Vermeer's Painting Technique

(A Five Part Study plus a brief overview of is technique and stylistic evolution and a few considerations on the techniques of the old masters.)

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

It is not an easy chore to reconstruct with any degree of precision how Vermeer painted. What we now know of seventeenth-century Dutch painting methods is based largely on information gleaned from contemporary painting manuals integrated with the results of modern scientific analysis. Period painting manuals were more apt to discuss theoretic issues of the noble art of painting rather than the practical side of painting. Even though basic procedure was occasionally outlined, and recipes were given for specific palettes, the actual craft of making a picture was transmitted from masters to young artists through years of apprenticeship (normally from 4 to 6). Few historical records of studio practice survive. None of them regard Vermeer.

Although Vermeer experimented ceaselessly with techniques to create the illusion of three-dimension space render the effects of natural light, evidence points to the fact that he worked largely within the boundaries of traditional studio methods of Northern European artists. These methods were very different than those used by artists today. Modern painters usually execute their works a unified whole. They work while standing so they can walk back and envision the totality of the work. The painting is worked up directly with full color on a white or off-white canvas. Palettes usually contain every pigment which will likely be present in the finished work. Experimentation and improvisation play vital roles. Because craft is no longer retained indispensable to the artistic endeavor, technique is dispensed with in art schools.

Instead, seventeenth-century painters proceeded according to a fixed multi-step method that they had assimilated in a master's studio. The workload was divided into distinct phases in order to deal with the principal pictorial components one at a time. The rationale behind this division of labor was based on both technical and economical motives. It must be remembered that paintings of the seventeenth century were generally far more complex in composition, and great attention was given to perspective accuracy, naturalistic illumination and detail. Once the drawing and lighting scheme had been worked out in the drawing and underpainting stage, artists worked up their compositions in a piecemeal fashion, completing one restricted area at a time.

Almost all representations of artists at work showed them at work seated holding small palettes. Pigments, the actual coloring agents of paint, were very few when compared to those available to any modern painter, and usually had to be hand ground each day before setting out to work. Moreover, some pigments were not mutually compatible and had to be used separately. To overcome the scarcity of pigments and the inherent limitations of available materials, artists had learned to compensate via complex techniques such as underpainting, glazing and by varying the consistencies of paint and mode of application.

"Research into painter's terminology has revealed that for the seventeenth-century painter there were three or four main stages: "inventing," the "dead-coloring" and the "working-up," followed (according to the painter and art theoretician Gérard de Lairesse) by "retouching." 1

Inventing corresponds to the modern idea of an initial drawing on the untouched canvas, dead-coloring to underpainting and working-up to the application of color and detail. Each stage, along the preparation of the painting's support, is discussed in depth on separate pages, which can be accessed below. Glazing, a separate but indispensable technique, is analyzed by itself.

Click here to download the A Treatise on the Art of Painting in All its Branches by Gérard de Lairesse (English translation, 1817 in WORD format.

The Primary Stages of Vermeer's Painting Technique

click on each stage of Vermeer's technique below to access a separate page with detailed information

A Brief Overview of the Evolution of Vermeer's Technique with Respect to his Stylistic Evolution

Vermeer's oeuvre can be divided into four relatively distinct stylistic phases.

Early Works: History Paintings

"Vermeer's early history paintings, which in many respects are hard to reconcile with his later works, provided him with a broadness of vision and of execution that no other genre painter of the period possessed."1 In these works, thickly applied impasto paint is characteristic. His coloring too was relatively bold, but lighting conventionally conceived. The evident build-up of paint creates a dense and uneven surface accentuating the material presence of the subjects although repeated overpainting provide evidence of technical uncertainty. These earlier history paintings are much larger than the most part of the later interiors. The fluency and technical proficiency of Christ in the House of Martha and Mary strikes an odd note among these early paintings. The Procuress might be considered an intermediate work between the historical subjects and those genre interiors for which Vermeer is celebrated. Even though the painting's "modern" subject differs from the first history works, its scale, uncertain spatial organization, and broadness of execution are clearly reminiscent of his first works.

Early Genre Interiors

Vermeer's first interiors break distinctly from the history paintings not only in subject, but also in technique and dimension. Genre subject matter had already been pioneered by other painters such as Pieter de Hooch, Gerrit ter Borch and Nicolas Metsu. As Arthur K. Wheelock Jr. pointed out "the challenge he seems to have set for himself in the late 1650s was to translate the classicizing tendencies of his early religious and mythological paintings into a contemporary idiom…"

In this period the complicated admixtures of pigments found in the history paintings are less frequent and impasto (thickly applied opaque paint) is used more selectively. The brilliant tones needed to suggest the intensity of incoming daylight, which had quickly become one of Vermeer's principal artistic preoccupations, were generally composed of two or three pigments. In order to create illusionistic three-dimensional spaces Vermeer made use of the laws of perspective, which any ambitious painter was familiar with.

The famous pointillés, or globular dots of thick light colored paint that represent specular highlights, make their first appearance. These and other visual peculiarities found in these works indicate that Vermeer had begun to employ the camera obscura, a precursor to the modern photographic camera. The camera obscura is ideal for studying the natural play of light. The contours in the first interiors tend to be sharp, sometimes to the point of brittleness, while impasto is used to evoke the sparkle of light as well as texture.

