhouettes seem to advance.
  • Things with blurry outlines seem to recede.
  • Objects with colors that are close in value seem close to each other in space.
  • Strongly contrasting colors appear to separate in space.
  • Comparable sized objects that are placed lower in the image as closer to us, and objects that are placed higher as being further away.
  • Warm colors (red orange, yellow) seem to advance towards to the viewer.
  • Cool colors (blue and bluish green and purple) seem to recede from the viewer.
  • Objects with saturated colors seem to advance.
  • Objects with low saturated colors seem to recede.
  • The manner in which light falls on an object and reflects off its surface are effective cues for the brain to determine the shape of objects and their position in space. The shape and direction of cast shadows also provide depth cues

The sensation of spatial depth can also be greatly enhanced by exploiting paints inherent physical and optical properties.

  • Objects painted with thick paint and visible brushstrokes seem to advance.
  • Objects painted with thin or transparent paint seem to recede.
  • Physical overlap of paint layers tends to enhance overlap cues.


See also, je ne sais quoi.

Sprezzatura is a term coined by Italian statesman Baldesar Castiglione in his Il libro del cortegiano (1528) to describe an ideal of courtly behavior. Castiglione defined sprezzatura as a style of behavior in which every action "conceals art, and presents what is done and said as if it was done without effort and virtually without thought" (Book 1, Chapter 26). Sprezzatura is usually translated as "nonchalance." The Italian author was likely elaborating upon "an ancient Roman notion of seeming negligence that was already expressed by Ovid and Virgil. According to Castiglione, sprezzatura had to be found primarily in the courtier's speech and in the gracefulness of his movements while exercising, giving the example of a horseman who does not sit stiffly in the saddle, but seems to ride without any effort with an ease and confidence as if he were on foot."12

Sprezzatura is a contradictory concept because it demands "the ability to show that one is not showing all the effort one obviously put into learning how to show that one is not showing effort."13 Castiglione resolved this paradox of contrived spontaneity by contrasting sprezzatura with affettazione (affectation), which "exceeds certain boundaries of moderation" and must be avoided "in every way possible as though it were some very rough and dangerous reef.". Affectation draws attention to the effort the courtier makes in maintaining the appearance of taking "no thought in what he is about." Castiglione illustrated the difference between affectation and sprezzatura by contrasting the ungraceful rider who tries "to sit stiff in his saddle (in the Venetian style, as we are wont to say'" with "one who sits his horse as free and easy as if he were on foot."

It has been hypothesized that the rough manner in Dutch painting, practiced by Frans Hals and Rembrandt, was a conscious aesthetic choice and is tied to the concept of lossigheydt, "looseness." Castiglione, in effect, had already equivalent of the sprezzatura of the Italian writer Baldassare had already drawn parallels between the effortless nonchalance of courtly behavior and
the loose, seemingly careless touches that the artist applied with his brush. He explicitly drew the parallel between the manner of the courtier and the artist's ability to draw a seemingly effortless line: "Often too in painting, a single line not laboured, a single brushstroke easily drawn, so that it seems as if the hand moves unbidden to its aim according to the painter's wish, without being guided by care or any skill, clearly reveals the excellence of th craftsman, which every man appreciates according to his capacity for judging."


Human figures or animals added into a painting, especially in a landscape. Some painters had other artist add these elements to their works if they felt that they were not as adept at painting the figures. It was standard practice with many architectural painters (and landscape painters, that figures were added by collaborators, often from different cities. Staffage figures were always added once the architecture or landscape was dry.

Stand Oil

Stand oil is nothing more than linseed oil that has been heated to about 525-573º F under conditions that exclude oxygen for a number of hours. This process changes the oil’s mechanical and physical properties. The change is a molecular one called polymerization; nothing is added to the oil and nothing is lost. Stand oil forms a tough strong film for paint and its working qualities differ so much from the drying oils listed above that it is hard to believe that it has been obtained only by heat.

Although stand oil appears darker than oil in its pure from, if diluted with turpentine to obtain good working consistency, it is actually paler than straight linseed oil. It turns much less yellow with age than raw oils do and when it is diluted or mixed with other ingredients to a usable consistency, the resulting medium is practically non-yellowing. Only very little quantity of stand oil is necessary to appreciable alter a paint’s characteristics.

The value of stand oil for fine painting has long been recognized and it seems that it was commonly employed by Dutch and Flemish painters.

Even a small amount of stand oil imparts to paint an enamel-like smoothness and tends to make the paint fuse and blend. The paint layer, even if applied thickly, levels out to a smooth, enamel-like surface. Being so heavy, it supplies the paint with a "drag" that permits the painter to manipulate the brush with the greatest deliberation obtaining the most precise control imaginable. Contours can be subtly fused with the background and one can easily manage thick layers of opaque paint without digging up the underlying tone with the brush. It is particularly useful for achieving thick, perfectly homogeneous layers of opaque paint and lends pure white pigments an extraordinary luminosity. It also stays fluid for a length of time sufficient for elaborate modeling.

When used properly, it produces a satin-like surface that recalls the finer works of Vermeer’s mid career. Stand oil is also frequently used as a component for glazing mediums as well.

No trace of stand oil have been found in the works of Vermeer but this is probably due to the fact that specific tests must be performed to detect it and the great parts of Vermeer’s canvases have not been examined in depth.

Still Life

A painting in which the subject matter is an arrangement of objects - fruit, flowers, tableware, pottery, and so forth - brought together for their pleasing contrasts of shape, color, and texture. Dutch still life painters delighted in the play and contrast of transparent and reflective surfaces: the finely wrought metal of the ewer, the representation of smooth glass, the weave of the linen drapery, the dry crumbly texture of the bread, and the wet, shiny insides of the open pomegranate. At first glance, this still life implies an absence of human presence. But a closer look reveals just the opposite. The torn bread, half empty glass of wine, sliced fruit, and overturned glass allude to human intervention, as if these lavish delicacies were abruptly left on the table.

The term derives from the Dutch stilleven, which became current from about 1650 as a collective name for this type of subject matter. Still life painting flourished in Holland in the 1600s. A great interest in botany arose toward the end of the 1500s, when collectors of herbs and plants were spending fortunes on their gardens; their desire for portraits of their prized possessions fueled the popularity of flower painting. Later on, Dutch still-lives were eagerly taken up by French painters and collectors and came to decorate the most fashionable French salons. Among the most famous Dutch and Flemish painters who specialized in still life subjects were Willem Heda, Willem Kalf, Jan Fyt, Frans Snyders, Jan Weenix, Melchior d’Hondecoeter, Jan van Huysum, and the de Heem family.

