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Vermeer's Palette: Yellow Ochre

yellow ochre pigment

Origin, History and Characteristics

(Gelber Ock, ocre jaune, ocra gialla)

Yellow ocher is a natural earth pigment which consists mostly of clay colored by iron oxides. Ocher comes in a great variety of shades depending on their origin. Lighter shades of a pale yellow may be burned to produce darker red shades. The purest ochers come from France and Cyprus. Under moderate heat, yellowish-red colors are produced; however, the stronger the heat, the more rich and saturated the color produced. Used throughout history, yellow ochre can be safely mixed with other pigments.

Ochers are among the most widely used pigments dating back to prehistoric times. Ochers vary widely in transparency; some are quite opaque, while others are valued for their use as glazes. Ocher was not strong enough to color key parts of a compositions, but mixed with other colors it produces a great variety of useful natural tones. Mixed with lead white the broken tone of yellow of yellow ocher approximates very closely the color of subtle tones of illuminated flesh tones. Vermilion or madder lake are added when a warmer tone was needed.

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.

Yellow Ocher in Vermeer's Painting

Woman with a Pearl Nexklace (detail), Johannes Vermeerfig. 1 Woman with a Pearl Necklace (detail)
Johannes Vermeer
c. 1662–1665
Oil on canvas, 55 x 45 cm.
Staatliche Museen Preußischer Kulturbesitz, Gemäldegalerie, Berlin

Much like most every European painter, Vermeer made extensive use of yellow ocher. He made limited use of it in of his flesh tones, but "interestingly, no red pigment can be discerned in the surface paint layer of the flesh tones of the Woman with a Pearl Necklace (fig. 1); there are various mixtures of yellow ocher, white lead and even black very well blended into one another."1 Vermeer's flesh tones appear at times rather dull when compared to those of his contemporaries. The brilliant rosy cheeks and lips of the young women so beloved by genre painters, are almost entirely absent in Vermeer's faces. This may be due to an artistic choice or to the fact that he may have used only minimal quantities some red pigment which faded.

Vermeer used yellow ocher unmixed to portray objects of similar local color such as the floor tiles in The Girl with a Wine Glass (fig. 2). Yellow ocher lightened with lead white was used to render the foreground bank of the View of Delft (fig. 2). Yellow ocher has been detected in the map on the background wall in the Young Woman with a Water Pitcher and yellow parts of the Turkish carpets that are frequently seen in Vermeer's interiors.


Girl with a Wine Glass (detail), Johannes Vermeerfig. 2 The Glass of Wine (detail)
Johannes Vermeer
c. 1658–16610
Oil on canvas, 65 x 77 cm.
Staatliche Museen Preußischer Kulturbesitz,
, Berlin
View of Delft (detail), Johannes Vermeerfig. 3 View of Delft (detail)
Johannes Vermeer
c. 1660–1663
Oil on canvas, 98.5 x 117.5 cm.
Mauritshuis, The Hague


  1. Nicola Costaras, "A Study of the Materials and Techniques of Johannes Vermeer," in Vermeer Studies, eds. Ivan Gaskell and Michiel Jonker, National Gallery of Art Washington D.C., New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1998, 159.

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