"Inventing," or Drawing

The 17th-century concept of "inventing" corresponds to the initial drawing, or sketching, executed directly on the artist's canvas. This kind of drawing served to fix the most significant contours of the subjects and as a guide to subsequent stages of the work. Chalk, charcoal, tempera and oil paints in various tones were employed. Since the preliminary drawing was inevitably covered by successive layers of opaque paint, it leaves little material evidence and thus our knowledge of Vermeer's drawing procedure is mostly 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.

COrreggio
Allegory of Virtue (detail)
Correggio
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.

"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 over a colored ground was most often done in some 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. "1 One can observe such a drawing on the artist's canvas in Vermeer's Art of Painting.

Very few traces of Vermeer's initial drawing have survived. In the Woman Holding a Balance there exists enough 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 use the sketch as a starting point, freely modifying the forms in the final image. But whenever Vermeer's designed lines could be observed, it was clear that his final paint layers conformed very close to the sketch."2

The Art of Painting, Johannes Vermeer
The Art of Painting (detail)
Johannes Vermeer
c. 1662 - 1668
Oil on canvas, 120 X 100 cm.
Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

It was once thought that Vermeer revealed some of his own working procedures drawing methods in The Art of Painting. On an evenly toned canvas the contours of the model's billowing costume have been laid in with thin strokes of white paint or chalk (see detail image left) and has begun to paint the laurel leaves with various shades of blue.

However, there exist many discrepancies between real working habits seen in representations of painters' studios of 17th 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."3

In almost every rendering the artist's studio, a cabinet in which brushes, pigments, solvents and oils essences were stored was shown nearby the artist at work. It would be hard to imagine the artist in Vermeer's picture standing up and taking a few steps just to clean his brush or pick up more pigment, gestures which would have been repeated hundreds of times during the arc of the painting process. The costume worn by the painter is one of the past; none similar can be found in other paintings of the same period. Moreover, judging by the preliminary drawing on the canvas, the trumpet held by the model cannot fit within the bounds of the canvas in front of him. 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

It may come as a surprise to know that not even a single drawing by Vermeer has survived, especially if we take into account the complexities of his compositions and the extreme accuracy of contour, scale and perspective. It is far more practical and economic to execute the preliminary studies on paper, which can easily be corrected or redone, rather than to work out the drawing directly on the canvas. A few examples of preparatory drawings by Vermeer's contemporaries such as Peter Saendredam, which represent elaborate church interiors, have survived. One that is attributed to the Delft painter Van Vliet can seen to the right.

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.4 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 (right) for the portrait of Isabella D' Este.

Using this simple technique, the fresco painter could transfer a large drawings onto the wet plaster in a few minutes. The same technique used for transferring minutely detailed work of smaller dimensions as well as drawings which adorned the renowned porcelain production of Delft.

Had Vermeer used the pouncing technique, he would not have most likely retained the cartoons. Very few remain from the Dutch 17th 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 obscura (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 dissent with Steadman's arguments, most have conceded that they have a rational base and are in conformity 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, although collected by the more refined connoisseurs at the time, did not have the same value as they do today and considering that Vermeer's preparatory drawings might have been executed in a more schematic rather than expressive style, it is not unreasonable that they were not deemed of great value. A single "folio" such as the ones listed in the artist's death inventory may have contained his precious drawings and could have been lost or destroyed.

  1. Arie Wallert and Willem de Ridder, "Materials and methods of Sweerts's Paintings," in Michael Sweerts: 1618-1664, Zwolle, 2003, p. 40.
  2. Melanie Gifford, "Painting Light: Recent Observations of Vermeer's Painting Technique, " in Vermeer Studies, 1995, p. 187.
  3. Brian Jay Wolf, Vermeer and the Invention of Seeing, Chicago, 2001, p. 196.
  4. Interestingly this technique of pouncing is still employed by sign painters. The only modern improvements are [1] the pounce wheel and [2] the electrical pounce machine which perforates the holes with an electric spark. These 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.
Leonardo da Vinci, detail of Isabella d'Este
Isabella d'Este (detail)
Leonardo da Vinci
1500
Black and red chalk, yellow pastel chalk on paper, 63 x 46 cm.
Musée du Louvre, Paris