The number of pigments available to the seventeenth-century Dutch painter were few indeed when compared to those available to the modern artist. While the current catalogue of one of the most respected color producers (Rembrandt) displays more than a hundred pigments, about only 20 pigments have been detected in Vermeer's oeuvre.1 Of these few pigments only ten seemed to have been used in a more or less systematic way.
In Vermeer's time, each pigment was different in regards to permanence, workability, drying time, and means of production. Moreover, many pigments were not mutually compatible and had to be used separately or in a particular manner. The following study examines the history and origin of each pigment and how they were employed by Vermeer and his contemporaries.
A significant lacuna in the seventeenth-century painter's palette was the lack of the so-called "strong colors." Only a handful of bright, stable and workable colors existed. Mixing to create new tints did not significantly alleviate the problem. When pigments are physically mixed amongst themselves, the new color is inevitably less brilliant than either one of the original components and, more importantly, in the case of some older pigments, they were not even compatible.
One thorn in the side of the seventeenth-century painter was the chronic shortage of strong, opaque yellows and reds which could be to model form with a certain ease. The exceptionally brilliant red and yellow cadmiums, now obligatory paints in any contemporary painter's studio, had not been commercialized until the 1840s. For centuries the only strong opaque red adapted for modeling was vermilion. Vermilion is a very opaque pigment with excellent handling properties but nonetheless, it possesses a fiery, orange undertone and must be glazed to protect it from degrading. Strong yellows, in particular, were scarce and the only brilliant green was the problematic verdigris. In order to overcome the lack of suitable purple pigments and to economize, artists had learned to first model form in tones of ultramarine and white and then glaze over the dried layer of red madder obtaining a lively purple tint.
2020 | PDF | 3 volumes | 294 pages
Looking Over Vermeer's Shoulder (beta version*)
author: Jonathan Janson (author of EssentialVermeer.com).
format: 3 Volumes: PDF
200-plus color illustrations & diagrams
All three volumes can be purchased individually at Lulu.com.
Looking Over Vermeer's Shoulder is a comprehensive study of the materials and painting techniques that made Vermeer one of the greatest masters of European art. But in order to form the clearest picture of his day-to-day methods, we must not only look at what went on inside Vermeer's studio, but what went inside the studios of his most accomplished colleagues as well.
Looking Over Vermeer's Shoulder, then, lays out in comprehensible language every facet of 17th-century painting practices including artistic training, canvas preparation, underdrawing, underpainting, glazing, palette, brushes, pigments and composition. A number of issues as they relate specifically to the art of Vermeer (camera obscura, studio organization and brushwork) are investigated in exhaustive detail. The reader will be also treated to a tour of how Vermeer applied his uncanny skills to depicting some his most fascinating motifs, such as wall-maps, floor tiles, pictures-within-pictures and Turkish tapestries.
Bolstered by his qualifications as a Vermeer connoisseur and practicing painter the three-volume PDF format permits the author to address each of the book's 24 topics with exhaustive attention. By observing at close quarters the studio practices of Vermeer and his preeminent contemporaries step-by-step the reader will acquire a concrete understanding of 17th-century painting, methods that will allow him gain a fresh view of Vermeer's 35 works of art, which reveal a seamless unity of craft and poetry.
* please note:
Looking Over Vermeer's Shoulder has not undergone a final copy edit, so minor errors in grammar, footnotation and image captions may be occasionally encountered. As soon as the final copy edit becomes available the purchaser will be notified and, on request, receive it without delay or charge.
Moreover, strong colors were not always readily available on the erratic marketplace and had to be used with utmost economy. For example, natural ultramarine, the most precious of all blues for the artist, had become so expensive that painters usually used it as a glaze over a monochrome underpainting. Vermeer used natural ultramarine in just this way.
Economic considerations played a decisive role of the artist's working procedures. If the complete range of pigments, each already ground in oil, had to be available for use at all times, large amounts of painting would have to be thrown away unused. Metal tubes were employed only in the mid-nineteenth century. Excess paint which had not been used during a single painting session was kept temporarily in pig's bladders or the whole palette could be emerged in water over night to prevent contact with oxygen which induces drying.
