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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.

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

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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