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Vermeer's Palette: Smalt


Origin, History and Characteristics

(Smalte, smaltino, starch blue, cobalt glass)

Smalt is ground blue cobalt-containing glass. It was first described by Borghini in 1584. Cobalt oxide obtained was melted together with quartz and potash or added to molten glass. When poured into cold water, the blue melt disintegrated into particles which were then grounded. Several grades of smalt were made according to cobalt content and grain size. In European painting it was initially used as a substitute for expensive natural ultramarine. Smalt has been historically important as a pigment in painting, pottery, for surface decoration of other types of glass and ceramics, and other media (fig. 1). It is colored to a deep powder blue hue using cobalt ions derived from cobalt oxide. In the sixteenth century, the Erzgebirge mountains were mined for mineral ores of cobalt and antimony that were used to make the blue pigment smalt, a potash glass, as well as yellow pigments based on lead-antimony oxides.

cermaic tile with smaltfig. 1 Ceramic tile painted with smalt pigment

As smalt is a glass, its particles are transparent, and its covering power as a pigment for fine painting is low. Therefore it must be coarsely ground for use as a pigment. When used in oil medium, it has a tendency to settle under the paint film (causing it to yellow in time) and streak down perpendicular surfaces. Smalt was frequently bound with a protein binding medium (usually parchment or animal skin glue) as stated in several contemporary treaties to prevent it from being altered by the yellowing of the oil film. The gelatinous nature of the glue medium keeps the particles suspended until the paint becomes dry. Although smalt is known to fade, the degree to which this occurs can vary even within the same painting.

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.

Smalt was frequently used by painters in the blue skies and distant mountains. It was popular for its low cost and its manufacture became a specialty of the Dutch and Flemish in the seventeenth century. Smalt is a very good dryer and was admixed in small quantities to dry other slower drying pigments..

Smalt in Vermeer's Painting

A Maid Asleep, Johannes Vermeerfig. 2 A Maid Asleep (detail)
Johannes Vermeer
c. 1657
Oil on canvas, 87.6 x 76.5 cm.
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

In several early paintings by Vermeer smalt was found, but mostly as an admixture to other pigments in deep layers. The smalt found in Vermeer's paintings is very coarse grained. There is smalt in the lighter area of the wallsof A Maid Asleep (fig. 2) together with azurite, ocher, brown ocher and naturally the principal component, white-lead and in the underpainting of the blue area of the carpet. An upper area contains instead, azurite and natural ultramarine. Smalt may also be found in The Procuress in both the light white areas and as a component of the green paint with lead-tin yellow.

There is extensive use of smalt in Diana and her Companions in the brown undermodeling where it is bound in a protein medium, it is also in the flesh tones as well as in the thistle, the rock and the dog's white fur.

In a few of his earlier works Vermeer used small quantities of smalt to tone down the white areas of pure white instead of black which produces a sullen matt gray effect. The artist later used natural ultramarine for the same purposes in works such as the Young Woman with a Water Pitcher.

Vermeer seems to have abandoned smalt after the first few early works along with complex mixtures of five or more pigments.

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