From the outset of his career, Vermeer made numerous changes during the painting process as he sought a satisfactory image: he eliminated figures, altered costumes, adjusted shapes of buildings in his land and cityscapes and reconsidered the placement and scale of objects in his interiors. Vermeer generally painted on light colored grounds as did many Dutch painters.

Maturity: Works of the 1660s

In the early 1660s the surface of Vermeer's paintings have an almost levigated effect. The weave of the canvas is barely perceptible. Many portray single figures bound closely to the composition's planimetric framework. Paint is applied thinly, in translucent and semi-translucent layers. Strong colors are often confined to restricted areas of the compositions. Contours are more varied than before but in general they are more suffused, especially in the shadows. Although the description light had become increasingly important, form is suggested by subtle shifts in tone rather than by forceful chiaroscuro. The economy of description becomes characteristic.

Although Vermeer's thematic and compositional debt to the fine painters Gerrit Dou and Frans van Mieris is obvious, his rendering never reaches such extreme level of microscopic detail for which their painting had become renowned throughout Europe. Perhaps only when the works of these artists are compared side-by-side can the difference be fully appreciated. For example, while each single hair of the fur trimmed jacket of Frans van Mieris' tiny Couple with a Puppy has been rendered with astonishing accuracy, the identical fur trim of Vermeer's Woman Holding a Balance is suggested through subtle changes in tone.

In this period Vermeer may have also made use of the badger brush, which was commonly employed to smooth brush marks, extend glazes and blend adjacent areas of color imperceptibly.

Late Works

In the last years of artistic activity Vermeer had acquired mastery of every facet of painting technique. Contour became again sharp but differently from his initial genre interiors, paint is applied with the utmost economy. Brushwork is often curiously calligraphic, freeing itself from slavish description, at times bordering on virtuosity. A sense of brittleness is adverted especially in the modeling of the figure. In some passages paint has been applied so thinly that the underlying ground can be observed. This fact has lead some scholars to believe some of the paintings were not finished.

In the 1670s, form is abstracted. Technique take on greater importance, so much that it challenges illusion. "The accents of color Vermeer used to indicate the folds of then woman's dress or the exquisite decorative rose of the guitar in The Guitar Player, for example, are seen first and foremost as paint, and then only secondarily as descriptive of material texture."3

While Vermeer experimented with various techniques, his basic method and materials remained analogous to those his contemporaries.

A Few Notes on the Methods of the Old Masters

Through modern scientific analysis many of the materials used by the old masters can be identified with certainty. Understanding painting technique, that is, the manner in which materials are applied, is another matter. X-ray and infrared radiography have revealed hitherto hidden aspects of the masters' paintings but these investigative methods must be used in conjunction with contemporary painters' manuals, direct observation and the comprehension of artists' expressive aims in order to form a reasonable overall picture of the actual studio practices.

The principal difference between modern and Dutch seventeenth-century painting technique is that painting was broke down into a series of distinct passages executed in a predefined order. The principal difference between materials is that seventeenth-century painters generally ground their own paints, and pigments were few when compared to the industrially pre-prepared paints available today. Modern paints have an almost uniform consistency while hand-made paints have entirely different drying brushing and covering characteristics from one another, which, however, painters had not only overcome but had learned to use to their advantage.

Old Master "Lost" Painting Materials

The search for lost old masters materials had already begun shortly after the end of the Golden Age. Many Dutch painters had achieved extraordinary levels of technical proficiency that successive generations of artists were at a loss as how to reproduce. Speculation continued into the twentieth century, especially among painters who attempted to emulate the painting styles of the past. Fortunately, modern scientific investigations conducted by the principal museums in the later part of the twentieth century, have slowly come to a common position in regards. It would now seem that the almost irreproducible technical results seen in Dutch masters were, in fact, not due to any particular use of material or complex procedure, but were in great part consequence of superior creative and imaginative powers.

Ernst van Wetering addressed the question in his study of Rembrandt's painting methods4 using the metaphor of the violin bow. "The impact of this rather simple implement on the richness of the musical effects depends almost entirely on the talent, skill and imagination of the musician who handles it. The same violin may sound either utterly dull or heavenly rich just from the way in which the same bow is hand. Rembrandt's pictorial richness is exclusively determined by the talent, skill and imagination with which he wielded the brush."

The composition of Rembrandt's painting medium, which had been the source of almost endless speculation, has been revealed to have been composed of nothing more than common linseed oil. Rarely did Rembrandt used walnut oil used, and the presence of the presence of egg was detected together with linseed oil only occasionally.

  1. Ernst van de Wetering. Rembrandt: The Painter at Work. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004.
  2. Arthur K. Wheelock Jr., Vermeer and the Art of Painting, New York and New Haven: Yale University Press. 1995. 163
  3. Ernst van de Wetering. Rembrandt: The Painter at Work. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004.
  4. A number of sources were used as reference for this study including antique painters' manuals, modern studies of painting technique, the writings of P. T. A. Swillens, Koos Levy-van Halm, Nicola Costara, E. Melanie Gifford, Arthur K. Wheelock Jr. and especially Ernst van de Wetering and Jørgen Wadum, the latter of whom was kindly answered various questions regarding the technique used in the Girl with a Pearl Earring. Thanks also to Richard Hyman, a contemporary painter, who offered many suggestions regarding Vermeer's painting technique and modern painting technique and materials.
Vermeer's painting Technique