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"Inventing," or Drawing

"Inventing" or "invenzione" in the context of Renaissance and Baroque art refers to the imaginative and creative aspect of constructing a composition.The concept of "invenzione" was formalized and taught in art academies. Alongside other principles like "disegno" (drawing/design) and "colorito" (coloring), "invenzione" was a key component of art theory and education. In is the process by which an artist creates a novel scene, arrangement, or narrative in their artwork. Inventing was valued because it showcased the artist's ability to innovate and think creatively. An artist was not just a skilled craftsman but also an imaginative creator. Thus, ability to produce a novel and compelling narrative or arrangement set apart great artists from their peers. While "invenzione" concerned the conceptual and imaginative aspect, "disegno" referred to the design or the drawing aspect. Disegno encompassed the technical skills required to render the composition on canvas or any other medium. It is the act of taking the "invenzione" and giving it form.

Inventing took the material form of a sketch or drawing in thin lines that fixed the most significant contours of the subjects and served as a guide to subsequent stages of the work. Chalk, charcoal, tempera and oil paints of various tones were employed. Charcoal, a common choice for these sketches, could be easily corrected by smudging or brushing it off. To prevent this unintended smudging during painting, artists fixed the charcoal to the canvas. Alternatively, some artists opted for ink, thin oil paint, or tempera for a more permanent and precise line. On colored canvases, especially darker ones, white chalk was sometimes the material of choice for preliminary drawings.

Since the preliminary drawing was inevitably covered by successive layers of opaque paint, it leaves little material evidence, making our understanding of Vermeer's drawing procedure largely speculative. Although Samuel van Hoogstraten, a painter and art theorist of the time, stressed that this initial drawing should be kept loose, it is doubtful that Vermeer followed his advice.

Correggiofig. 1 Allegory of Virtue (detail)
Tempera on canvas, 149.5 x 85.5 cm.
Doria Pamphilj Gallery, Rome

An example of underdrawing, done in thin brown paint, can be observed in the detail to the left of an unfinished painting by Correggio (fig. 1).

"In a painter's studio, the primed canvas would probably first receive an underdrawing, during which the planned image was more or less precisely indicated. It could be done in black chalk on a light toned ground, but white chalk would work better on most colored (either red or gray) grounds. Underdrawing on a colored ground was often done with a light medium, such as a thin, almost ink-like lead white paint, or a thin suspension of chalk in water. Academic tradition prescribed that the esquisse or ébauche should be done with white chalk, which could be wiped off with a damp rag or sponge to facilitate corrections. An additional advantage of chalk is that its refractive indices are so close to that of the binding medium, that once it is in contact with the oil, it can no longer be seen."Arie Wallert and Willem de Ridder, "Materials and methods of Sweerts's Paintings," in Michael Sweerts: 1618–1664 (Zwolle: 2003), 40. Such a drawing can be observed on the artist's canvas (fig. 2) in Vermeer's Art of Painting.

Sir Théodore Turquet de Mayerne (1573–1655) was a Swiss-born physician who spent much of his professional life in England and France. He is best known for his manuscript, often referred to as the De Mayerne Manuscript, which housed in the British Library, is a compilation of notes, recipes, and observations related to art and artists' materials.

De Mayerne's interest in art materials was likely influenced by his interactions with artists of his time. As a physician, his interest particularly lay in the chemistry of pigments and binders. His manuscript contains information on topics ranging from the preparation of pigments and oils to the conservation of artworks.

For initial sketches, artists might use crayons made from materials like chalk, yellow ocher, or charcoal, given their erasability. Once satisfied with the sketch, artists could outline it using black or lac (a red lake) mixed with oil, or even ink. Some favored a brush with oil-based black, adding a touch of verdigris for quicker drying. Another approach involved standard writing ink, but with added ox gall from terrestrial animals or even fish like pike, considered a superior method.

