The number of pigments available to the 17th-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, less than 20 pigments have been detected in Vermeer's oeuvre.1 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
The most significant lacuna in the 17th-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 initial components and, more importantly, in the case of some older pigments, they were not even compatible.
One thorn in the side of the 17th-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 ning a lively purple tint.
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-19th 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 very 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 fro painting flesh; 1. white lead, 2. yellow ochre, 3. vermillion, 4. red madder, 5, green earth, 6. raw umber and 7. ivory black.
- The following examination of Vermeer's pigments is based principally based on Herman Kuhn's "A Study of the Pigments and Grounds Used by Jan Vermeer." (Hermann Kuhn, "A Study of the Pigments and Grounds Used by Jans Vermeer," Reports and Studies in the History of Art, 1968, pp. 154-202.) Due to the discreet number of paint samples taken, together with the fact that they were taken only from the outer edge of the canvas, the study, while of extreme value, furnishes partial knowledge of the which pigments and how he the artist employed them. Results of other studies conducted in recent years have been integrated in this study.
How to Paint Your Own Vermeer: Materials & Methods of a Seventeenth-Century Master
by Jonathan Janson
about the book
How to Paint Your Own Vermeer is a straightforward, practical guide on how to reproduce Vermeer's day-to-day painting procedures for today's discerning artist.