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Vermeer's Palette: Madder Lak

red madder

(red madder, rose madder)

Origin, History and Characteristics

Madder lake, also called red madder, is an extract made by boiling the root of the madder plant (rubia tintorium). It was used as a textile dye in ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome, being the most permanent of the maroon or ruby-red colors of natural dyestuff origin. It is said to have been introduced in Italy by the Crusaders and was cultivated in Europe from the thirteenth-century on.

First the madder is uprooted from the ground and left to dry in fields in small piles. The madder plant is often so tall that it cannot stand on its own. After that, it is put in larger piles for 2-3 days and then it is dried in warm air drying houses. Next, the dried roots are crushed and separated from the bark by sifting. Finally, the roots are crushed with stones and sifted to a fine powder. Some madder cannot be used immediately for dyeing; Alsatian and Dutch madder must remain in barrels for one or two years where it ferment. The best European madder is Dutch, but that from Smyrna is said to be even finer. Since madder lake has very little bulk it must be precipitated on an inert pigment or lake base, in order to make it suitable for brushing. Clay or alum was often used for this purpose. Such pigments were know as lakes. Madder like absorbs much binder, about 100% by volume.

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.

red madderfig. 1 Christ driving the Traders from the Temple (detail)
El Greco
c. 1600
Oil on canvas, 106.3 x 129.7 cm.
National Gallery, London

Madder lake produces a fairly permanent (if used properly and not exposed to excessive light) brilliant ruby-red tone, unique among the very few bright red pigments available to the artists of Vermeer's time. Its highly transparent nature makes it excellent for glazing. Madder lake was often glazed over a light toned underpainting as can be observed in the detail of El Greco's Christ Driving the Traitors from the Temple (fig. 1). El Greco's method differed from common practices of the period. Most painters tempered the pigment with a more fluid oil medium which was applied in smooth strokes with a soft brush to achieve an unbroken glaze. An example of this more common method can be seen in Filipe IV, a caballo (fig. 2), by Velázquez. Vermeer never used this specific technique as he never painted pink drapery where it was usually employed.

Velasquez,  Filipe IV, a caballofig. 2 Equestrian Portrait of Philip IV
Diego Velázquez
c. 1635
Oil on canvas, 303 x 317 cm.
Museo del Prado, Mardid

Madder lake was frequently used to glaze over vermilion, a bright red pigment with a distinct orange tone. This glaze not only enhances the opaque vermilion but also protects it from fading.

Madder Lake in Vermeer's Painting

Vermeer used more than once madder lake glaze over vermilion technique. He first modeled the object to be represented in various tones of vermilion using white to lighten the tone and black to darken them. Black must be used very sparingly since even the smallest addition creates a rather sullen effect. Once the area was dry it glazed with red madder. Madder lake deepens the orange tone of vermilion is nearing it in hue to today's brilliant cadmium reds. Two excellent examples of this glazing technique and be found in Vermeer's work: the red satin gown of Girl with a Wineglass and the red plumed hat of Girl with a Red Hat (fig. 3).

Christ in the House of Martha and Mary (detail), Johannes Vermeerfig. 3 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.

Madder lake was also used in the warmer parts of the flesh tones such as the lips or cheeks either by direct mixture or as a glaze in conjunction with the basic lead white and yellow ochre mixture which he often used as a base for the lighter parts of flesh tones. The mouth of the Girl with a Pearl Earring was painted with madder lake. Some of the rather monochrome flesh tones seen in Vermeer's faces might be explained by madder lake's tendency to fade if used in minimum proportions.

Vermeer may have used a mixture red madder and black to make the preliminary drawing on the canvas and in the shadowed areas of the flesh tones as other Dutch painters. Madder lake has been detected as an admixture with other pigments in Vermeer's paintings.


  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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