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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.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

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.2 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.3 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.4 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.5 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.6 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.77 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.8

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.9 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.

Primary Sources

  • ANGEL, Philips, Lof der Schilder-konst (Leiden) 1642. [facsimile ed., Utrecht, 1969)
  • BERGER, Ernst, Quellen fur Maltechnik wahrend der Renaissance und deren Folgezeit, Munich, 1901, reprint 1973. Contains de Mayerne MS, 99–364.
  • CENNINO d'Andrea, Cennini, Il Libro dell Arte, C. 1400, tr. Daniel V. Thompson, Jr., The Craftsman's Handbook; 'II Libro dell 'Arte', (New York:Dover) 1933, 1960.
  • HOOGSTRATEN, Samuel van (1627–1678), Inleyding tot de hooge Schoole der Schilderkonst… (Introduction to the higher education of the art of painting) Rotterdam, 1678.
  • LAIRESSE, Gérard de, Het Groot Schilderboek, 2 vols., Amsterdam 1707; English translation 1738.
  • MAYERNE T.T. de, Pictoria, Sculptoria et quae subalternum Artium, 1620, ed.
  • GRAAF VAN DE, J. A. Het De Mayerne Manuscript als Bron Voor de Schildertechnick van de Barok, Mijdrecht, 1958.
  • MERRIFIELD, M.P., Medieval and Renaissance Treatises on the Arts of Painting, Original Texts with English Translations, 2 vols. Bound as one (Mineola, NY:Dover) 1849, 1967, 1999.
  • VAN MANDER, Karel, Het Schilder-Boeck, Haarlem, 1604; 2nd ed. Amsterdam 1618.[reprint with introduction and translation, 6 vols., Hessel Miedema, ed., Doornspijk, 1994–999]
  • VASARI, Oiorgio, Vasari on Technique, tr. L. Maclehose, ed. Prof. G. Baldwin-Brown (New York:Dover) 1907, 1960.
  • VELIZ, Zahira, Artists' Techniques in Golden Age Spain…Six treatises in translation, Cambridge, 1986.

Secondary Sources

  • BOK, Martin Jan, "The Artist's Working Method," in Jan Steen, Painter and Storyteller [exh. Cat., National Gallery of Art and Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam] (Washington and Amsterdam, 1996) 86–87.
  • BOERSMA, Annetje, "Dou's Painting Technique: An Examination of Two Paintings," Gerrit Dou, Master Painter in the Age of Rembrandt, Arthur K. Wheelock, Jr., ed., exhibition catalogue, National Gallery of Art, Washington (New Haven:Yale University Press) 2000, pp. 54–63.
  • BOMFORD David, Christopher Brown and Ashok Roy, Art in the Making:Rembrandt (London:National Gallery) 1 988.[Glossary pp. 144–147; Bibliographical Appendix on Training of Artists and Practice of Painting, pp. 148–149; Select Bibliography, 150–153; Technical Literature, pp. 154–155.
  • BRUSATI, Celeste, Artifice and illusion: The Art and Writing of Samuel van Hoogstraten (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press) 1995.
  • EASTLAKE, C. L., Methods and Materials of Painting of the Great Schools and Masters, 2 vols., London 1847, reprint, New York, 1960
  • FELLER, Robert L. (vol.1), Ashok Roy, (vol.2), and Elizabeth West Fitzhugh (vol. 3), eds., Artists' Pigments: A Handbook of their History and Characteristics, 3 vols. (vol.1, Cambridge and Washington:Cambridge University Press and National Gallery of Art) 1986; (vol.2, Washington and New York:National Gallery of Art and Oxford University Press) 1993; (vol.3, Washington and New York:National Gallery of Art and Oxford University Press) 1997.
  • GETTENS, Rutherford J. and George L. Stout, Painting Materials: A Short Encyclopaedia (New York:Dover) 1942, 1966
  • GROEN, Karen and Ella Hendriks, "Frans Hals: Technical Examination," in S. Slive, ed. Frans Hals, [exh. cat., National Gallery of Art, Royal Academy, Frans Halsmuseum,] (Washington, London and Haarlem, 1989–1990)109–127.
  • HARLEY, Rosamund, Artists' Pigments c. 1600–1835: a study in English documentary sources, 2nd ed., (London:Bufferworth Scientific) 1982.
  • KIRBY, Jo, "The Painter's Trade in the Seventeenth Century: Theory and Practice," 5–49, National Gallery Technical Bulletin, vol 20, 1999, National Gallery Publications, London, Yale University Press.
  • KOESTER, Olaf, Illusions: Gijsbrechts, Royal Master of Deception, with contributions by Celeste Brusati, Jørgen Hein, Gunter Herzog, Ekkehard Mai, Mette Bjarnhof, and Lone Bogh, exhibition catalogue (Copenhagen:Statens Museum for Kunst) 1999. -see especially Mette Bjamhof and Lone Bogh, "Restoration History and Study of Painting Technique, pp. 287–305.
  • SCHENDEL, A.F.E. van, "Manufacture of vermilion in 17th century Amsterdam: the Pekstok papers," Studies in Conservation, 17, 1972, 70-82. [also contains recipes for Spanish green (verdigris) and schuytgeel (a yellow lake pigment.) [Peckstock Papers, Municipal Archives, Amsterdam, No. N-09-23]
  • TALLEY, Mansfield Kirby, Portrait Painting in England: studies in the technical literature before 1700, published privately by the Paul Mellon Centre, London 1981. [discussion of de Mayerne MS in chapter 6]
  • VAN HOUT, Nico, "Meaning and Development of the Ground-layer in Seventeenth Century Painting," Looking Through Paintings, the Study of Painting Techniques and Materials in Support of Art Historical Research, Erma Hermens, ed., (Leiden:deProm and Archetype) 1998, 199–225.
  • WALLERT, Arie, ed., Still Lifts: Techniques and Style: An Examination of paintings from the Rjjksmuseum, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam (Zwolle:Waanders Publishers) 1999.
  • WETERING, Ernst van de. Rembrandt: the Painter at Work. Berkeley: University of California Press. 2004.
  • WHITE, Raymond and Jo Kirby, "Rembrandt and his Circle: Seventeenth-Century Dutch Paint Media Re-Examined," National Gallery Technical Bulletin, vol.15 (London:National Gallery Publications) 1994, 64–78.

