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 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 art of painting rather than practical side of every day studio practice. Even though basic methodology was occasionally outlined and recipes were given for specific palettes, the actual craft of making a picture was largely transmitted from masters to aspiring 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 specific techniques to render the effects of natural illumination, 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 to envision the totality of the painting. The painting is worked up directly with full color on a white or off-white canvas. Their palettes usually contain every pigment which will likely be present in the finished work. Experimentation and improvisation play vital roles in the working process. Since craft is not is retained an indispensable component of artistic expression there no longer exists uniform instruction in regards.

Instead, 17th-century painters proceeded according to a relatively fixed step-by-step method which they had assimilated in a master's studio. The work load 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 reasons. It must be remembered that paintings of the 17th century were generally far more complex in composition and great attention was given to perspective accuracy, naturalistic illumination and fine 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. The pigments they possessed were very few 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 through the use of complex pictorial techniques such as monochrome underpainting, glazing and by varying paint consistencies and methods 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 gerard de Lairesse) by "retouching".1

The term "inventing", corresponds to the modern terms drawing or sketching, "dead-coloring" to underpainting and "working-up" to finishing or the application of color and detail. Each phase, along the preparation of the painting's support, is discussed in depth on separate pages which can be accessed below. Glazing, a separate technique, is analyzed by itself.

Click here to download the A Treastise 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 and Style

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 tended to be conventionally conceived. The evident build-up of paint creates a dense and uneven surface accentuating the material presence of his subjects although repeated overpainting may at times be considered evidence of technical uncertainty. These earlier history paintings are far larger than the most part of the later interiors. The fluency and technical proficiency of Christ in the House of Martha and Mary strike an odd note among these early paintings which on the contrary appear somewhat labored. The Procuress might be considered an intermediate work between the historical subjects and those genre interiors for which Vermeer is so famous. 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 early interiors break distinctly from the historical paintings not only in subject, but also in technique and dimension. This kind of genre subject had already being pioneered by other painters such as Pieter de Hooch, Gerard ter Borch and Nicolas Metsu. As Arthur Wheelock has 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 historical works 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 laws of perspective which painters at the time were urged to learn.

The famous pointillès, or globular dots of thick light colored paint which represent highlights, make their first appearance. The pointillès and other visual peculiarities in these works indicate that Vermeer had begun to employ the camera obscura, a kind of precursor to the modern photographic camera, which many painters of the time were familiar with. The camera obscura is ideal for studying the natural play of light and as an aid for composition. Contours tend to be very sharp, sometimes to the point of brittleness and impasto is used to convey the sparkle of light as well as texture.

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

Maturity: Works of the1660s

In the early 1660s the surface of Vermeer's paintings have an almost levigated effect. Many of the paintings of this period portray single figures bound closely with the two dimensional spatial framework of the canvas. Paint is generally applied thinly in translucent and semi-translucent layers. The weave of the canvas is barely perceptible. 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, the objects in Vermeer's paintings seem suggested by subtle shifts in tonal values rather than by forceful chiaroscuro. The economy of description becomes characteristic.

Although Vermeer's thematic and compositional debt to the so-called fijnschielders such as Gerrit Dou and Frans van Mieris is obvious in this period, 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 be 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, glaze and blend adjacent areas of color imperceptibly.

Late Works

Vermeer had acquired mastery of every facet of painting technique in his last years of artistic activity. Contour had become again sharp but differently from his initial genre interiors, paint is applied with the utmost economy, His brushwork is often calligraphic, freeing itself from description bordering at times on the virtuoso. A sense of brittleness is adverted especially in the modeling of the human figures. In some areas paint has been applied so thinly that the underlying ground can easily be seen. This fact has even lead some scholars to believe some of the paintings were not completely finished.

In the 1670s the abstractions of Vermeer's painting technique take on greater importance, so much that they take on an independent existence. "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 individual techniques, his basic painting methods and materials were substantially 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, however, is another matter. Modern methods of observation such as x-ray and the recently invented 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 artists' procedures.

The principal difference in Dutch seventeenth-century and modern painting technique is that antique painters broke down the working procedure in a series of distinct passages executed in a predefined order. The principal difference between materials is that antique painters generally hand-made their own pigments which were very 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 famed 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 20th 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 20th 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, rather, they were in great part consequence of superior creative and imaginative powers.

Ernst van Wetering faces the question in his monumental 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 painting materials as well have been demonstrated to be similar to those widely available today. The composition of Rembrandt's painting medium (a medium is the oil based substance which is mixed with the paint to impart to it a particular handling property) 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 use 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, Los Angeles and London, 2000.
  2. Arthur Wheelock, Vermeer and the Art of Painting p. 163
  3. Ernst van de Wetering, Rembrandt: The Painter at Work, Berkley, Los Angeles and London, 2000
  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 Jorgen Wadum who was kind enough to have answered some of my questions regarding the technique used in the Girl with a Pearl Earring. Thanks to Richard Hyman, a contemporary painter, who offered many suggestions regarding Vermeer's painting technique and modern painting technique and materials as well.
Vermeer's painting Technique
How to Paint Your Own vermeer, Jonahtan Janson
How to Paint Your Own Vermeer:
Materials & Methods of a
Seventeenth-Century Master

by Jonathan Janson

How to Paint Your Own Vermeer is a straightforward, practical guide on how to reproduce Vermeer's day-to-day painting procedures for today's discerning artist.

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