"In 17th-century Holland the pressures of art theory were less heavy and real, and it was here that landscape and still life, as an autonomous categories of painting, began to occupy major place in art production. Even so, there was no serious theoretical discussion of them; Dutch theorists tended to regard the practitioners of still life in particular as something of a joke. Samuel van Hoogstraten, just after the middle of the seventeenth century, called them 'common footmen of the Army of Art. '"14

"Though it started in the kitchen, still life painting soon branched out to include a whole catalogue of decorative and useful items which Dutch burgers surrounded themselves: silver tankards, half-filled wine glasses, tobacco pipes, musical instruments, parchment and globes, along with the usual fruit, vegetables and game. As the century wore on, still life reflected the increasing of middle-class luxury; the late 1660s simple white tablecloths had given way to ornate Persian rugs and china was often fine Ming. Such glorification of the Good Life matched the mood of the prosperous art buyer. The paintings obviously fit nicely over his dining table, and the artists who made them were assured of a steady demand."15

By far the most common generic name for what are today called still lifes is "bancquet" (diminutive "bancquettien"); the abstract designations are "vanitas" and "memento mori"; the specific may be any title from a "roemer with oysters" to a "skull." The words ontbift/ ontbijtken (breakfeast) and stil leven may also be construed as generic terms. The word stil leven first appears in Delft in the inventory of Gertruyd van Mierevelt who died on 30 October 1639, and again in an Amsterdam inventory of 1647.

A bancquet could equally well denote a seated meal (as in "banquet of the gods") or a still life (as in "a little ban- quet of oysters"). These are quite different sorts of paintings-the former coming closer to genre or "histo-ry" than to still life-and it may have caused confusion in identifying paintings in inventories.16

Competition in the Dutch art market was fierce and consequentially, prices were generally low. In order to survive each painter had to secure himself a particular style to differentiate his work from others already available. Many painters depended on secondary sources of income to survive. Since it took a very long time to become proficient in any one category of painting such as landscape, still life, or portraiture, painters usually worked in one area only.

Within this context Vermeer, like Rembrandt, was a part of a minority of more talented Dutch painters who were able to work in different categories. However, neither Rembrandt nor Vermeer are known to have painted independent still-lives.


A wooden chassis for textile supports that has expandable corners. Even though canvas is generally attached to a stretcher or a strainer but may remain unsupported, or be stuck onto some sort of rigid support. Stretchers and strainers are generally made of wood (most commonly pine or ash) and usually with tongue and groove joins, mitred at the corners and beveled away from the canvas toward the inside. The terms stretcher and strainer are often used interchangeably, but should differentiate between a framework which has no method of opening out the joins to tighten the canvas (strainer), and one which does by means of wedges or keys (stretcher). Recently new methods of creating a more even tensioning have been developed using metal inserts in the wood which enlarge the joint evenly through each member of the stretcher. Large paintings require the stretcher itself to be further supported. This is provided by cross members or cross bars. Today's familiar expandable stretchers which take up the lost tension by means of wedges inserted in the corners became common only in the 1750s

Vermeer's late Guitar Player is a rarity of 17th-century paintings in as much as it is one of the few canvases of 17th century that is still is on its original stretcher complete with the original wooden pegs once used fasten the canvas to its stretcher.


In the visual arts, style is a "...distinctive manner which permits the grouping of works into related categories."17 or "...any distinctive, and therefore recognizable, way in which an act is performed or an artifact made or ought to be performed and made."18Style refers to the visual appearance of a work of art that relates it to other works by the same artist or one from the same period, training, location, "school" or art movement. In critical analysis of the visual arts, the style of a work of art is often treated as distinct from its iconography, which covers the subject and the content of the work.

Style can be used in two senses: It can refer to the distinctive visual elements, techniques and methods that typify an individual artist's work. It can also refer to the movement or school that an artist is associated with. This can stem from an actual group that the artist was consciously involved with or it can be a category in which art historians have placed the painter. The word 'style' in the latter sense has fallen out of favor in academic discussions about contemporary painting, though it continues to be used in popular contexts. The names of many styles are the invention of art historians and would not have been understood by the practitioners of those styles. Some originated as terms of derision, including Gothic, Baroque, Rococo and Neoclassical.19

Ever since Johann Joachim Winckelmann and more specifically since the late nineteenth century, under the influence of such scholars as Heinrich Wölfflin and Alois Riegl, the history of art has been equated with the history of styles, and this approach has still a great many advocates in the third quarter of the twentieth century. Starting from Greece and the Italian Renaissance, standards of judgment, terms of reference, and a critical language have been developed, and step by step the history of art of all cultures and periods has been approached and investigated with similar stylistic criteria.

No one can doubt that large cultural areas (such as Europe and China) have developed mutually exclusive artistic conventions to which they have adhered for very long periods of time; that there are national (French, English), regional (Venetian, Neapolitan), and period styles (Gothic, Renaissance), all vastly different; and that these puzzling phenomena may be described as bearing the mark of individualism of peoples, regions, and periods. Nor can one doubt that by a strange emotional and intellectual but basically unconscious submission, creative individuals partake in and, at the same time, become active heralds of the characteristic style of their country, region, and period. Each artist has, in fact, an individual style and a fluctuating degree of freedom within the broader stylistic setting of the national and period styles. It must be admitted, however, that individual styles of artists reveal idiosyncratic traits to a varying extent at different periods and in different cultural contexts and, moreover, that the
recognition of personal styles is often dependent not only on the degree of study and empathy but also on the theoretical standpoint of critics and historians.20

Stylized & Stylization

Simplified or exaggerated visual form which emphasizes particular or contrived design qualities.

As Vermeer's mastery of painting technique progressively matured, his stylistic concerns shifted from the faithful recording of reality's appearance to the representation of a purified vision of the world in which his own pictorial instinct became predominant. In his later works, Vermeer's painting technique has reached an extreme of economy; paint layers are meager, tones have been reduced to a paltry few and the canvas appears in the thinly painted shadows.

