Hand Grinding and the Purchase of Materials

The production of paint is a simple but demanding chore. The necessary knowledge to grind paint was acquired through the traditional apprentice-master relationship. Grinding paint was one of the principal daily chores of the apprentice. It left the master greater time and energy to spend on the creative act of painting. Raw materials could be acquired from a number of sources. In the studio, these raw materials had to cleansed and properly prepared for making paint. The fact there exists absolutely no historical evidence that indicates that Vermeer ever had an apprentice reinforces the idea that the artist produced his own paint.

Although the principal of hand grinding paint is fairly simple, the actual practice presents many subtleties which can be only mastered through experience.

Ultramarine pigment and paint
Synthetic ultramarine blue in powdered form (above) and mixed with drying oil to form paint (below)

First, some dry pigment must be put in the center of the grinding slab wit\h the addition  of the binder. If the pigment does not accept the bind, it may be wetted with a small quantity of water. The two base components must be mixed with a spatula until a very stiff paste is obtained.  A small amount (about a tablespoonful) of color paste is scooped up with the palette knife and placed on the center of the slab. Using a muller, the paste must be ground with light pressure and a circular motion, gradually widening the circle until most of the slab is covered with the color. This paste must be continuously ground until it is very smooth and no grittiness can be heard as the muller goes over it. Once the color is sufficiently ground, it can be called paint. If the paint becomes too liquid when it is ground with the muller, more dry pigment can be mixed into it before proceeding further.  Little by little, small batches of the paste are ground with the muller until each has the same consistency. The final paint, depending on the base ingredients, must be have a smooth, buttery consistency that will stand up in peaks like commercially produced tube paints. When all the paste has been thus ground into paint, it must be mixed well with the spatula in the center of the slab ground quickly once more time to insure a homogeneous quality through the whole batch.

Each pigment absorbs different quantities of binder and in order to produce the most permanent and brilliant pain. The artist must also know how long he must grind each of them. Some pigments must be ground for extended lengths of time to create a suitable paste. Others quickly lose their brilliance if ground too much. For example, if the brilliant natural ultramarine is over ground, it will produce a dull gray. In general however, hand ground paint used in Vermeer's times was not so homogenous as today's commercially sold paints which are passed through rollers in order to bring them all to the same degree of coarseness.

Jan Baptist Collaert
Colori Olivi
(detail) (from the Nova Reperto Series)
Jan Baptist Collaert after Johanne van der Straet
c. 1580
Engraving, 23.5 x 18.5 cm.
Rijksprentenkabinet, Amsterdam

Ernst van de Watering (Rembrandt: The Painter at Work) provides convincing evidence that apprentices prepared a limited amount of paints depending on the what the master intended to paint that day rather than the whole range of available colors. This practice finds its roots in the logic of contemporary painting methods. After having first blocked in the general forms, composition and lighting scheme in a monochrome grayish underpainting, the artist then proceeded to complete separate areas of the painting one at a time usually in a single sitting.

Did Vermeer Hand Grind His Own Paints?

Historical evidence demonstrates that paint was already being commercially produced in the mid-17th-century in major artistic centers in the Netherlands. However, it is not to know exactly to what extent painters employed pre-prepared paint since production methods are unknown. Thus, the presence of commercially prepared pigment cannot be determined by laboratory analysis. However, in the light of Vermeer's perfectionist approach to the thematic, compositional and stylistic components of his art, it might be safely assumed that he was more apt to have made his own paint in order to assure the exact qualities he desired. This attitude is confirmed by his rather uncommon use of the finest grade of the costly natural ultramarine (crushed natural lapis lazuli) instead of the cheaper azurite.

Conservation of Paint

Metal tubes1 were widely employed only in the mid 1800s so excess paint which had not been used could be kept temporarily in pig's bladders or emerged over night in water to prevent contact with oxygen which induces drying. As already stated, paints of the past had different consistencies than paints in tubes today. Moreover, each artist could impart to his paint the particular qualities he may have desired.

The Purchase of Artist's Materials

Painters could acquire their materials from shops specialized in artist's materials, apothecaries, sailors from abroad and even quack doctors. It should be noted that "it was quite common for painters to buy equipment outside the cities where they worked. If we examine the accounts of Crijn Hendrikszoon Volmarijn, the major dealer in painter's materials known from Dutch sources of this period, who was active in Rotterdam in the first half of the seventeenth-century, we find that he had a large number of clients from Delft."2 Materials could also be easily found in Utrecht and Amsterdam were great number of artists lived. However, "in the city of Delft there seems to been an accumulation of specialized knowledge of the nature, composition and application of pigments and other substances used in painting. In addition to the painters themselves, there was also a group of apothecaries and artisans (largely involved in producing Delftware) who were experienced in the production of pigments."3

It is known that Vermeer had accumulated a debt with the apothecary in Delft where he is believed to have purchased some of his artists materials. Lead-tin yellow, the characteristic lemon yellow tone in Vermeer's paintings, was listed among the materials in the apothecary's ledgers. In the nearby city of Leiden "a Danish student attending the Leiden University described the situation there by remarking that Leiden held public sales of cartloads of books on topics such as pharmacopoeia, pigments, drugs and herbs. The only color not listed in any of the existing shop inventories is ultramarine; this must have been obtained through another channels."4

Vermeer, differently from his contemporaries, made extensive use lapis lazuli, a semi-precious stone used in the production the costly natural ultramarine. In any case, Vermeer had no lack of either the materials or the knowledge necessary to produce the highest quality paints.

  1. In 1841, the American painter J. Goffe Rand patented a tube made of sheet tin. The following year the English firm of Winsor & Newton changed the patent by improving the cap and put tube colors on the market. The 19th century saw other innovations in paint manufacture, including the industrial grinding of pigments and the use of fats and paraffins as additives. Both of these inventions improved consistency and uniformity of products, especially oil paints. Henceforth, one could butter a canvas with colors, and all would flow on in the same smooth manner. From: Colors, The Story of Dyes and Pigments, Francois Delamare and Bernard Guineau, Abrams, 200', p. 115
  2. Koos Levy-van Halm, "Where did Vermeer Buy His Painting Materials? Theory and Practice", Vermeer Studies, Eds. Ivan Gaskell and Michiel Jonker, New Haven and London, 1998, p. 139.
  3. ibid.
  4. ibid.


Old paints aints stored in pig's bladder
How to Paint Your Own vermeer, Jonahtan Janson
How to Paint Your Own Vermeer:
Materials & Methods of a
Seventeenth-Century Master

by Jonathan Janson

How to Paint Your Own Vermeer is a straightforward, practical guide on how to reproduce Vermeer's day-to-day painting procedures for today's discerning artist.

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poll initiated: june 15, 2014