It is extremely unlikely that Vermeer had on his palette in any given work session all the pigments that were available to him. Painters were known to use specific palettes set out each day according the passage to be painted. The wooden palette above represents the seven principal pigments which Vermeer commonly employed.
drawn entirely from:
"Mining for Color: New Blues, Yellows, and Translucent Paint"
in Early Science and Medicine (Volume 20: Issue 4-6)
by Barbara H. Berrie
Online Publication Date: 07 Dec 2015 - https://brill.com/view/journals/esm/20/4-6/article-p308_2.xml?lang=en
Written descriptions of artists’ materials and practice give only parts of the picture. Sources may include colors and prices, but are often imprecise in terminology and silent on the manner of use.2 Inventories of color-sellers stores are helpful in judging the range available at a specific time and place but only seldom identify who used the supplies or how they were employed.3 Treatises written for painters describe the core palette, and often include some information on how to prepare supports and use pigments, but often they only allude to practice and technique. Trade accounts and bills of lading attest to the worldwide trade in precious materials for art-making, such as colors and resins that were imported from afar, but the local, the quotidian and the secret are more difficult to learn about, though equally important.4 Although the guild structure would appear to have inhibited artistic exploration through regulations and requirements for workshop output, even the strictest rules did not, in the end, inhibit the use of novel materials.5 Personal style and individuality flourished and paved a path for others to follow and actual practice – demonstrated by close observation and chemical analysis – was diverse and even idiosyncratic.6 The ways paint and color were handled showed even greater variety. Oil painting allowed colors to be mixed on the canvas and blended while wet, so artists could use gentle gradations in tone to create chiaroscuro and the effect of sfumato. Translucent paints could be prepared, and colors adjusted using thin glazes or ‘veils’ of color to build rich tones and subtle shading. In the sixteenth century, artists explored and exploited the full potential for creating color and texture through the use of different pigments and brushwork, employing impasted strokes and scumbles of opaque color in addition to glazes.77 Even the most adventurous artists were, however, limited by what was available to them. Thus our knowledge of trade in materials, practice and innovation in color-making provides an underlying context for the interpretation of novelty in painting practice.
Almost all of the materials used for painting, whether natural or synthetic, required some kind of processing from the raw state; methods for preparing certain colorants involved many steps, which cumulatively contributed to their cost. The rarity and expense of some meant that the production of certain colors was limited in scale and their use was restricted to special decorative purposes. Some were employed for medicines and luxury items such as perfumes and cosmetics, while others could only be differentiated from painters’ colors based on the scale of production and in particular the purity of the product.8
Newly developed means of sourcing minerals provided abundant supplies of certain elements necessary to the color-making process. Mining and the production of particular metals in combination with technological advances in manufacturing opened opportunities to add new colorants and thereby improved paint-making. Two pigments, smalt and Naples yellow, coming to painters via the ceramic and glass industries, became established on oil painters’ palettes in the mid-sixteenth century. Smalt is a potassium-containing (potash) glass that is colored deep blue owing to the presence of cobalt. Naples yellow, an oxide of lead and antimony, is a warm, rich, quite stable and rather intense yellow. A very different material, mineral oil (or naphtha) was mined from sources that were found in the sixteenth century.9 Using it as a diluent allowed artists to spread paint thinly, to use the translucency of oil paints to make gradations in hue to blend thinner glazes of paint, and make clear varnishes. The relationship between availability of new ores and the look of paintings solicits further investigation.
Methods and Technique (Introduction)
- Support and ground
- Infrared examination
- Vermeer's palette
- Binding medium
- Paint application
- Secrets of the studio
Time and transformation
- Altered appearance of ultramarine
- Fading of yellow and red lake pigments
- Drying and paint defects
- Formation of lead and zinc soaps
- Infrared examination
- Who's that Girl? (Introduction to research project)
- Preparing for exam ( What will happen in the Golden Room)
- Beauty is more than skin deep (Samples / Imaging )
- Vermeer illuminated (1994 treatment)
- Say cheese (Technical photography)
- A blank canvas (Canvas)
- From the ground up (Ground)
- Watching paint dry (Oil)
- Art supply and demand (Paint, and where materials come from)
- Seeing red (Vermilion and cochineal )
- It's all there in black and white (Blacks and lead white )
- Background check (Background )
- Up close and personal (Under the microscope)
- Contouring, highlighting and blending (Skin )
- Dressed to impress (Yellow and browns )
- Out of the blue (Blues)
- Glazed over (Glazes and varnish)
- You’re crackin me up (Cracks)
- Wrap-up (Wrap-up)
This list is drawn entirely from Tony Johansen's excellent PaintMaking.com