Essential Vermeer 3.0
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Vermeer's Palette

The number of pigments available to the seventeenth-century Dutch painter were few indeed when compared to those available to the modern artist. While the current catalogue of one of the most respected color producers (Rembrandt) displays more than a hundred pigments, about only 20 pigments have been detected in Vermeer's oeuvre.This examination of Vermeer's pigments is principally based on Herman Kühn, "A Study of the Pigments and Grounds Used by Jan Vermeer," Reports and Studies in the History of Art (1968): 154–202. Because only a limited number of paint samples were taken, and only from the outer edge of the canvas, the study provides partial knowledge of the pigments Vermeer used and his methods of employing them. Results of other studies conducted recently have been incorporated into this study. Of these few pigments only ten seemed to have been used in a more or less systematic way.

In Vermeer's time, each pigment was different in regards to permanence, workability, drying time, and means of production. Moreover, many pigments were not mutually compatible and had to be used separately or in a particular manner. The following study examines the history and origin of each pigment and how they were employed by Vermeer and his contemporaries.

Vermeer's principal pigments

A significant lacuna in the seventeenth-century painter's palette was the lack of the so-called "strong colors." Only a handful of bright, stable and workable colors existed. Mixing to create new tints did not significantly alleviate the problem. When pigments are physically mixed amongst themselves, the new color is inevitably less brilliant than either one of the original components and, more importantly, in the case of some older pigments, they were not even compatible.

A Painter in his Studio (detail), Anonomous pupil of Rembrandt van Rijn
A Painter in his Studio (detail)
Anonymous pupil of Rembrandt van Rijn
Rembrandt van Rijn
Oil on panel, 64.5x 53 cm.
Kremer Collection
The Art of Painting (detail), Johannes VermeerThe Art of Painting (detail)
Johannes Vermeer
c. 1662–1668
Oil on canvas, 120 x 100 cm.
Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

A detail of Vermeer's Art of Painting which represents an idealized painter at work portraying the muse of the arts, Clio.

One thorn in the side of the seventeenth-century painter was the chronic shortage of strong, opaque yellows and reds which could be to model form with a certain ease. The exceptionally brilliant red and yellow cadmiums, now obligatory paints in any contemporary painter's studio, had not been commercialized until the 1840s. For centuries the only strong opaque red adapted for modeling was vermilion. Vermilion is a very opaque pigment with excellent handling properties but nonetheless, it possesses a fiery, orange undertone and must be glazed to protect it from degrading. Strong yellows, in particular, were scarce and the only brilliant green was the problematic verdigris. In order to overcome the lack of suitable purple pigments and to economize, artists had learned to first model form in tones of ultramarine and white and then glaze over the dried layer of red madder obtaining a lively purple tint.

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.

Bolstered by the author's qualifications as a professional painter and a Vermeer connoisseur, every facet of 17th-century and Vermeer's painting practices—including canvas preparation, underdrawing, underpainting, glazing, palette, brushes, pigments and composition—is laid out in clear, comprehensible language. Also investigated are a number of key issues related specifically to Vermeer's studio methods, such as the camera obscura, studio organization as well as how he depicted wall-maps, floor tiles, pictures-within-pictures, carpets and other of his most defining motifs. Each of the book's 24 topics is accompanied by abundant color illustrations and diagrams.

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 materials 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, realist painters will find a true treasure trove of technical information that can be adapted to almost any style of figurative painting.

author: Jonathan Janson
date: 2020 (second edition)
pages: 294
illustrations: 200-plus illustrations and diagrams
formats: PDF | ePUB | AZW3

Looking Over Vermeer's Shoulder


  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

Moreover, strong colors were not always readily available on the erratic marketplace and had to be used with utmost economy. For example, natural ultramarine, the most precious of all blues for the artist, had become so expensive that painters usually used it as a glaze over a monochrome underpainting. Vermeer used natural ultramarine in just this way.