No detail can represent the departure from the former naturalistic vision more than the rendering of the sleeve of the seated mistress in his late Lady Writing a letter with Her Maid. If this passage is isolated from the context of the rest of the painting, the viewer is at odds to understand just what is being represented. The mosaic of flat shapes carved with knife-like precision which stand in the place of what once were the folds of green satin and starched white cotton, have undergone such a severe process of abstraction that the sense of natural continuity is entirely lost. However, the signs and patterns left by the master's brush are so convincing that, even if we may question the identity of what Vermeer has painted, we are never able to question their authenticity.


Orderly, mutually corresponding arrangement of various parts of a body, producing a proportionate, balanced form.

The fundamental role of symmetry in the art is not exhausted by its connection with ornament or geometric abstraction. Art historians often used symmetry to characterize the formal qualities of a work of art, distinguishing symmetry as a basic principle of all artistic rules - the canons, laws of composition, criteria of well-balanced form. As the most significant property of harmony and regularity, symmetry is one of the main organizational principles in every art: painting, sculpture, architecture, music, dance, poetry. Even in the most extreme modern art - conceptualism or minimalism, it lays in their intellectual background.

The very roots of the theory of symmetry (in Greece) are inseparably linked to the establishment of the aesthetic principles - the canons and theory of proportions. The links between the theory of symmetry and aesthetics

Vermeer carefully avoided strict symmetry as a method to balance his compositions.

Tavern Scenes

In seventeenth-century Flanders, paintings of peasant scenes began to take on a new character, emphasizing carousing, drinking, and smoking. The central action of this painting is a variation on the theme of cardsharks made popular by Caravaggio. Josse van Craesbeeck’s Card Players also shows the influence of his friend and teacher Adriaen Brouwer, who also painted sordid tavern scenes.


A method of painting in which the pigments are mixed with an emulsion of water and egg yolks or whole eggs (sometimes glue or milk). Tempera was widely used in Italian art in the 14th and 15th centuries, both for panel painting and fresco, then being replaced by oil paint. Tempera colors are bright and translucent, though because the paint dried very quickly there is little.


A great part of European painting had drawn its subject from literary sources such as the Bible, mythology and classical texts. These subjects were considered those most adapted to achieve the highest goal of painting: that of elevating the humans spirit. In the 17th century, Dutch painters began to exploit the pictorial possibilities of direct observation of the natural world. And the new subject matters of landscape, still life and genre, which once had been predominantly existed only as descriptive elements in history, became separated into distinct categories.

However, the remembrance of the world of classic painting which the Dutch seemed had done away with in the span of less than 50 years, was not easily forgotten and perhaps exerted itself once again under the form of allegory in genre painting. Dutch genre painting did not represent a text but rather a situation, it was through the introductions of recognizable symbols these situations could reversed into a moral example. Emblems too were used for the same purpose.

In the past decades attempts to interpret 17th-century, Dutch genre painting, and that of Vermeer as well, through association with contemporary texts such as emblematic literature have flourished. Although much has been learned, no general agreement has been reached on how Vermeer employed elmbems in his own paintings, and critical investigation of the meanings of Vermeer's paintings has gradually turned elsewhere. For example, Mariët Westermann has written recently that " the pictorial and literary sources for Vermeer's interior paintings show the limited usefulness of hunting for textual or artistic precedents. What makes Vermeer's rare but powerful contributions to the history of interior painting interesting is the way in which they articulate thought in pictorial terms. Philosophers might say that Vermeer was a strongly eidetic painter (from the Greek eidos, mental image, visual thought) in that his way of conceiving his paintings and their mode of communication was distinctly visual rather than literary in origin."21


In painting, the term texture may be used in relation to both the surface quality of a painting itself or the perceived surface qualities of the objects represented in it. The use of texture, along with other elements of design, can convey a variety of messages and emotions. Texture stimulates two different senses; sight and touch.

Physical texture, also known as actual texture or tactile texture, is the actual variation upon a surface of the painting. Actual texture differentiates itself from visual texture by having a physical quality that can be felt by touch. Rough surfaces can be visually active, whilst smooth surfaces can be visually restful. The use of actual texture can give a sense of character and presence that is not present in the same work had it no actual texture. It can be utilized to create emphasis, rhythm and contrast. Actual texture is associated both with the heavy build up of paint, called impasto, the fluid transparency of glazes, the rough surface of a canvas of the enamel like surface of a pane, or the addition of materials

Visual texture, instead, is the illusion of the texture of an object represented in the painting, such as the rough bark of an old tree or the smoothness of a young lady's skin, the hardness of marble or the softness of fur.

Dutch painters were keenly aware of both kinds of texture and realized that the two could be associated in the pursuit of mimetic painting.

The tactile quality of a surface or the representation or invention of the appearance of such a surface quality. Painters like Gerrit Ter Borch and Gerrit Dou were especially skilled at rendering the textures and surfaces of objects like those found in the foreground of their paintings: the roughly hewn stool, the wooden basin filled with water, the chipped ceramic crock, and the shiny metal hinges of the buckets.

The first history paintings and genre interiors of Vermeer present relatively highly textured surfaces, in accordance with pictorial conventions of the time. That is, the strongly illuminate parts of objects were worked up with heavy, clearly visible impasto while their shadowed areas were rendered with more fluid, transparent paint. This technique creates a material tactile sensation that is physically engaging for the spectator. The works of the 1660s, instead, the surface is built up with smooth layers of paint, impasto passages are minimized. The even sheen of the works lend the image represented a sense of illusive distance, a reality which can be seen but not touched. In the latest works, which present an almost enamel-like surface, paint build up is almost completely lost.


Thixotropy is the property of a material which enables it to stiffen or thicken on a relatively short time upon standing but upon agitation or manipulation to change to a very soft consistency or a high viscosity fluid; a reversible process. Thixotropic materials are gel-like at rest but fluid when agitated and have high static shear strength and low dynamic shear strength, at the same time. Thixotropy occurs in paint, such as lithopone in oil, which flows freely when stirred and reverts to a gel-like state on standing. Quicksand, a mixture of sand and water, is rendered thixotropic by the presence of certain clays.

