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Vermeer's Palette: Lead-Tin Yellow

lead-tin yellow pigment

Origin, History and Characteristics

(massicott, gialllolino)

If natural ultramarine blue could be considered the king of Vermeer's palette, lead-tin yellow would justly be called its queen. What is now commonly called lead-tin yellow has had several different names in the past. Italian manuscripts have described a color, "gialllolino," which is identical to lead-tin yellow. In northern parts of England the term "massicott" was used to describe the same pigment.

The current name lead-tin yellow is self explanatory. It is a result of the components of the pigment lead and tin which combine to form a yellow hue. Due to its high lead content, it is very poisonous and has been replaced by safer products. Used between thirteenth and eighteenth centuries, but most common from fifteenth to seventeenth centuries.

Lead-tin yellow has a distinct lemon hue (fig. 1) and is very light in tone, much nearer white than another common yellow pigment, ochre. Lead-tin yellow has good hiding power. It was commonly used in drapery, light parts of the sky, foliage with green and earth pigments.

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.

Bolstered by the author's qualifications as a professional painter and a Vermeer connoisseur, every facet of 17th-century and Vermeer's painting practices—including canvas preparation, underdrawing, underpainting, glazing, palette, brushes, pigments and composition—is laid out in clear, comprehensible language. Also investigated are a number of key issues related specifically to Vermeer's studio methods, 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 defining motifs. Each of the book's 24 topics is accompanied by abundant color illustrations and diagrams.

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 materials 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 adapted to almost any style of figurative painting.

author: Jonathan Janson
date: 2020 (second edition)
pages: 294
illustrations: 200-plus illustrations and diagrams
formats: PDF | ePUB | AZW3

Looking Over Vermeer's Shoulder


  1. Vermeer's Training, Technical Background & Ambitions
  2. An Overview of Vermeer’s Technical & Stylistic Evolution
  3. Fame, Originality & Subject Matte
  4. Reality or Illusion: Did Vermeer’s Interiors ever Exist?
  5. Color
  6. Composition
  7. Mimesi & Illusionism
  8. Perspective
  9. Camera Obscura Vision
  10. Light & Modeling
  11. Studio
  12. Four Essential Motifs in Vermeer’s Oeuvre
  1. Drapery
  2. Painting Flesh
  3. Canvas
  4. Grounding
  5. “Inventing,” or Underdrawing
  6. “Dead-Coloring,” or Underpainting
  7. “Working-up,” or Finishing
  8. Glazing
  9. Mediums, Binders & Varnishes
  10. Paint Application & Consistency
  11. Pigments, Paints & Palettes
  12. Brushes & Brushwork

Lead-tin yellow pigmentfig. 1
A plastic jar containing powdered lead-tin yellow pigment

Lead-Tin Yellow in Vermeer's Painting

lead-tin yellow in Vermeer's paintingfig. 2 A Lady Writing (detail)
Johannes Vermeer
c. 1662–1667
Oil on canvas, 45 x 39.9 cm.
National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.

"Lead-tin yellow is the principal pigment used by Vermeer for his characteristic yellow draperies, including the fur trimmed jackets. Two different preparations of lead-tin yellow were used in the yellow jacket of A Lady Writing (fig. 2). Vermeer seems to have first modeled the strong lights with a coarser variety of lead-tin yellow and the refined the modeling and chiaroscuro with a finer one. He textured the underpaint by using granular pigments and strongly marked brush handling. These textured passages of underpaint were used in the final image, where they draw the viewer's attention. The lightest passages are literally the most eye-catching parts of the painting."1

Vermeer's mixed lead-tin yellow with various shades of blue to obtain subtle greens. The green trompe-l'œil curtain in the Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window was made with lead-tin yellow and azurite. The same combination occurs in the green shutter in the Little Street.

Vermeer's mastery of color can be seen in his use of lead-tin yellow, which is very difficult to harmonize with flesh tones.

One of the most curious uses of lead-tin yellow occurs in the greenish highlights, which contained lead-tin yellow, of the far sleeve of the Woman Holding a Balance (fig. 3). There seems to be no logical explanation for this in the lighting condition represented in the painting, but it must have had some significance for the artist since he repeated precisely this technique in the later Girl with a Red Hat (fig. 4). Arthur K. Wheelock Jr., who has extensively analyzed Vermeer's painting technique, gives the following explanation: "By accenting the highlight with bright yellow strokes rather than with white or light blue ones, he imbued the cool blue robe with a certain warmth without reducing its level of color saturation."2

Woman Holding a Balance (detail), Johannes Vermeerfig. 3 Woman Holding a Balance (detail)
Johannes Vermeer
c. 1662–1665
Oil on canvas, 42.5 x 38 cm.
National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.
Girl with a Red Hat (detail), Johannes Vermeerfig. 4 Girl with a Red Hat (detail)
Johannes Vermeer
c. 1665–1667
Oil on panel, 23.2 x 18.1 cm.
National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.


  1. E. Melanie Gifford, "Painting Light: Recent Observations on Vermeer's Technique," in Vermeer Studies, eds. Ivan Gaskell and Michiel Jonker, National Gallery of Art Washington D.C., New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1998, 1998.
  2. Arthur K. Wheelock Jr., Vermeer and the Art of Painting, New York and New Haven: Yale University Press. 1995, 122.

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