Economic considerations played a decisive role of the artist's working procedures. If the complete range of pigments, each already ground in oil, had to be available for use at all times, large amounts of painting would have to be thrown away unused. Metal tubes were employed only in the mid-nineteenth century. Excess paint which had not been used during a single painting session was kept temporarily in pig's bladders or the whole palette could be emerged in water over night to prevent contact with oxygen which induces drying.

It is extremely unlikely that Vermeer had on his palette in any given work session all the pigments that were available to him. Painters were known to use specific palettes set out each day according the passage to be painted. The wooden palette above represents the seven principal pigments which Vermeer commonly employed.

The "working palette" of Vermeer
The "working palette" of Vermeer
  1. lead white
  2. yellow ochre
  3. vermillion
  4. madder lake
  5. green earth
  6. raw umber
  7. ivory or charcoal black

The Materiality of Color

drawn entirely from:
"Mining for Color: New Blues, Yellows, and Translucent Paint"
in Early Science and Medicine (Volume 20: Issue 4-6)
by Barbara H. Berrie
Online Publication Date: 07 Dec 2015 - https://brill.com/view/journals/esm/20/4-6/article-p308_2.xml?lang=en

Written descriptions of artists’ materials and practice give only parts of the picture. Sources may include colors and prices, but are often imprecise in terminology and silent on the manner of use.Inventories of color-sellers stores are helpful in judging the range available at a specific time and place but only seldom identify who used the supplies or how they were employed. Treatises written for painters describe the core palette, and often include some information on how to prepare supports and use pigments, but often they only allude to practice and technique. Trade accounts and bills of lading attest to the worldwide trade in precious materials for art-making, such as colors and resins that were imported from afar, but the local, the quotidian and the secret are more difficult to learn about, though equally important. Although the guild structure would appear to have inhibited artistic exploration through regu­lations and requirements for workshop output, even the strictest rules did not, in the end, inhibit the use of novel materials. Personal style and individuality flourished and paved a path for others to follow and actual practice – demonstrated by close observation and chemical analysis – was diverse and even ­idiosyncratic.The ways paint and color were handled showed even greater variety. Oil painting allowed colors to be mixed on the canvas and blended while wet, so artists could use gentle gradations in tone to create chiaroscuro and the effect of sfumato. Translucent paints could be prepared, and colors adjusted using thin glazes or ‘veils’ of color to build rich tones and subtle shading. In the sixteenth century, artists explored and exploited the full potential for creating color and texture through the use of different pigments and brushwork, employing impasted strokes and scumbles of opaque color in addition to glazes. Even the most adventurous artists were, however, limited by what was available to them. Thus our knowledge of trade in materials, practice and innovation in color-making provides an underlying context for the interpretation of novelty in painting practice.

Almost all of the materials used for painting, whether natural or synthetic, required some kind of processing from the raw state; methods for preparing certain colorants involved many steps, which cumulatively contributed to their cost. The rarity and expense of some meant that the production of certain colors was limited in scale and their use was restricted to special decorative purposes. Some were employed for medicines and luxury items such as perfumes and cosmetics, while others could only be differentiated from painters’ colors based on the scale of production and in particular the purity of the product.

Newly developed means of sourcing minerals provided abundant supplies of certain elements necessary to the color-making process. Mining and the production of particular metals in combination with technological advances in manufacturing opened opportunities to add new colorants and thereby ­improved paint-making. Two pigments, smalt and Naples yellow, coming to painters via the ceramic and glass industries, became established on oil painters’ palettes in the mid-sixteenth century. Smalt is a potassium-containing (potash) glass that is colored deep blue owing to the presence of cobalt. Naples yellow, an oxide of lead and antimony, is a warm, rich, quite stable and rather intense yellow. A very different material, mineral oil (or naphtha) was mined from sources that were found in the sixteenth century.Using it as a diluent allowed artists to spread paint thinly, to use the translucency of oil paints to make gradations in hue to blend thinner glazes of paint, and make clear varnishes. The relationship between availability of new ores and the look of paintings solicits further investigation.