It is believed that 17th-century painters, especially Rembrandt van Rijn and Pieter Paul Rubens, deliberately produced and took advantage of the thixotropic properties of their paints to obtain particular visual effects. Rembrandt’s paintings, in particular, display a vast array of surface qualities that are virtually unique which have gone largely unexplained. His paint has "a certain ‘shortness’ which results in the tracks of the brush which are interrupted the moment the paint breaks off… In other passages the paint remains, after it has left the brush, in rounded ‘hills’ which betray a paint substance with a certain ‘flow.’"22 Anyone who paints and has the possibility to examine Rembrandt's canvas from life ponders how such a variety of paint behavior can be gotten with only pigment and oil. And yet, scientific evidence has show that there Rembrandt’s paint contains no additives that were not know to his contemporaries

Thixotropic paint behaves differently from normal paint; it "stands up’" as it were and creates a peculiar relief. Thixotropic paint is a liquid or paste paint that behaves like solid at rest, but when undergoing shear stress, such as brushing or knifing, its viscosity lowers and it begins to flow. Thick, lush passages of paint could be as probably easily executed in just a handful of deft strokes with a stiff brush and a mayonnaise-like paint instead of laborious multi-layering technique. Thixotropic is particularly associated with lead-white, the ubiquitous, backbone white pigment used from antiquity. However, even after years of intense study and much experimentation, by the part of both scientific and the practicing figurative artists communities. it is not fully understood how Rembrandt was able to produce thixotropic paint.

Some believe that it is the very nature of lead white which determines a thixotropic behavior. While modern lead white and traditional lead white do not differ chemically a great deal, the size, shape and distribution of particles of traditional lead white vary greatly. Thus it may be that the particle size variance and size distribution, rather than additives other than pigment and simple drying oil, gives lead white oil paint thixotropic handling properties. However, attempts to add chalk or marble dust to modern white lead increases the texture of the paint but does not produce thixotropic properties. Others have suggested that it is possible that water played a part in the thixotropic behaviour of some paints.

A video produced by Ernst van de Wetering, the Dutch art historian considered the world's foremost expert on Rembrandt and his work, shows that when piles of modern lead white and traditionla lead white are placed adjacent to one another and manipulated with the tip of a palette knife, the modern lead white is stiff and buttery, while the stack process white lead begins to soften and flow while being acted upon by the knife and then suddenly freezes into position when the knife is withdrawn.

Although there are passages of great technical finesse in Vermeer’s paintings, no one has ever questioned that the artist may have adopted means or materials that were not within the reach of ordinary Dutch painters of the time. All the effects of Vermeer's paints can be explained by simple paint, mediums and superlative brush chandelling skill.

Thread Count

Thread count is a measure of the coarseness or fineness of fabric. It is measured by counting the number of threads contained in one square inch or one square centimeter of fabric, including both the length (warp) and width (weft) threads. Thread count is used especially in regard to cotton linens such as bed sheets, and has been known to be used in the classification of towels. As applied to painting, thread count can yield valuable information as to the provenance and authenticity of works of art.

"Considering how a loom works reveals what detail can be discerned from thread count measurements. The vertical threads mounted in a loom, known as the warp, are usually well aligned with a fairly uniform spacing. The horizontal threads, known as the weft, are threaded back and forth through the warp in an interlaced fashion, with the weft compacted occasionally to strengthen the cloth. In most cases, the weft shows more variability than the warp. When the artist cuts a piece of canvas for a painting, he or she will orient the canvas on the stretcher in whatever way seems best: the warp may correspond to either the vertical or horizontal threads in the painting. Thread count spread across a painting provides a strong clue as to how the canvas was cut from the roll: one would expect the thread count having the narrower distribution to be the warp direction In addition, paintings made from the same canvas rolls may not have been made on pieces cut the same way: the warp may be horizontal in one painting and vertical in another. Thread counts along with related forensic data allow the art historian to pose strong hypotheses about how the canvas roll was used for paintings contemporary with each other."23

The thread counts of Vermeer's canvases are comparable with those of his fellow Dutch painters.

For the past several years two American scientists, C. Richard Johnson Jr. and Don H. Johnson, "have developed computer algorithms that allow an analysis of canvas weaves that is more precise than traditional methods. They have digitally mapped canvases used by European artists ranging in date from the 1450s (Dieric Bouts’s tüchlein paintings, in London, Los Angeles, and Pasadena) to Vincent van Gogh’s pictures of 1888 – 90 (187 canvases from that period alone). The results so far have been variously revealing for those artists and for Velázquez, Vermeer, Monet, Renoir, Gauguin, and Matisse. In the case of Johannes Vermeer, twenty nine of his canvases have been digitally mapped to date, out of the thirty-six paintings by him (two of which are on wood) that are generally accepted by scholars."24

The two scientists found that in the case of Vermeer, "three canvas weave matches were found, with three different implications: a question of authenticity; another concerning chronology; and the hypothesis that two pictures were intended by the artist as a pair." The scientists suggest that the canvas of the Lacemaker originated from the same bolt of canvas as that of the recently reattributed Young Woman Seated at a Virginal [not to be confused with the London work of Vermeer by a similar title]. This match has significantly strengthened the case of the latter picture's reattribution since the canvases are also of the same dimensions. Another weave match found in Vermeer’s oeuvre is between two genre paintings of identical size, Young Woman Standing at a Virginal and Young Woman Seated at a Virginal, both in the National Gallery, London. Some scholars believe the two paintings conceived as a pendant based principally on their common subject matter, similarities in style and near identical dimensions. The third pair is composed of two pictures which present few elements in common other than the canvas weave, A Lady Writing a Letter with Her Maid, in the National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin and Woman with a Lute in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The two scientists team believes "weave matches in canvases used by Vermeer or by another artist or by several painters at a particular time and place (for example, Rembrandt’s workshop in Amsterdam) must be considered along with many other technical and historical factors."

For more information regarding the project and the Vermeer canvas matches see:

D. H. Johnson, E. Hendriks, M. Geldof, and C. R. Johnson, Jr., "Do Weave Matches Imply Canvas Roll Matches?," 38th Annual Meeting of American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works, Milwaukee, WI, May 2010. <>

Don H. Johnson, Lucia Sun C. Richard Johnson, Jr. Ella Hendriks, "Matching Canvas Weave Patterns from Processing X-ray Images of master Paintings", Conference: International Conference on Acoustics, Speech, and Signal Processing - ICASSP, pp. 958-961, 2010. <>

C. Richard Johnson, Jr., Ella Hendriks, Petria Noble, and Michiel Franken, "Advances in Computer-Assisted Canvas Examination: Thread Counting Algorithms", Presented May 21, 2009, PSG Program, 2009 AIC Annual Meeting, Los Angeles, CA, Revised June 18, 2009 <>


The notion that certain works of art are so filled with genius that they rise above the specifics of time and place to occupy a transcendental, superhuman plane of existence that does not belong to history.