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

Few traces of Vermeer's initial drawing have survived. In the Woman Holding a Balance, there is sufficient evidence to believe that the artist first "applied delicate lines with deliberation. A photomicrograph of the Woman Holding a Balance shows the contours of the figure's forearm echoing a fine brown line of the sketch. Some artists used the sketch as a starting point, freely modifying the forms in the final image. However, when Vermeer's intended lines are observed, it was clear that his final paint layers closely conformed to the sketch."Melanie Gifford, "Painting Light: Recent Observations of Vermeer's Painting Technique," in Vermeer Studies, eds. Ivan Gaskell and Michiel Jonker (Washington D.C., National Gallery of Art, (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1998), 187.

The Art of Painting, Johannes Vermeerfig. 2 The Art of Painting (detail)
Johannes Vermeer
c. 1662–1668
Oil on canvas, 120 x 100 cm.
Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

It was once believed that Vermeer showcased some of his own drawing methods in The Art of Painting. On the evenly toned canvas, the contours of the model's billowing costume were sketched with thin strokes of white paint or chalk, and the artist began painting the laurel leaves in various shades of blue.

However, there exist many discrepancies between real working habits seen in representations of painters' studios of seventeenth century and those illustrated in The Art of Painting. Microscopic examination of the painting indicates that the underdrawing of The Art of Painting is executed with thin brown lines, in contrast with the light drawing of the painting in progress on the artist's easel. "The fact that Vermeer depicted the painter beginning with the laurel wreath alone should probably be taken as a measure of the iconographic significance of the wreath rather than any literal evidence that, for example, Vermeer painted figure from the top down."Brian J. Wolf, Vermeer and the Invention of Seeing, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001), 196.

In nearly all depictions of an artist's studio, a cabinet storing brushes, pigments, solvents, and essential oils is shown close to the artist at work. It's hard to envision the artist in Vermeer's depiction standing up repeatedly to clean his brush or retrieve more pigment, given that such gestures would occur hundreds of times throughout the painting process. The painter's costume appears to be from a bygone era, as no similar attire can be identified in other paintings from the same period. Furthermore, based on the preliminary sketch on the canvas, the trumpet held by the model seems too large to fit within the canvas's boundaries. While some of the indications given by The Art of Painting of the painter's technique may be factual, others were meant to have symbolic or decorative functions.

Preparatory Drawing

Preparatory drawings were an integral part of the Baroque painting process, serving as essential tools for artists to conceptualize their works. These sketches provided a platform for artists to map out their compositions, try out different poses, and address various spatial and thematic challenges before delving into the final piece. The importance of these drawings extended beyond the artist's personal use. In the context of commissioned works, more detailed versions of these sketches, often referred to as "modello,"A "modello" in Baroque painting is a preliminary sketch, either full-scale or reduced, created by an artist as a design for a larger artwork. Its primary purposes were for client approval, guiding assistants in the artist's workshop, and allowing the artist to experiment with composition and technique. While it was more detailed than a rough sketch, it wasn't as refined as the final artwork. Over time, "modelli" became collectible, valued for providing insights into an artist's creative process. Renowned Baroque artists like Rubens and Bernini frequently used "modelli" in their artistic endeavors. were presented to patrons. This step ensured that the artist and the client were on the same page regarding the envisioned outcome, allowing for feedback and approval before the commencement of the actual painting. In essence, these preliminary drawings bridged the gap between the artist's initial vision and the final masterpiece, ensuring clarity of intent and facilitating communication with patrons.

It might be surprising that not a single drawing by Vermeer has survived, given the complexities of his compositions and the precise accuracy of contour, scale, and perspective. Executing preliminary studies on paper is more practical and economical since they can be easily corrected or redone, rather than working out the drawing directly on the canvas. A few preparatory drawings by Vermeer's contemporaries, like Peter Saendredam that depict elaborate church interiors, have survived. One attributed to the Delft painter Van Vliet (fig. 3).

