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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 Due to its high lead content, it is very poisonous and has been replaced by safer products.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. 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 on 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 topics such as artistic training, canvas preparation, underdrawing, underpainting, glazing, palette, brushes, pigments and composition. Also investigated are a number of issues as they relate specifically to the art of Vermeer such as the camera obscura, studio organization as well as how he depicted wall-maps, floor tiles, pictures-within-pictures, Turkish carpets and other of his most characteristic motifs.

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 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, aspiring realist painters will find a true treasure trove of technical information that can be apapted to almost any style of figurative painting.

Looking Over Vermeer's Shoulder (beta version)
author: Jonathan Janson
date: 2020 (second edition)
pages: 294
format: PDF | 3 volumes
illustrations: 200-plus illustrations and diagrams

3 Volumes: $29.95

All three volumes can be purchased individually below.


Looking Over Vermeer's Shoulder

VOL I (11MB) $11.99

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

VOL II (17MB) $11.99

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

VOL III (13MB) $11.99

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

* 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.

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.

† FOOTNOTES †

  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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