The concept of timelessness is frequently evoked in conjunction with Vermeer's art By avoiding the purely incidental and anecdotal detail of daily life, where gestures become tied to specific events, Vermeer was able to convey the universal, rather than the temporal realm of the everyday life. "The emotions of longing and expectations which he so often incorporated in his work provide a thematic means for suggesting the extension of time, a quality he enhanced with purity of compositions, purposefulness of human gaze and gesture, and evocative treatment if light. Through these means Vermeer not only succeeded in transforming a momentary activity into a timelessness vision, but also created images whose moods and concerns continue to speak directly to viewers far removed from the world in which he lived."25


A name that identifies a book, movie, play, painting, musical composition, or other literary or artistic work

The titles that have been given to Vermeer's paintings present problems. Ivan Gaskell (Vermeer's Wager, 2000) has noted that some works by the artist are referred to as what we take as being a title in early documents (such as The Dissius auction of 1696 in which 21 paintings by Vermeer were sold) even though they may represent nothing more than convenient descriptions. "The only exception is the Art of Painting. John Montias has demonstrated that Vermeer's widow, Catharina Bolnes had gone to great lengths to keep the painting from being taken from her by her creditors. Two months after Vermeer's death, it was described in a notorial documents as "a painting done by the aforementioned late husband, wherein is depicted 'The Art of Painting' (' de Schilderconst' )." All other titles of Vermeer's paintings must be considered convenient descriptions based on subject and color rather than titles in the modern sense of the term.

Since the rediscovery of the Girl with a Pearl Earring in 1881, the painting has been given a number of different titles in various publications according to authors' preference. Some have identified the painting with the girl's turban, or some with the girl's youth and some have considered it as a portrait and others as a study. The discrepancies, if nothing else, show that the work was evidently not always associated so strongly with the pearl earring as it is today. The pearl seems to become a part of the title only after the first half of the 20th c. The title given by the Mauritshuis where the painting is housed is: Meisje met de parel.


The lightness or darkness of a color, rather than the actual color (yellow, blue, red, green etc.) is. Studies have indicated that the average person can visually differentiate eleven tones between white a black without undue effort. Line is essentially a convention because it is generally believed that lines do not exist in reality. Lines must be depicted as the boundaries between different tone values, the edges of adjoining areas of light and dark tones. Painting, in a sense is the art of making clear painted statements in flat toned areas. For this the painter must learn how to see nature in terms of lightness and darkness. Tone give shape to form and a sense of depth to a painting.

The pigments available to the artist have unsequenced tones and intensities. For example, the tone of natural ultramarine blue pigment (Vermeer's characteristic blue) is very dark. On a scale of grays it appears near black. On the other hand, lead-tin yellow, (Vermeer's characteristic lemon yellow) is very light, quite near pure white. In order to lighten the tone of ultramarine blue, the painter has simply to add white. To darken light toned pigment such as lead-tin yellow the painter must add a darker tint. However, if black is added for this purpose, the yellow immediately appears distinctly greenish in color and not longer gives the idea of a deeper shade of yellow but rather of a different color altogether. Painters often used raw umber, a deep semi-transparent brown earth pigment, to approximate the color of the shadow of a yellow tones object such as the yellow morning jackets worn by many of Vermeer's sitters. In Vermeer's time, there were relatively fixed recipes for obtaining the various tones of each color, which however, were severely limited not only by the very few pigments available but by their mutual compatibility of as well.

Transparent & Opaque Paint

Today’s artists are sometimes surprised to see how variable in opacity pigments can be. Some pigments produce a glass-like effect which barely hides the underdrawing while other seem­ingly opaque ones do not fully cover it. Other pigments mask all that was under­neath. These differences are experienced by painters of the past and pre­sent because each pigment, depending on its chemical properties and methods of production, has its own character which must be reckoned with.

"An opaque paint is one that transmits no light and can readily be made to cover or hide what is under it. A semi-opaque paint transmits very little light, but is incapable of concealing dark colors and strong markings under it unless an unusually heavy coat is applied. A transparent material transmits light freely; when a transparent glaze of oil color, for example, is placed over another color, it produces a clean mixture of the two hues without much loss of clarity. A semitransparent paint transmits much light, but is not clear; a semitransparent glaze, when placed over another color, will produce a pale or cloudy effect because of the reflection of light from the surface. Semi-transparency and semi-opacity are also known as translucency. Pigments are classed as opaque, semi-opaque, and transparent.

In painting techniques, opaque and transparent pigments produce color effects in two different ways: Watercolor employs transparent color, relying on the brilliant white paper to create white and pale colors; casein, gouache, and pastel are completely opaque, using white pigment to obtain whites and pale colors; tempera is semi-opaque, combining the effects of both systems; and oil painting is capable of utilizing opaque, translucent, and transparent effects, sometimes all in the same painting."26

The hiding strength of paint is largely influenced by the relative refractive indices of the pigment and the medium, as well as the particle size and distri­bution of the pigment, the proportion of pigment in the vehicle and the thickness of the applied film.
Transparency depends largely on the physical characteristics of the pigment itself rather than how it is bound to the vehicle. Good red madder will always be transparent, no matter how it is bound or applied except, of course, if it is mixed with white which provides an excellent pink hue. And on the other hand, vermilion will always be one of the most opaque pigments and it is precisely in its opacity that the Great Masters found it most useful. These paints must be used according to their intrinsic qualities.
Many inexperienced painters would prefer to have paints of all the same opacity. This is a mistake. The breadth and depth of the Masters’ works is as much consequence of the inequality of transparency of their pigments as the way they are applied to the canvas.


Trompe-l'œil (French for "deceive the eye," pronounced [tʁɔ̃p lœj]), which can also be spelled without the hyphen in English as trompe l'oeil, is an art technique involving realistic imagery in order to create the optical illusion that the depicted objects exist in three dimensions. Forced perspective is a comparable illusion in architecture. All figurative art contains an element of trompe l’oeil, while the essence of the "true" trompe l’oeil is that it sets out to deceive us into believing that the objects we are seeing are not the result of artifice but real. While perspective generally creates the illusion of space behind the picture plane, trompe l'œil creates the illusion of space in front of the picture plane.

