Selected Palettes: A White-Washed Wall

Working over a (dry) monochrome underpainting, seventeenth-century painters completed their compositions one piece at a time fixing both the forms and the general lighting scheme of the picture. Each day the artist set out a specific palette according to the passage he wished to execute. In a seventeenth-century manuscript the following exchange regarding the day's palette is reported by two apprentices:

Silvio: "Tell me, if you will, whether you set the masters' palette?"
F.: "Surely (...) it suffices for him to tell me what he intends to paint for then I know which colors I must place on the palette."
Allegory of Painting, Gerrit van Honthorst
Allegory of Painting,
Gerrit van Honthorst
Oil on canvas, 138 x 113 cm.
Crocker Art Museum, Sacramento, CA

The great part of Renaissance and Baroque representations of artists' palettes show very small palettes set out with a surprisingly few pigments in a very orderly fashion. Painting procedures, in effect, had become so highly organized by the seventeenth century that there existed a number of fixed recipes for almost every element that might be represented and for a variety of flesh tones. Most of the recipes were passed from one artist's studio to another and every innovation rapidly became common knowledge throughout Europe. Vermeer, no doubt, followed the same proceedures of his collegues and set out each morning a selected palette according to the passage that he would work on during the day. Selected palettes were the norm in seventeenth-century painting when complicated compositions were worked up in a piecemeal fashion, area by area. Painters laid on their palettes only those pigments which were strictly necessary for the day’s work in order to avoid waste of grinding time and raw materials. One of these selected palettes is described below.

Although Gerrit van Honthorst's Allegory of Painting (left) may not be particularly inspiring, it is nonetheless a solid piece of seventeenth-century painterly skill, and it clearly illustrates how painters managed their palette.

Detail of the palette of Gerrit Honthorst width=
Detail of the palette in Gerrit Honthorst's
Allegory of Paintingv (see image above)

This work shwos a "selected" palette on which are disposed two rows of perfectly ordered paints blobs (see detail left). The top row is composed of all the pigments conventionally used for mixing flesh tones. The bottom row presents the ready-to-use basic mixtures: the lights, darks and a vareity of the all-importnat half tones. More sepcifically, top row of pigments probably are (left to right): lead white, yellow ochre, vermilion, red ochre, red madder, raw umber, black and a last unidentified pigment.

The habit of representing the flesh paeltte in paintings of artists at work was dictated by the fact that from beginning of European tradition of easel painting, the depiction of human flesh was given great importance and it still constitutes one of the most telling technical challenges until this day. Willem Beur, artist and art writer of Vermeer’s time, wrote:

"Just as we humans consider ourselves the foremost amongst animals; so too, are we the foremost subject of the art of paintings, and it is in painting human flesh that its highest achievements are to be seen, whenever a painter succeeds in rendering the diversity of colors and strong hues found in human flesh and particularly in the faces, adequately depicting the intricacy of the diversity of people or their different emotions."

Gerrit van Honthorst, like a number of seventeenth-century Dutch painters, knew his trade and worked well in different genres. He was equally comfortable in history painting, raucous bordello scenes and refined portraiture alike. Although sought-after in his own age, few average museum-goers are familiar with his work even though he was far more influential in his age than Vermeer. He was also far richer. In 1654, he sold his house in The Hague for the astronomical sum of 14,000 guilders (an average Dutch house might have gone for 1,000 or less) and lent Elizebeth, Princess of Hohenzollern no less than 35,000.

A White-Washed Wall

Perhaps of all the various motifs the repeatedly recurr in Vermeer's interiors, the simple white-washed wall is that which is most taken for granted. Instead, these humble walls present one of the most challenging pictorial problems in artist's oeuvre. In fact, when similar representations of walls painted by his contemporaries are compared to those of Vermeer, one cannot help but notice that they are composed with various tones of gray paint. Instead, in Vermeer's renderings, the variety of tones and color, and even the texture of the paint itself, appear inseparable from the wall. Even experienced painters find it difficult to distinguish paint from the illusion of substance, texture and the play of light as it rakes across their uneven surfaces.

