Looking for a painting by Vermeer? Find it with QUICK SEARCH!

Vermeer's Palette: Lead White

white Lead pigment

Origin, History and Characteristics

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

Related topics Vermeer's working methods

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

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

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."Nicola Costaras, "A Study of the Materials and Techniques of Johannes Vermeer," in Vermeer Studies, ed. Ivan Gaskell (1998), 160.

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


EV 4.0 Newsletter ✉

Latest Article

Looking Over Vermeer’s Shoulder

The complete book on Vermeer’s materials, artistry and painting techniques

Jonathan Janson

(founder of Essential Vermeer.com)