One of the first records of trompe l’oeil hails back to the 5th century B.C. The artist Zeuxis, so the story goes, painted grapes so life-like that birds flew down to peck at them. But even such an artist as Zeuxis was fooled by his rival Parrhasius. When Zeuxis tried to push aside the cloth covering one of Parrhasius’s paintings the trompe-l’oeil fabric turned out to be the painting itself. One of the best known examples from Classical Antiquity comes from Roman art and was unearthed as part of a number of archeological discoveries at Pompeii. Scientists uncovered Roman villas decorated with a mass of mural painting designed to look like wall alcoves, intricate ceiling plasterwork, double-doors and even windows overlooking lush gardens.

With the superior understanding of perspective drawing achieved in the Renaissance, Italian painters of the late Quattrocento such as Andrea Mantegna (1431–1506) and Melozzo da Forlì (1438–1494), began painting illusionistic ceiling paintings, generally in fresco, that employed perspective and techniques such as foreshortening in order to give the impression of greater space to the viewer below. This type of trompe l'œil illusionism as specifically applied to ceiling paintings is known as di sotto in sù, meaning "from below, upward" in Italian. The elements above the viewer are rendered as if viewed from true vanishing point perspective.

A fanciful form of architectural trompe-l'œil is known as quodlibet which features realistically rendered paintings of such items as paper-knives, playing-cards, ribbons and scissors, apparently accidentally left lying around, painted on walls

Perhaps the most straightforward example of trompe l'œil in Vermeer's oeuvre is the green satin curtain that hangs on the right-hand side of the Young Woman Reading a Letter by an Open Window. On close inspection, the curtain does not in fact seem to hang in the same implied three-dimensional space of the painting but rather in front of the painting itself. This kind of curtain, which Vermeer intended to imitate, was widely employed to protect the more precious works of from dust. This trompe l'œil device was a favorite among Dutch genre painters of the Delft School.


"The now defunct term (tronie) refers to heads, "faces," or "expressions" (compare the French trogne, or "mug") and to a type of picture familiar from many examples by Rembrandt and his followers. The majority of Dutch tronies appear to have been based upon living models, including the artists in question or a colleague, but the works were not intended as portraits. Rather, they were meant as studies of expression, type, physiognomy, or any kind of interesting character (an old man, a young woman, a 'Turk,' 'a dashing soldier' and so on). Garments that looked foreign, 'antique,' costly, or simply curious were of interest for their own sake and frequently offered opportunities to show off painterly techniques. "27 Tronies, were in effect, paintings usually made and sold for the open market. The artist was entirely free to choose the sitter, dress and technique and faced none of the restrictions of formal portraiture. The tronie would normally be sold on the art market without identification of the sitter, and would not have been commissioned and retained by the sitter as portraits normally were.

Nonetheless, the term tronie is still subject to debate. "Some critics use the word 'tronie' as the name of a genre comparable to that of landscape or portrait but this a recent development, not justified by the way in which seventeenth-century sources apply the word."28 According to the art historian Dagmaire Hirschfelder29 "the 'tronie' originated in Leiden and Haarlem in the third decade of the seventeenth century, where Jan Lievens, Rembrandt and Frans Hals were its inventors. This choice implies a definition: a painting is a 'tronie' when it has the characteristics these three artists gave to their 'tronies'. The author’s criteria are mostly negative; a 'tronie' is a head or a half-figure without significant attributes or actions, not identified as a figure from history, literature, mythology or the Bible. The face is not stereotyped as the representative of one of the social or psychological groups we know from genre painting, such as the quick-tempered 'Capitano', the miser or the glutton."30

In the 17th century there was an avid market for tronies, which were considered a separate genre (although for an artist such as Rembrandt, they also served as a storehouse of facial types and expressions for figures in history paintings).

Historical evidence refers to three tronies painted by Vermeer. John Larson was a Hague/London sculptor who in an inventory drawn up in August 1664 had a painting described as "a tronie by Vermeer." It was valued at 10 guilders. In the Dissius auction of 1696 in which 21 works by Vermeer were sold, two of the paintings were described as tronies, The relative part of the catalogue is reproduced below.

38. a tronie in antique dress, uncommonly artful, by the same (Vermeer) — 36 guilders

39. another ditto (tronie) by Vermeer — 17 guilders.

40. a pendant by the same — 17 guilders

The first tronie fetched 36 guilders while the other two only 17 guilders each. Some scholars have conjectured that item numbers 39 and 40 are perhaps the Girl with a Red Hat and Girl with a Flute which are among Vermeer's smallest pictures. The prices of the three paintings were low in respects to many of the other 18 Vermeer’s sold in the same auction, a fact which has lead some scholars to believe that the Girl with a Pearl Earring was not among the tronies listed. The beauty of the painting, they argue, must have surely been evident to buyers present at the auction and it would not have been bought for a fraction of the price reached by The Milkmaid (item no.1 at 155 guilders), or Woman with a Balance (item no. 2 at 175 guilders.) However, Dutch buyers may have had a somewhat different perception of a tronie such as the Girl with a Pearl Earring and before spending their hard earned money, they may have considered more than just the work's esthetic value alone.

In any case, if we are to accept the authenticity of the Washington Girl with a Flute it would seem that four tronies by Vermeer have survived: The Girl with a Pearl Earring, A Study of a Young Woman, The Girl with a Red Hat and the Girl with a Flute.

Turbid Medium Effect

Goethe's studies of color began with subjective experiments which examined the effects of turbid media on the perception of light and dark. He observed that lights seen through a turbid medium would appear yellowish, and darkness seen through a turbid medium that had been lightened would appear blue.

The turbid medium effect in nature can be readily observed when the thin layers of fat that lay over raw reddish meat take on an unappealing blue cast. Another example of the turbid medium effect is when white smoke passes in front of a dark backdrop creating a bluish haze. Painters may replicate this effect dynamically by superimposing a thin (translucent) light layer of paint over a darker one: the layer above appears much cooler than it would have appeared had it been painted over a lighter layer of paint. Light blues skies are particularly airy if the painters superimposes a light blue mixture of paint over tan or light brown ground. The turbid medium effect is greatly amplified if the dark tone underneath is a warm brown.

Rembrandt and Rubens, both of whom possessed an enviable understanding of their materials and extraordinary manual dexterity, used this technique extensively to create the cool half tones of human flesh automatically. This was done by first modeling the darker shadows in dark browns, most umbers. The lighter flesh tone (usually mixture of lead-white and small amounts of vermilion and/or yellow ochre) was applied adjacent to the shadows and then drawn over with a light brush with great finesse tapering off gradually over the darker shadow to indicate the turning of the underlying form. This technique, extraordinarily difficult to master, creates a subtle pearlescent tone. The fresher the paint application, the more pronounced and natural is the result. Repeated stirring and mixing of the paint destroys the effect almost immediately. Van Dyck was known to have used ultramarine in the half-tones of the flesh.

