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Vermeer's Palette: Umber

raw umber

Origin, History and Characteristics

(Brauner Ocker, terre d'ombre naturelle, terre d'ombre)

An ochre containing manganese oxide and iron hydroxide. Colored earth is mined, ground and washed, leaving a mixture of minerals - essentially rust-stained clay. Burnt umber is produced by heating umber. The name comes from terra di ombra, or earth of Umbria, the Italian name of the pigment. Umbria is a mountainous region in central Italy where the pigment was originally extracted. The word also may be related to the Latin word Umbra and the old French word ombre, meaning shade or shadow.

Because of the manganese content it is an excellent dryer. It can be used in all techniques. The best variety is sold under the name of Cyprus umber, which comes chiefly from the Harz mountains. Painter have used umber to paint the shadows of flesh tones replacing green earth widely used in the medieval times. Umbers with greenish tinge are highly valued by artists. Rembrandt and Rubens used umber extensively in their underpaintings. The umbers were not widely used in Europe before the end of the fifteenth century; The Renaissance painter and writer Giorgio Vasari (1511–1574) described them as being rather new in his time.1

The artist has long appreciated the variety of cool and warm hues, which serve as a valuable shading tool in any sort of painting technique. When umber is used transparently or semi-transparently on a light or medium toned ground it produces a warm brown but not "hot" ground. However, when it is mixed with white in varying quantities, a range of very greenish and silvery grays are produced.

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.

Raw Umber in Vermeer's Painting

Vermeer used umber, at times mixed with black, in the underpainting stage. Umber was also found in a number of Vermeer's grounds mixed with white to create a warm light gray.

Vermeer used umber mixed with black and a small quantity of lead white in the deeper shadows of the white-washed walls which appear in may of his interiors. This mixture was widely used among genre painters of the time. The presence of umber prevents the black from producing a sullen effect and lends an air of naturalness and transparency to those areas. The Milkmaid (fig. 1), which contains one of Vermeer's most convincingly natural renditions of the white-washed walls, this kind of mixture was employed.

The Milkmaid (detial), Johannes Vermeerfig. 1 The Milkmaid
(detail showing the presence of raw umber pigment in the shadowed wall behind the maid's hand)
Johannes Vermeer
c. 1658–1661
Oil on canvas, 45.5 x 41 cm.
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

† FOOTNOTES †

  1. Daniel V. Thompson, The Materials and Techniques of Medieval Painting, Mineola, NY Dover Publications, 1956, 88–89.

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