The Milkmaid, Johannes Vermeer
The Milkmaid (detail)
Johannes Vermeer
c. 1658–1661
Oil on canvas, 45.5 x 41 cm.
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

One of the most successful examples of the white-washed wall motif is to be found in the artist's early Milkmaid. Surprisingly, the palette Vermeer employed for this wall is simple as it is effective: white lead, umber and charcoal black. Although the same pigments for painting white objects i were widely employed by Dutch painters none but Vermeer was able to use it so effectively.

Although it is very difficult to understand the sequence in which the various areas of a this picture was be executed, it seems likely that Vermeer depcited the background wall at the very early stages of the work process. For more than that of any other compositional element, it is the character of the wall which determines the amount, direction and quality of light which will be represented. Once the depcition of the wall met the artist's expectations, the color and lighting of each object could susequently be accurately gauged against its hues and tones. In an analogous manner, landscape painters often depict the sky first since it is obvious that the sky influences the chiaroscural values, color and the pervading atmosphere of the landscape rahter than vice versa.

A Day's Work

It is very likely that Vermeer began this painting session by placing on his palette a rather large quantity of lead white and two smaller lumps of raw umber, a dull but enormously useful brown earth, and charcoal black. The most strongly illuminated area of the wallto the right of the figure was laid in carefully with a thick layer, called impasto, of pure or nearly pure white lead. This layer covered the light gray ground of the underpainting. A more or less uniform mixture of umber and black lightened with white lead was then laid in the area to the left of the standing milkmaid. In the deeper shadows, umber prevails over black since too much black tends to produce a sullen gray without depth and creates the unnatural effect akin to a black and white photograph. Umber lends the shadow mixture a delicate olive green tone which would later vibrate against the warm tones of the red earthenware and the yellow bodice worn by the maid.

During a working day, the paints which Vermeer used remained wet alowwing him to model form by blending adjacent tones of paint (wet-in-wet technique) with relative ease. After having laid in the two principal tones, the darker paint was carefully worked into the lighter one. Vermeer most likely used a medium-sized bristle brush for this purpose. The hard bristles leave evident trace of their movement and lend an air of vibrancy to the painter surface which parallels the effect of raking light on an uneven wall. If the result was not entirely satisfying, Vermeer probably cleaned the brush and carefully worked in the lighter paint into the darker paint until the chiarosscural transition between the two masses of laight and dark was gradual enough. Although it may not seem logical, the working of dark paint into the light paint does not create the same effect as working the light paint into the dark paint. A subtly different optical effect is achieved by each procedure. When the lighter area is worked into the darker area, a cool gray tints is produced.

Care was taken not to overwork the paint since excessive blending produces a mechanical smoothness inconsonant with the vibrancy and sparkle of the uneven wall. Once the fundamental masses of light were established and the transition of dark to light was achieved to the artist's satisfaction, the darker passages of the shadow cast by the metal container and the slightly lighter left hand wall below the window were elaborated while the paint was still wet or slightly tacky. Vermeer took care to bring up the wet paint gently near the contours of the still life and the figure as to avoid overlapping the underpainting. In these reserves, one can observe the ground which shows through along the contour of parts of the still life. This lighter area of paint suggest a sort of halo of light reflected from the objects it encounters.

Once the initial layer of paint was completely dry (in a later painting session), Vermeer most likely accentuated the dark vertical sliver of shadow to the immediate left of the hanging whicker basket, the stains and cracks of the wall under the window and the nail and nail holes on the right-hand illuminated passage with a mixture of black and a little umber.

The shadowed passages seemed to have been painted less densely that the lighter parts to the right of the picture. Painters understood that shadows were more effective when they were painted with thin transparent layers of paint.