The turbid medium effect can also be produced by mixing cool blue pigments, such as natural ultramarine, directly into the paint reserved for the half-tones (only when representing flesh) but the result is hardly as attractive the effect produced by the technique described before.


In its simplest terms, an underpainting is a monochrome version of the final painting intended to initially fix the composition, give volume and substance to the forms, and distribute darks and lights in order to create the effect of illumination. The lack of color probably explains the word "dead" in the term "dead painting." In the 17th century, underpainting, or dead-coloring as it was called, appears in various forms, sometimes as loose monochrome brushwork and sometimes as an assembly of evenly blocked-out "puzzle pieces" of different colors. The final color and detail was then applied over the underpainting only when it was thoroughly dry. Underpaintings were usually executed in warm earth tones or with flat areas of thin color which approximated the final color over neutral gray grounds. Raw umber at times mixed with black were frequently used for this purpose. Cool gray underpaintngs were also employed.

Underpainting is rarely practiced today. For the last century, artists have simply begun their painting directly on commercially pre-prepared white canvases with full color surpassing anything but a abbreviated sketch.

Without a thorough knowledge and mastery of the underpainting technique, the extraordinary pictorial coherence which characterizes Vermeer's most mature pictures may not have been easily achieved. The underpainting technique greatly facilitates the realization of finely balanced compositions, accurate depictions of light and chromatic subtleties.

It now seems certain that underpainting was a fundamental step in Vermeer's relatively methodical creative process. In the underpainting stage, the artist may have made many major and minor alterations in the type, placement, and dimensions of objects found in his compositions. Chairs, maps, framed paintings, musical instruments, baskets, a standing cavalier and even a dog can no longer be seen where they were originally represented. Vermeer may have painted them out in the underpainting stage having seen that they did not create the desired aesthetic effect or that they were distracting to the painting's theme.

Underpainting was also used by Vermeer to create particular optical effects which cannot be produced by direct mixture of paints. The most cited example is certainly that of the blue drapery which adorns the Girl with a Red Hat. When observed with care, it can be seen that Vermeer had applied a layer of cool natural ultramarine over a warm brown ground. The warm ground which appears through the brushmarks of blue sets creates a unique luminosity since blue is nearly complimentary color of brown. Had the two pigments been physically mixed, the would have resulted in a nondescript drab greenish-blue tone.


Like contrast, unity is an element that describes a relationship between two or more elements or objects within a composition. Unlike contrast, however, which tends to focus on isolated relationships within the composition, unity usually describes such relationships within the context of the composition as a whole. Unity can be said to define how any one element or group of elements is related to the rest of the composition. Thus, contrast itself would be an aspect of unity, as is color, value, etc. The most common quality of unity that art classes and critics focus on is visual flow or connectivity. This can be described as the way in which compositional elements "lead the viewer’s eye" from one area of the image to another.


The lightness or darkness of tones or colors. White is the lightest value; black is the darkest. The value halfway between these extremes is called middle gray. Because a painted image is physically two-dimensional, a painter must have some tool to create a false, but convincing illusion of three-dimensionality. Value is that tool. The effects of value are most easily seen in a black and white drawing. In such a drawing, one can find a range of tones from pure black, across a spectrum of gray, ending in pure white. By using such a scale of tones, a painter is able to recreate in two dimensions the effects of light and shadow on a three-dimensional object. In a painting, such tones are usually found in spectrums of color instead of gray, but the effect is the same. Value is extremely important to a painter because without its proper use it would be impossible for a painter to create convincingly realistic imagery. It’s also a useful tool for adding further definition to forms, of which line alone is incapable of doing. Value also works in conjunction with contrast.

Vanishing Point

In perspective, the point on the horizon at which sets of lines representing parallel lines will converge. These diverging lines are called orthogonals.

Although it has been stated that Vermeer placed the vanishing point of his perspectival constructions to emphasize the one or another compositional element in the painting, perhaps only in one work, the Woman Holding a Balance, does it occur at a truly significant point: very near the hand holding the balance which surprisingly, is also very near the geometrical center of the painting. By drawing the spectator's eye towards this crucial point where the balances slowly comes to rest, the artist enhances the underlying theme of balance and deliberateness of one's actions.

In all the other paintings by Vermeer, the vanishing point seems to occur randomly or in correspondence to the central figure of the composition although this could be easily explained by the fact that a painter naturally seats directly in front of the part of the composition which interests him most. However, it is notable that in all of his interiors, the vanishing point is established within the rectangle of the picture plane while in many works of his colleagues, it lies outside.

In Vermeer's times an artisinal method of working out the perspective drawing existed. Jørgen Wadum has noted that paintings by Vermeer, including Woman Holding a Balance, "contains evidence of Vermeer's system, by which he inserted a pin, with a string attached to it, into the grounded canvas at the vanishing point. With this string he could reach any area of his canvas to correct orthogonal, the straight lines that meet in the central vanishing point." This system was widely used among painters of the time. In Wadum's opinion, Vermeer had most likely had fully assimilated the laws of perspective perhaps using various extant guides and did not use the camera obscura for working out perspective problems as the London architect Philip Steadman has suggested.


Vanitas is the Latin for vanity, in the sense of emptiness or a worthless action. 'Vanity of Vanities, saith the preacher, all is vanity' (Ecclesiastes 12: 8). The implication of these words from the Old Testament is that all human action is transient in contrast to the everlasting nature of faith.

A painting (or element in painting) that acts as a reminder of the inevitability of death, and the pointlessness of earthly ambitions and achievements. Common vanitas-symbols include skulls, guttering candles, hour-glasses and clocks, overturned vessels, and even flowers (which will soon fade). The vanitas theme became popular during the Baroque, with the vanitas still life flourishing in Dutch art.

The vanity of all earthly things was one of the most popular themes of Dutch still life painter. They often included objects which suggested the transience of life: skulls, bones, hourglass, flowers or a snuffed-out candle. There were countless other r symbols; the sea-shell, a collector's item, represented wealth; musical instruments symbolized the pleasure of the senses. The vanitas tradition was particularly strong in Leiden., possibly because the university there made the town the center of theological study. It has been suggested that the vanitas painting played a role in Dutch painting parallel to that of the crucifixes and religious paintings in Catholic countries.