Vermeer's Painting Technique

  • COSTARAS, Nicola. "A Study of the Materials and Techniques of Johannes Vermeer." In Vermeer Studies, edited by Ivan Gaskell and Michiel Jonker, Studies in the History of Art 55, Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts, Symposium Papers XXXIII. Washington: National Gallery of Art and New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998, 145–167.
  • FINK, Daniel A. "Vermeer's Use of the Camera Obscura: A Comparative Study." The Art Bulletin 53 (1971).
  • GIFFORD, M. "Painting Light: Recent Observations on Vermeer's Technique." In Vermeer Studies, edited by Ivan Gaskell and Michiel Jonker. Washington, D.C.: National Gallery of Art and New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1998, 185–199.
  • GROEN, Karin M., Inez D. van der Werf, Klaas Jan van den Berg, and Jaap J. Boon. "Scientific Examination of Vermeer's 'Girl with a Pearl Earring'." In Vermeer Studies, edited by Ivan Gaskell and Michiel Jonker. Washington, D.C.: National Gallery of Art and New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1998, 169–183.
  • HOWARD, Helen, David Peggie and Rachel Billinge, Helen Howard, David Peggie and Rachel Billinge, "Vermeer and Technique." National Gallery website. https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/research/about-research/the-meaning-of-making/vermeer-and-technique
  • WADUM, Jørgen. "Contours of Vermeer." In Vermeer Studies. New Haven and London, 1998, 201–223.
  • WADUM, Jørgen, Rene Hoppenbrouwers, and Luuk Struick van der Loeff. Vermeer illuminated: Conservation, Restoration and Research, a report on the restoration of the "View of Delft" and the "Girl with a Pearl Earring." The Hague: V+K Publishing, Inmerc, 1994. [Also in French as: Vermeer en plein jour: conservation, restauration et recherche]
  • WHEELOCK, Arthur K., Jr. Vermeer and the Art of Painting. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995.
  • Johannes Vermeer. Exh. cat. National Gallery of Art, Washington and Royal Cabinet of Paintings Mauritshuis. Washington and the Hague, 1995.

Manufactures of Historic Pigments

Several companies and organizations specialize in the manufacture and sale of historic paints and pigments, catering to artists, restorers and history enthusiasts. These providers reproduce historic colors and pigments using traditional methods and formulas, or closely imitate them using modern technology. Here are some companies and sources for historic paints and pigments:

  • Blockx | Belgium. Flake White (Lead White), genuine Alizarin Crimson, and genuine Venetian Red from Venice. The Venetian Red is very special.
  • Cornelissen's | UK/WORLD WIDE. L Cornelissen & Son was established in 1885, at a time when artist's were exploring the British Empire. From the beginning they specialised in dispatching art materials world wide, and continue that tradition to this day. They are proud that their store looks like a nineteenth-century apothecary, and they sell more than 2 dozen rare and obsolete pigments including a couple that are impossible to find anywhere else. They sell genuine Ivory Black, Antwerp Blue, Lapis Lazuli, Egyptian Blue Frit, Realgar, Orpiment, Lead-Tin Yellow, Gamboge, Naples Yellow, Malachite, Verdisgris, Smalt, Cadmium Green, Madder Root, Barium Yellow, Vermilion, Azurite, Dragon's Blood, Indigo, Bremen Green, Manganese Blue and much more Info is downloadable in PDF form.

