Essential Vermeer 3.0
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Did Vermeer make mistakes? What is the Milkmaid preparing in her kitchen? Is the Girl with a Pearl Earring really a masterpiece and is her pearl a fake? Why did the artist's reputation vaporize so quickly after he died and why is he so famous today? What tricks and special colors did he use? Bolstered by his lifelong study of Vermeer and decades of experience as a professional painter, Jonathan Janson reveals Vermeer's life and art in human, down-to-earth terms.

For anyone interested in Vermeer the man and Vermeer's art, rather than his myth, 25 Things You Didn't Know about Vermeer offers rare glimpses into the artist's day-to-day experiences and struggles both inside and outside the confines of his studio.


25 Things You (Probably) Didn't Know about Vermeer: Tricks, Troubles and Triumphs of a Great Dutch Master
Jonathan Janson
2021 | PDF | $6.95

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Vermeer's Palette: Charcoal Black

charcoal black

Origin, History and Characteristics

Used throughout history, carbon or charcoal black is easy to prepare and has excellent hiding power. Since carbon absorbs light so well, it often appears dark with infrared imaging, revealing an artist's charcoal sketch under the painting. The name carbon black is generally used as a generic name for those blacks that are made from the partial burning or carbonizing of natural gas, oil, wood, vegetables and other organic matter. It was once made of elephant tusks, walrus tusks, carbonized hartshorn, or animal bone. True ivory black is said to produce the best black.

Throughout the history of painting, charcoal black has been used extensively as a coloring agent. Carbon-based blacks all have bluish undertones, and when mixed with whites will produce useful blue-grays. Charcoal black is easy to prepare and has excellent hiding power covering everything beneath it.

Today's painters generally avoid using black to darken pure colors since the mixture tends to appear somewhat dirty. The Great Masters however did not exclude it for toning down other pigments even flesh mixtures. Black pigments were combined with red and yellow (including red and yellow lakes) to create a variety of useful browns. The resulting shades are immediately distinguishable from shades of raw umber because they appear cleaner and less chalky. Vermeer seems to have used these mixtures to make browns in more than one work.

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 to gain the clearest picture of Vermeer's day-to-day methods we must not only look at what went on his inside studio but inside the studios of his most accomplished colleagues as well.

Looking Over Vermeer's Shoulder, then, lays out in clear, comprehensible language every facet of 17th-century and Vermeer's painting practices including training, canvas preparation, underdrawing, underpainting, glazing, palette, brushes, pigments and composition. Also investigated are a number of key issues as they relate specifically to Vermeer such as the camera obscura, studio organization as well as how he depicted wall-maps, floor tiles, pictures-within-pictures, carpets and other of his most characteristic motifs.

Bolstered by his qualifications as a practicing painter and a Vermeer connoisseur, the three-volume PDF format permits the author to address each of the book's 24 topics with requisite attention. By observing at close quarters the studio practices of Vermeer and his preeminent contemporaries, the reader will acquire a concrete understanding of 17th-century painting methods and gain a fresh view of Vermeer's 35 works of art, which reveal a seamless unity of craft and poetry.

While not written as a "how-to" manual, realist painters will find a true treasure trove of technical information that can be apapted to almost any style of figurative painting.

author: Jonathan Janson
date: 2020 (second edition)
pages: 294
format: PDF | 3 volumes
illustrations: 200-plus illustrations and diagrams

3 Volumes: $29.95 | $14.95

Looking Over Vermeer's Shoulder

VOL I (11MB)

1 / Vermeer's Training, Technical Background and Ambitions
2 / An Overview of Vermeer’s Technical & Stylistic Evolution
3 / Fame, Originality & Subject Matter
4 / Reality or Illusion: Did Vermeer’s Interiors ever Exist?
5 / Color
6 / Composition
7 / Mimesi & Illusionism

Looking Over Vermeer's Shoulder


8 / Perspective
9 / Camera Obscura Vision
10 / Light & Modeling
11 / Studio
12 / Four Essential Motifs in Vermeer’s Oeuvre
13 / Drapery
14 / Painting Flesh

Looking Over Vermeer's Shoulder


15 / Canvas
16 / Grounding
17 / “Inventing,” or Underdrawing
18 / “Dead-Coloring,” or Underpainting
19 / “Working-up,” or Finishing
20 / Glazing
21 / Mediums, Binders & Varnishes
22 / Paint Application & Consistency
23 / Pigments, Paints & Palettes
24 / Brushes & Brushwork

Charcoal Black in Vermeer's Painting

Charcoal black was used to portray the black marble tiles seen in many of Vermeer's interiors. Since charcoal black has a strong brownish undertone, the artist added a touch of natural ultramarine to render the bluish cast of the marble itself.

Vermeer also used charcoal black to reduce the chromatic intensity of natural ultramarine in the deeper shadows of the blue tablecloth which appears in a few of his works.

However, one of the most subtle uses of charcoal black is found in various white-washed walls which appear in his interiors. Painters of the time used black, often with umber, to render the shadows of white objects. However, Vermeer's walls convey a pearl-like luminosity not to be found in similar depictions of white-washed walls of painters working in the same genre such as Gabriel Metsu or Pieter de Hooch.

In Vermeer's best works, the viewer does not have the impression of seeing lighter and darker shades of gray pigment but rather a perfectly white wall which receives more or less light (fig. 1). Charcoal black was used to tone down the lighter areas of the wall painted with heavy impasto white lead. In the deeper shadows, umber dominates over black in the dark gray mixture since excessive quantities of black lends the shadows a sullen effect.

Woman with a Pearl Necklace (detail), Johannes Vermeerfig. 1 Woman with a Pearl Necklace (detail)
Johannes Vermeer
c. 1662–1665
Oil on canvas, 55 x 45 cm.
Staatliche Museen Preußischer Kulturbesitz, Gemäldegalerie, Berlin

A detail of Vermeer's Woman with a Pearl Necklace in which charcoal black was most likely used mixed with white-lead to create the various shades of the background wall.

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