Space enclosed or filled by a three-dimensional object or figure or the implied space filled by a painted or drawn object or figure. In order to give volume and create a convincing sense of three dimensionality, painters usually employed tone, or rather, various shades of light and dark to convey a sense of volume or mass.

Warm Colors

Colors whose relative visual temperature makes them seem warm. Warm colors or hues include red-violet, red, red-orange, orange, yellow-orange, and yellow.


Application of paint to a surface which has already been painted and is still wet. Wet-in-wet technique permits fine blending of two adjacent areas of different tones.

Vermeer seems to have employed the wet -in-wet methods in various paintings. The Girl with a Pearl Earring shows that the painter applied paint wet-into-wet. The lighter and darker parts of the young girl's blue turban were mixed wet-in-wet with rounded brushstrokes of ultramarine and white mixtures. Once dry, the area it received a transparent glazed with natural ultramarine.

Working Up

Working-up in Dutch was called "opmaken" which means to finish. During the working-up the main concern was to give everything its correct coloring, to render materials appropriately, and to fix the final contours of the forms. Each distinctive area of the painting was generally executed as a separate entity and finished in one or two sessions. Whenever it was necessary to achieve strong, bright colors, (for red, yellow, and blue robes and the like), the passage concerned was clearly executed within carefully delineated contours in accordance with fixed recipe, involving a specific layering or fixed type of underpainting.

For further information on working-up, click here.

Recent technical study of Vermeer's paintings indicates that he most likely used the standard working-up method employed by Northern European artists. In his mature work, many passages are completed with only one or two pigments different than those of the adjacent ones. Furthermore, there is sound reason to believe that in the working-up stage, sittings occurred a long time from one another. Rather than a being a slow painter, Vermeer may have been a more meditative painter concentrating fully on one area at a time with long intervals between painting sessions. (see interview with Jørgen Wadum, chief conservator of the Mauritshuis)

It remains very difficult to understand the sequence in which Vermeer worked up each separate passage. Ernst van der Wetering has hypothesized that Rembrandt worked from "the back to the front" of his pictures by analyzing the system of overlapping areas of pigment.31 No such study has been conducted in regards to Vermeer's painting. However, one might reason that the background white-washed walls, which play such an important role in the artist's pictorial conception, may have been among the first areas to be completed in the working-up phase. More than any other pictorial element, the walls' color and tone determine the amount and quality of light which will be represented in a given painting. Analogously, landscape painters often depict the sky first in order to properly gauge the correct colors of the rest of the painting. For it is obviously the sky which influences the tone of the landscape itself and not vice versa. After having defined the various tones of the wall, perhaps Vermeer then worked-up the larger areas of color such as the various costumes worn by the models which usually play a decisive role in the chromatic harmony of the painting.


Although X-radiography is a well-known diagnostic tool in the medical field, it is used extensively by conservators to determine how artists applied different layers of paint to create an image. X-rays penetrate through paint layers and record on film the atomic weight or density of the various materials present. This technology reveals changes, such as figure pose and placement, costume details, or background composition, the artist made during the process of painting. An x-ray can also easily spot repaired tears on the canvas, holes in the panel support, losses in the ground layers, and cut down edges and transfers.

Information collected by X-ray examination is extremely valuable to conservators as it helps to determine the conservation issues of the object and subsequent correct conservation approach. The information revealed by this type of examination can also assist art historians in the interpretation of the art work and more specific dating.

X-ray examination is able to detect the presence of paints such as lead white, lead tin yellow, or vermillion that contain heavy metal elements because they absorb the x-rays and prevent them from blackening the film. Materials that do not absorb x-rays, such as carbon black, will allow x-rays to pass through the object and blacken the film. Fortunately, x-ray opaque pigments include most of the whites and yellows, meaning that light areas in a painting are mostly light on the radiograph. Those pigments with weaker absorption power are zinc white, cadmium yellow and emerald green. Very weak absorbers include umber, cobalt blue, red/yellow ochre and Prussian blue. The worst absorbers are the organic pigments based on carbon such as carbon black and carmine lake.

  1. Christopher S. Wood, "’Curious Pictures’ and the art of description", in Word & Image, Vol. 11, no. 4, October-December 1995, p. 332.
  2. David Bomford, "Rough Manners: Reflections on Courbet and Seventeenth-Century Painting", Papers from the Symposium Looking at the Landscapes: Courbet and Modernism Held at the J. Paul Getty Museum on March 18, 2006, p. 10. <>
  3. Mariët Westermann, "Vermeer and the Interior Imagination", in Vermeer and the Dutch Interior Alejandro Vergara, Madrid, 2003, p. 231.
  4. David Burmeister Kaaring, "Reality as Icon – The cottage motif in Dutch landscape painting 1600-50", SMK Art Journal 2007, p. 99, <
  5. Madlyn Millner Kahr, Dutch Painting in the Seventeenth-Century, New York, Hagerstwon, San Francisco, London, 1978, pp. 232-233.
  6. "Self-Portraits as a Self-Study". <>
  7. Roberto Casati, "Methodological Issues in the Study of the Depiction of Cast Shadows: A Case Study in the Relationships between Art and Cognition", in The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. 62, No. 2, Special Issue: Art, Mind, and Cognitive Science (Spring, 2004), pp. 165.
  8. Paul Taylor, "Flatness in Dutch Art: Theory and Practice", in Oud HollandJaargang/Volume 121 - 2008 Nr. 2/3, p. 161.
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  25. Arthur Wheelock, Vermeer and The Art of Painting, New York and New Haven, 1995, p. 166.
  26. Ralph Mayer, The Artist’s Handbook of Materials and Techniques, Oxford, 1972, p. 132.
  27. Walter Liedtke, Vermeer and the Delft School, New York, 2001.
  28. Lyckle de Vries, [Review of: Hirschfelder, Dagmar: Tronie und Porträt in der niederländischen Malerei des 17. Jahrhunderts, Berlin 2008]. In: H-ArtHist, Feb 9, 2011 (accessed Jan 5, 2013). <>
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  30. Lyckle de Vries, 2011.
  31. Ernst van de Wetering, 2002.
Looking Over Vermeer's Shoulder
The complete book on the technique and studio practices of Johannes Vermeer
2nd edition
eBook / PDF
+300 color illus.
Jan., 2016

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