  • Daniel Smith | Established in 1976, this American brand is widely regarded for its extensive range of watercolors, especially the unique and specialized colors that they offer.
  • Kama Pigments | Canada. Kama is a specialist supplier of artist's pigments including historic pigments. Vermillion, Manganese Blue, Alizarin Crimson and PY 100 also called Tartrazine Lake, a very fugitive color that was once used as an Indian Yellow substitute. They also sell Logwood and Brazilwood in their wood stains section.
  • Kremer Pigments | Germany/USA. With a New York store, Kremer is a specialist producer of artist's pigments. It is the only easy to find maker of the genuine Lapis Lazuli made by Kremer to the recipe of Cennini. They supply a wide range of obsolete pigments like Smalt, Azurite, rare French Ochres etc as well as logwood, Dragon's Blood, Bucktorn berries, and other rare organics. Kremer one of the best supply houses to be found anywhere.
  • Natural Pigments | USA./Russia/Lithuania. Based in California with an affiliate company in the Russian Federation and a distribution center in Lithuania, this company has the ability to access the rare pigments gums, oils, resins and other materials used in painting from prehistoric times up to the end of the eighteenth century. They are quite unique in this regard selling every conceivable supply you could need with beautiful Earths that Cennini would have recognized and used. Azurite, Malachite, Lapis Lazuli, Smalt, Realgar, Minium and Orpiment are just a tiny portion of the historic pigments you will find here, as well as the paractical supplies such as mullers, Mortars and Pestles, empty tubes, wood panels and so on. Their website is rather slow to use because it is packed with information, recipes, history, catalogs, books and more.
  • Old Holland | Netherlands. With roots going back to 1664, this Dutch brand is one of the oldest and most respected in the artist paint industry. They are known for their classic oil paints which are still ground in stone rollers. Known for its commitment to traditional techniques and high-quality ingredients, Old Holland's range of classic oil colors includes a genuine lapis lazuli, It lacks only two obsolete pigments that it sells, Cremnitz White (White Lead) and Manganese Blue. Since this pigment went out of production in the 1990's Old Holland is now the only supplier of this beautful transparent cerulean like blue.
  • Michael Harding | Michael Harding's artist oil colors includes a genuine lapis lLazuli oil paint, made from the highest grade pigment sourced from Afghanistan.
  • Rembrandt (Royal Talens) Known for its superior quality, Rembrandt  offers outstanding oil, acrylic and water colours, pastels and more.
  • Schmincke | This German brand, established in 1881, is renowned for its Horadam line of watercolors. Their commitment to using the best pigments and binders has made them a favorite among professional artists.
  • Sennelier | France. This list of pigment colors is like stepping back in time as is their entire art materials ethos. The standard range of pigments sold under the Sennelier brand are available worldwide but a visit to their website reveals a far more extensive range of pigments available directly from their Paris store. They have not at the time of publishing finished the English version of their site but it is coming soon. If you can manage to find your way through the French you will discover some 2 dozen historic pigments in the section 'pigments rares CDQV'. Colors include Dragon's Blood, Lead-Tin Yellow, Vermilion, Verdisgris, Copper Resinate, Sepia, Smalt, Azurite and Malachite. There are also some interesting plant based pigments. The White Lead is available in both the modern version and the older denser type.
  • Sinopia Pigments | USA. Californian based Sinopia has one of the largest ranges of historic pigments anywhere. From Azurite to Vermilion and everything in between, including the Fra Angelico version of genuine Ultramarine made according to a Renaissance recipe.
  • Williamsburg Handmade Oils | While primarily known for their oil paints, they incorporate several historical pigments in their range.
  • Winsor & Newton | UK. Founded in 1832 in London, this company is renowned for its artists' quality paints, especially watercolors. Their range is much smaller than it used to be and now there are only 3 obsolete pigments in the range but 2 of them are very special, genuine Carmine which is simply beautiful, although it fades so fast it should not be used for permanent work, Rose Madder Genuine which is ASTM l l, and Alizarin Crimson Genuine which is ASTM l l l.
  • Zecchi | Italy. Based in Florence Zecchi is famous for their historic pigments for Conservation and fine artists. Egg Tempera is their specialty. They supply a large range of natural plant derived and mineral colors. Their color list reads like Cennini's color list. Fustic, Hematite, Arzica, Verzino, Dragons Blood, Red Lake, Verdigris, Vermilion, Indigo, Cochineal, Sepia, Smalt are a small sampling of the pigments here


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If you discover a or anything else that isn't working as it should be, I'd love to hear it! Please write me at: jonathanjanson@essentialvermeer.com