Vermeer's Painting Technique

Online Resources

Manufactures of Historic Pigments

This list is drawn entirely from Tony Johansen's excellent PaintMaking.com

  • 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.
  • Fragonard — France. Genuine Chrome Green is on their list of colors although I am not certain why anyone would want to use it for anything other than consevation.
  • 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.
  • Lapis Lazuli — Chile. Website of the mining company extracting the Lapis Lazuli from 14,000 feet up in the Andes and then making the real natural Ultramarine pigment by a water extraction process and selling at an affordable price direct to the artist. South American Lapis is available in various micron size pigment particles.
  • 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. Has 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.
  • 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.
  • South London Art Supplies — UK. Sells a presentation box of historic minerals not ground such as Lapis Lazuli, Red Jasper, Azurite, Malachite, Chrysocolla, Cinnabar, Fuschite and Sodalite. In addition a wde range of unique Earth colors hand dug from all over Europe and Asia. Several of these are also sold as solid lumps for using directly on prepared paper for drawing.
  • Winsor and Newton — UK. 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.


  1. This examination of Vermeer's pigments is based principally based on Herman Kühn's "A Study of the Pigments and Grounds Used by Jan Vermeer." (Hermann Kühn, "A Study of the Pigments and Grounds Used by Jans Vermeer," Reports and Studies in the History of Art, 1968, 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.
  2. Bomford et al., Art in the Making (London, 2006); Jo Kirby, “The Price of Quality: Factors Influencing the Cost of Pigments During the Renaissance,” in Revaluing Renaissance Art, eds. Gabriele Neher and Rupert Shepherd(Aldershot, 2000), 2–40; Michelle O’Malley, Painting under Pressure: Fame, Reputation and Demand in Renaissance Florence (New Haven, 2012).
  3.  Louisa C. Matthew, “‘Vendecolori a Venezia’: The Reconstruction of a Profession,” The Burlington Magazine, 144 (2002), 680–6; Julia DeLancey, “Dragonsblood and Ultramarine: the Apothecary and Artists’ Pigments in Renaissance Florence,” in The Art Market in Italy (15th–17th Centuries), eds. Louisa C. Matthew and Sara F. Matthews-Grieco (Modena, 2003), 141–50; Roland Krischel, “Zur Geschichte des venezianischen Pigmenthandels. Das Sortiment des Jacobus de Benedictis à Coloribus,” Wallraf-Richartz-Jahrbuch, 63 (2002), 93–158; Paolo Bensi, “Gli arnesi dell’arte. I Gesuati di San Giusto alle mura e la pittura del Rinascimento a Firenze,” Studi di Storia delle arti, 3 (1980), 33–47.
  4. Trade in Artists’ Materials. Markets and Commerce in Europe to 1700, eds. Jo Kirby, Susie Nash and Joanna Cannon (London, 2010).
  5.  For examples of the rules imposed by artists’ guilds on use of materials see Rachel Billinge et al., “Methods and Materials of Northern European Painting in the National Gallery, 1400–1550,” National Gallery Technical Bulletin,18 (1997), 6–55; Melissa R. Katz, “Archi­tec­tural Polychromy and the Painters’ Trade in Medieval Spain,” Gesta, 41 (2002), 3–13; Jo Kirby, David Saunders and Marika Spring. “Proscribed Pigments in Northern European Renaissance Paintings and the Case of Paris Red,” Studies in Conservation, 51 (2006), 236–43.
  6. Marika Spring, Rachel Grout and Raymond White, “‘Black Earths’: A Study of Unusual Black and Dark Grey Pigments Used by Artists in the Sixteenth Century,” National Gallery Technical Bulletin, 24 (2003), 96–114; Barbara H. Berrie, “Rethinking the History of Artists’ Pigments through Chemical Analysis,” Annual Review of Analytical Chemistry, 5 (2012), 441–59.
  7.  Jill Dunkerton, Susan Foister and Nicholas Penny, Dürer to Veronese: Sixteenth-Century Painting in the National Gallery (New Haven, 1999); Jill Dunkerton et al., Giotto to Dürer: Early Renaissance Painting in the National Gallery (New Haven, 1994); Arie Wallert and Carlo van Oosterhout, From Tempera to Oil Paint: Changes in Venetian Painting 1460–1560 (Amsterdam, 1998).
  8. The considerable overlap of painting and make-up in terms of color and material is discussed Romana Sammern, who points out the common sources for information on material aspects of maquillage.
  9. Luciano Novelli and Mattia Sella, Petrolio: una storia antica (Milan, 2009).

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