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Vermeer's Palette: Lead White

white Lead pigment

Origin, History and Characteristics

(flake white, cremnitz white, kerms white, Berlin white, silver white, slate white)

Prepared artificially since the earliest historical times and used until the nineteenth century, this warm white is very opaque, has outstanding brushing qualities and mixes well with every color on the artist's palette. As the name lead white suggests, it is a by-product of lead, and whatever the form of manufacture used, the purity of the color depends on the purity of the lead. Purifying processes greatly increase the cost of the product. White lead has always been one of the most important pigments in many painting techniques.

Its importance has been immeasurable, and is the only material that has been consistently used from ancient times until the present. The monopoly in lead white production was not broken until the nineteenth century, when zinc oxide became a competitor, and in the twentieth century, it has been almost completely replaced by titanium dioxide, which is superior to lead in some properties, and unlike zinc oxide, has the strong covering ability that lead white possesses. Since white in painting is the equivalent of light in nature, it has been essential to every aspect of painting: from flesh to skies, and so on.

In the Dutch and Old German process strips of lead rolled up into spirals were placed in closed earthenware jars containing acetic acid, and then pots were hen buried under tanner's bark or dung; the heat evolved by fermentation aids in the formation of white lead through an increase of carbonic acid. Very soon a thin coat of white coating forms. The white lead is then washed of and cleaned. White lead is extremely poisonous and must be handled with care.

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

White Lead in Vermeer's Painting

White has always played an important part in the art and craft of painting. The great part of pigments on a progressive scale of gray would fall into the medium dark to dark category. Only lead-tin yellow and lead-tin yellow are by themselves light pigments. In order to portray the light areas which are for indispensable to convey the sense of natural illumination, white must be added to heighten most of the darker pigments.

Vermeer, as all other painters of the time, used it extensively to lighten other colors and as the principal component used to depict white objects, such as ceramic jugs, white cloth (fig. 1) and the characteristic white-washed walls (fig. 2) seen in so many of his paintings.

A grainy texture can be seen on the surface of many of the lightest areas are caused by aggregates of white-lead particles. These lumpy aggregates that can "found in Vermeer's paintings have also been noted in several Frans Hal's paintings and are typical for the stack process of white lead production for which Holland was famous in the seventeenth century."1

Lady Writing a Letter with her Maid (detail), Johannes Vermeerfig. 1 Lady Writing a Letter with her Maid (detail)
Johannes Vermeer
c. 1670–1671
Oil on canvas, 71.1 x 58.4 cm.
National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin

Lead-white was used to render the illuminated folds of the lady's sleeve and admixed with brown and black pigments to produced the sleeve's shadows and the light gray background wall.
Woman in Blue Reading a Letter (detail), Johannes Vermeerfig. 2 Woman in Blue Reading a Letter (detail)
Johannes Vermeer
Oil on canvas, 46.5 x 39 cm. (18 1/4 x 15 3/8 in.)
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam


  1. Nicola Costaras, "A Study of the Materials and Techniques of Johannes Vermeer," in Vermeer Studies, edited by Ivan Gaskell, 1998, 160.

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