fig. 3 Interior of the Nieuwe Kerk (View of the Nave tothe West)
Attributed Hendrick van Vliet
c. 1660-1665
Graphite, pen and brown ink, squared in graphite, 17.9 x 28.1 c.
Eric Noah, New York
Leonardo da Vinci, detail of Isabella d'Estefig. 4 Isabella d'Este (detail)
Leonardo da Vinci
Black and red chalk, yellow pastel chalk on paper, 63 x 46 cm.
Musée du Louvre, Paris

The preparatory drawing could then be transferred to the canvas in a number of ways. One of the most common and efficient was to was to prick a series of holes along the lines of the drawing with a pin. The drawing was then laid over the canvas and fine powdered charcoal dust was gently filtered through the pin-holes with the aid of a pouncer.Interestingly, this technique of pouncing is still employed by sign painters. The only modern improvements are: the pounce wheel and the electrical pounce machine which perforates the holes with an electric spark.T hese expensive machines must be regarded with caution since when wound up to the maximum as is needed for piercing multiple layers or thick paper, it delivers a nasty shock. When the drawing was lifted from the canvas, the filtered charcoal dust indicated the lines of the drawings. The artist then passed over with a brush and paint to fix the lines more permanently. This procedure can be clearly observed in Leonardo's preparatory drawing for the portrait of Isabella D' Este (fig. 4).

Using this simple technique, the fresco painter could transfer a large drawings onto the wet plaster in a few minutes. The same technique was used to transfer minutely detailed works of smaller dimensions and drawings that adorned the renowned porcelain production of Delft.

Had Vermeer used the pouncing technique, he most likely would not have retained the cartoons. Very few remain from the Dutch seventeenth century. It is, however, possible that Vermeer was able to transfer the final image of his composition without having ever realized any kind of preparatory drawing. Philip Steadman, in his study of Vermeer's use of the camera obscuraPhilip Steadman, Vermeer's Camera: Uncovering the Truth behind the Masterpieces (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001) (a sort of precursor of the modern photographic camera widely known by painters in Vermeer's time) conjectures that the artist traced the image projected by the camera obscura directly on the canvas. The camera obscura would have rendered preparatory drawings superfluous. Although some scholars strongly disagree with Steadman's arguments, most concede that they have a rational basis and align with Vermeer's pictorial and expressive objectives. (For detailed information on the subject, read Steadman's Vermeer's Camera: Uncovering the Truth behind the Masterpieces, or visit his web site at: http://www.vermeerscamera.co.uk/home.htm.)

Although no preparatory or final drawings on paper of Vermeer remain, this does not necessarily mean that he had not at some time or the other produced them. Drawings, while collected by refined connoisseurs of the time, didn't hold the same value as they do today. Given that Vermeer's preparatory drawings might have been more schematic than expressive, it's plausible they weren't deemed valuable. A single "folio," like those listed in the artist's death inventory, might have housed his valuable drawings and could have been lost or destroyed.

