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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 of 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.

Rembrandt van Rijn, Self Portrait as Saint Paulfig. 1 Self-Portrait as the Apostle Paul
Rembrandt van Rijn
Oil on canvas, 91 x 77 cm.
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Because of the manganese content it is an excellent dryer and 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.Thompson, Daniel V. The Materials and Techniques of Medieval Painting, (Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 1956) 88–89.

"Raw umber’s greatest association in the use of shadows is found in the baroque chiaroscuro style of painting. Chiaroscuro, Italian for 'light-dark,' is a visual technique that champions extreme contrasts in light and darkness to create a dramatic effect; usually with a bright light shining on the figure and a dark background from which the figures emerge. Artists using this technique were Caravaggio Supper at Emmaus, 1601), Rembrandt (Self-portrait as the Apostle Paul, 1661; fig. 1) and Vermeer (The Milkmaid, 1650).

"Raw umber became a more attractive alternative to black in the use of shadows which we can see in Vermeer’s The Milkmaid where the semi-transparent brown is seen applied to the background’s wall to provide a warmer shadow than that achieved using black painting alone.

"During the 19th century raw umber’s popularity decreased when the Impressionist developed approaches to the painting of shadows that relied on neither black nor umber. The Impressionists, such as Monet, used elements from the relatively new theory of complimentary colours. For example, violet to create shadows; violet being the complementary of yellow, the colour of sunlight. Other shadows and browns were made from mixtures of red, yellow, green, blue in combination with new synthetic pigments such as cobalt blue and emerald green. Even in later years such is the impact that Salvador Dali discusses his aversion to raw umber in his book 50 Secrets of Magic Craftsmanship (1948).

"Despite these historic fluctuations in popularity for raw umber this versatile colour continues to be a go-to in many painters’ palettes; for under-painting, monochromatic works, and the rendering of shadows from which its name derives.

"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."Color story: Raw Umber, Windsor & Newton, https://www.winsornewton.com/row/articles/colours/spotlight-on-raw-umber/

Looking Over Vermeer's Shoulder

Enhanced by the author's dual expertise as both a seasoned painter and a renowned authority on Vermeer, Looking Over Vermeer's Shoulder offers an in-depth exploration of the artistic techniques and practices that elevated Vermeer to legendary status in the art world. The book meticulously delves into every aspect of 17th-century painting, from the initial canvas preparation to the details of underdrawing, underpainting, finishing touches, and glazing, as well as nuances in palette, brushwork, pigments, and compositional strategy. All of these facets are articulated in an accessible and lucid manner.

Furthermore, the book examines Vermeer's unique approach to various artistic elements and studio practices. These include his innovative use of the camera obscura, the intricacies of his studio setup, and his representation of his favorite motifs subjects, such as wall maps, floor tiles, and "pictures within pictures."

By observing closely 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 masterworks, which reveal a seamless unity of craft and poetry.

While the book is not structured as a step-by-step instructional guide, it serves as an invaluable resource for realist painters seeking to enhance their own craft. The technical insights offered are highly adaptable, offering a wealth of knowledge that can be applied to a broad range of figurative painting styles.


author: Jonathan Janson
date: 2020 (second edition)
pages: 294
illustrations: 200-plus illustrations and diagrams
formats: PDF


  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

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 many 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 naturaistic 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


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