  • 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 & New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998, 145–167.
  • DELANEY, John K., Kathryn A. Dooley, Annelies van Loon, and Abbie Vandivere. “Mapping the Pigment Distribution of Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring.” Heritage Science 8, no. 4 (January 7, 2020). Accessed May 2, 2022.
  • EASTAUGH, Nicholas, Valentine Walsh, Tracey Chaplin and Ruth Siddall. The Pigment Compendium 2017. Rev. ed. (e-version). London: The Pigmentum Project, 2016.
  • FINK, Daniel A. "Vermeer's Use of the Camera Obscura: A Comparative Study." The Art Bulletin 53 (1971).
  • GIEBE, Marlies. “Johannes Vermeers ‘Kupplerin’: Restaurierung Und Maltechnische Befunde.” In Uta Neidhardt and Marlies Giebe, eds., Johannes Vermeer: Bei der Kupplerin, 39–64. Exh. cat. Dresden: Michel Sandstein in association with Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen, 2004.
  • GIFFORD, E. Melanie, Anikó Bezur, Andrea Guidi di Bagno, and Lisha Deming Glinsman. “The Making of a Luxury Image: Van Aelst’s Painting Materials and Artistic Techniques.” In Tanya Paul, James Clifton, Arthur K. Wheelock Jr., and Julie Hochstrasser, Elegance and Refinement: The Still-Life Paintings of Willem van Aelst, 80–84. Exh. cat. New York: Skira Rizzoli, 2012.
  • 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 & New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1998, 185–199.
  • GIFFORD, E. Melanie, and Lisha Deming Glinsman. “Collective Style and Personal Manner: Materials and Techniques of High-Life Genre Painting.” In Waiboer, Wheelock, and Ducos, Vermeer and the Masters of Genre Painting, 65–84, 270–74.
  • GIFFORD, E. Melanie, Dina Anchin, Alexandra Libby, Marjorie E. Wieseman, Kathryn A. Dooley, Lisha Deming Glinsman, John K. Delaney. "First Steps in Vermeer’s Creative Process: New Findings from the National Gallery of Art," Journal of Historians of Netherlandish Art 14, no. 2 (Summer 2022).
  • GIFFORD, E. Melanie. “Fine Painting and Eloquent Imprecision: Gabriel Metsu’s Painting Technique.” In Adriaan E. Waiboe, Gabriel Metsu, 154–79. New Haven: Yale University Press in association with the National Gallery of Art, 2010.
  • GIFFORD, E. Melanie. “Lievens’ Technique: ‘Wonders in Smeared Paint, Varnishes and Oils.’” In Jan Lievens: A Dutch Master Rediscovered, edited by Arthur K. Wheelock Jr., 41–53. Exh. cat. New Haven: Yale University Press in association with the National Gallery of Art, 2008.
  • GIFFORD, E. Melanie. “Material as Metaphor: Non-Conscious Thinking in Seventeenth Century Painting Practice.” In Studying Old Master Paintings: Technology and Practice, edited by Marika Spring, 165–72. London: Archetype in association with The National Gallery, 2011.
  • GIFFORD, E. Melanie. “Painting Light: Recent Observations on Vermeer’s Technique.” In Vermeer Studies, edited by Gaskell and Jonker, 185–99.
  • 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 & New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1998, 169–183.
  • HOWARD, Helen, 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
  • JANSON, Jonathan. Looking Over Vermeer's Shoulder: Seventeenth-Century Painting Techniques and Studio Practices with Particular Focus on the Work of Johannes Vermeer, second edition. USA, 2020.
  • KÜHN, Herman. "A Study of the Pigments and the Grounds used by Jan Vermeer." Reports and Studies in the History of Art. Washington: National Gallery of Art, 1968.
  • NANDSMAN, Rozemarijn. "Trading Paintings and Painters’ Materials 1550–1800." In Trading Paintings and Painters' Materials 1550-1800, edited by Anne Haack Christensen and Angela Jager, London and Copenhagen: Archetype Publications, 2018.
  • LAURENZE-LANDSBERG, Claudia. “Neutron-Autoradiography of Two Paintings by Jan Vermeer in the Gemäldegalerie Berlin.” In Wolfgang Lefèvre, ed., Inside the Camera Obscura: Optics and Art under the Spell of the Projected Image, 213–25. Berlin: Max-Planck Institute for the History of Science, 2007.
  • LEVY-HALM, Koos. “Where Did Vermeer Buy His Painting Materials? Theory and Practice.” In Gaskell and Jonker, Vermeer Studies, 137–43.
  • LIBBY, Alexandra, E. Melanie Gifford, Dina Anchin, Marjorie E. Wieseman, Kathryn A. Dooley, Lisha Deming Glinsman, John K. Delaney. "Experimentation and Innovation in Vermeer’s Girl with the Red Hat: New Findings from the National Gallery of Art," Journal of Historians of Netherlandish Art 14, no. 2 (Summer 2022).
  • LIEDTKE, Walter A., Richard C. Johnson, and Don H. Johnson. “Canvas Matches in Vermeer: A Case Study in the Computer Analysis of Fabric Supports.” Metropolitan Museum Journal 47 (2012): 101–8.
  • LOON, Annelies van, Abbie Vandivere, John K. Delaney, Kathryn A. Dooley, Steven De Meyer, Frederik Vanmeert, Victor Gonzalez, Koen Janssens, Emilien Leonhardt, Ralph Haswell, Suzan de Groot, Paolo D’Imporzano and Gareth R. Davies. “Beauty is Skin Deep: The Skin Tones of Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring.” Heritage Science 7, no. 102 (December 11, 2019). Accessed May 2, 2022.
  • LOON, Annelies van, Alessa A. Gambardella, Victor Gonzalez, Marine Cotte, Wout De Nolf, Katrien Keune, Emilien Leonhardt, Suzan de Groot, Art Ness Proaño Gaibor, and Abbie Vandivere. “Out of the Blue: Vermeer’s Use of Ultramarine in Girl with a Pearl Earring.” Heritage Science 8, no. 25 (February 28, 2020). Accessed May 2, 2022.
  • MAHON, Dorothy, Silvia A. Centeno, Margaret Iacono, Federico Carό, Heike Stege and Andrea Obermeier. “Johannes Vermeer’s Mistress and Maid: New Discoveries Cast Light on Changes to the Composition and the Discoloration of Some Paint Passages.” Heritage Science 8, no. 30 (March 27, 2020). Accessed May 2, 2022.
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  • SHELDON, L., and N. Costaras. "Johannes Vermeer's 'Young Woman Seated at a Virginal'." The Burlington Magazine 148 (February 2006): 89–97.
  • SIVEL, Valerie, Joris Dik, Paul Alkemade, Libby Sheldon, and Henny Zandbergen. “The Cloak of Young Woman Seated at a Virginal: Vermeer, or a Later Hand?” ArtMatters: Netherlands Technical Studies in Art 4 (2007): 90–96.
  • SLUIJTER, Eric Jan. “Emulative Imitation among High-Life Genre Painters.” In Waiboer, Wheelock, and Ducos, Vermeer and the Masters of Genre Painting, 36–49.
  • STEADMAN, Phillip. Vermeer's Camera: Uncovering the Truth behind the Masterpieces. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.
  • STOLS-WITLOX, Maartje. A Perfect Ground: Preparatory Layers for Oil Paintings, 1550–1900. London: Archetype Publications, 2017..
  • VERSLYPE, Ige. “The Restoration of ‘Woman in Blue Reading a Letter’ by Johannes Vermeer.” The Rijksmuseum Bulletin 60, no. 1 (2012): 2–19.
  • WALD, Robert. “The Art of Painting: Observations on Approach and Technique.” In Sabine Haag, Elke Oberthaler, and Sabine Pénot, Vermeer, Die Malkunst: Spurensicherung an einem Meisterwerk, 312–27. Exh. cat. St. Pölten: Residenz in association with Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, 2010.
  • WALLERT, Arie. “The Materials and Methods of Michiel Sweerts’s Paintings.” In Jansen and Sutton, Michiel Sweerts, 37–47.
  • WADUM, Jørgen, René 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 by Johannes Vermeer. Wormer: V+K in association with the Royal Cabinet of Paintings Mauritshuis, The Hague, 1994.
  • WADUM, Jørgen. "Contours of Vermeer." In Vermeer Studies. New Haven and London, 1998, 201–223.
  • WADUM, Jørgen. “Contours of Vermeer.” In Gaskell and Jonker, Vermeer Studies, 210–23.
  • WHEELOCK, Arthur K., Jr. Vermeer and the Art of Painting. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995.
  • WIESEMAN, Marjorie E. “Acquisition or Inheritance? Material Goods in Paintings by Vermeer and His Contemporaries.” In Waiboer, Wheelock, and Ducos, Vermeer and the Masters of Genre Painting, 50–63.
  • WIESEMAN, Marjorie E., Alexandra Libby, E. Melanie Gifford, Dina Anchin. "Vermeer’s Studio and the Girl with a Flute: New Findings from the National Gallery of Art," Journal of Historians of Netherlandish Art 14, no. 2 (Summer 2022).


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