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"Dead Coloring," or Underpainting

After completing the initial outline drawing, Vermeer began the "dead-coloring" (or underpainting, as it is called today), one of the most important stages in his working procedure. Without a thorough knowledge and mastery of the underpainting technique, the extraordinary unity which characterizes Vermeer's most mature pictures may not have been easily achieved. The underpainting technique greatly facilitates the realization of finely balanced compositions, as well as accurate depictions of light and chromatic subtleties.

Underpainting is rarely practiced today. For the last century, artists have simply began to paint directly on pre-prepared white canvases with full color, surpassing anything but an abbreviated line sketch. Therefore, neither the function nor the practice of underpainting is well understood.

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

In its simplest terms, an underpainting is a monochrome version of the final painting that fixes the composition, gives volume and substance to the forms, and distributes darks and lights in order to create the effect of illumination. The lack of color probably explains the word "dead" in the term "dead painting." Color was applied over the underpainting only when it was thoroughly dry. Underpaintings were usually executed in warm earth tones over neutral gray or warm brown grounds. Raw umber, sometimes mixed with black, were frequently used for this purpose (fig. 1). Cool gray underpaintings were also common. An example of a sketchy brown underpainting is visible on the right-hand side of the face of an unfinished portrait by the Italian painter Andrea del Sarto (fig. 2). Few underpaintings have survived to the present day.

Andrea del Sarto
fig. 1 Portrait of a Woman in Yellow (detail of an unfinished portrait showing the underpainting in the shadowed side of the face)
Andrea del Sarto
c. 1529–1530
Oil on poplar panel, 64.3 x 50.1 cm.
The Royal Collection, Buckingham Palace, London
Andrea del Sarto
fig. 2 The Sacrifice of Isaac
Andrea del Sarto
c. 1527
208 x 171 cm.
Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland, Ohio

In this unfinished painting, the angle has been underpainted in monochrome browns while the color has begun to be roughed in the early stages of the working-up stage.

In Leonardo da Vinci's unfinished Adoration of the Magi (fig. 3), both the initial drawing (of the Virgin) and various stages of the underpainting (of the infant Jesus) are clearly visible. Like may baroque artists, Rubens employed white to heighten the illuminated areas of the underpainting.

underpainting, leonardo da Vincifig. 3 Adoration of the Magi
Leonardo da Vinci
Oil on panel, 246 x 243 cm.
Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence

Thus, with a minimum of effort and expense underpainting pigments—often cheap earth pigments like raw umber—, the artist was able to envision the totality of his pictorial idea. Underpainting provided a structural foundation for the artwork, helping to map out the composition and guide the placement of objects and figures. Equally important, it helped establish the tonal values of a painting, serving as a guide for the placement of light and shadow, both of which are crucial for creating depth and volume in the composition. Moreover, during the underpainting stage, the painter could observe the defective parts and correct them with relative ease, as it is far easier to model form with a few neutral tones than with more complex mixtures of color. Even broad areas of the canvas which seemed too dark could be easily worked up and lighter ones darkened. The degree of finish, as well as the specific colors used in the underpainting stage varied from school to school and even painter to painter. It cannot be ascertained if Vermeer defined his underpainting as accurately as those of Leonardo, but laboratory evidence indicates that they were more sketchy. Vermeer generally used black and brown in his underpainting.

Rembrandt and Rubens, in particular, are known to have used underpainting very effectively. It is believed that artists once kept a vareity of underpaintings in their studio waiting for interest from clients before completing the finishing the painting with full color and detail.

Underpainting was not only a rapid and economical way to envision and develop the composition, it aided the painter to create a number of optical effects that cannot be achieved through direct paint mixing.

Vermeer's Underpainting

It now seems certain that the use of underpainting was a fundamental step in Vermeer's creative process. Laboratory analysis demonstrates that, during the underpainting stage, the artist made numerous major and minor alterations to the type, placement, and dimensions of objects in his compositions.A relatively new technique called infrared reflectography is able to evidence black pigment that is concealed under other layers of paint. Although it has been extremely valuable as a method for analyzing old masters underpainting, the picture it produces is not entirely accurate since shades of browns (umber usually), which are not revealed by the method, were very often mixed in varying proportions with black. Unfortunately, while laboratory analysis can identify the existence of Vermeer's underpainting, its exact nature cannot be determined since is as its name implies, it lies under other layers of paint and therefore is only partially visible. To complicate matters, Vermeer himself seemed to have experimented with different techniques throughout his career and mostly likely with different kinds of underpainting as well. However, a few preserved examples of unfinished paintings reveal standard underpainting procedures, and Vermeer's methods probably did not vary a great deal from them. In Vermeer's compositions, elements such as chairs, maps, framed paintings, musical instruments, baskets, standing cavaliers, and even dogs have been painted over or moved from their original positions. Vermeer likely painted over these elements during the underpainting stage, realizing that they either did not produce the desired effect or distracted from the painting's theme. He changed the positions of arms and fingers to create precisely the gesture he desired. The edges of maps were shifted either to the left or the right to stabilize the composition. The contours of a young women's garments were altered to make them more elegant, and shadows were lightened or darkened, all depending on the intended effect of the underpainting.

Observers have noted that in The Geographer, there are various passages that appear to be either incomplete or exposed over time. Perhaps a significant portion of the deeply shaded area on the carpet reveals Vermeer's underpainting method (fig. 4). If this is the case, his method would seem similar to those employed by his contemporaries.

The Geographer, Johannes Vermeerfig. 4 The Geographer (detail)
Johannes Vermeer
c. 1668–1669
Oil on canvas, 53 x 46.6 cm.
Städelsches Kunstinstitut, Frankfurt am Main, Germany

Did Vermeer Use the Camera Obscura to Define His Underpaintings?

fig. 5 18th-century portable camera obscura

Lawrence Gowing, a painter and one of the most penetrating of Vermeer scholars, believed that an x-ray photograph of the face of the Girl with a Pearl Earring (fig. 6) provides evidence of the artist's painting technique. X-rays image reveal the presence of lead, which is the primary component of lead white, the principal white pigment used by painters until the mid-nineteenth century. Gowing posited that the white areas in the image correspond to the underpainting stage and was a direct transcription of the incidence of light on the screen of the camera obscura (fig. 5). Particularly indicative of the camera obscura's influence is the perfectly spherical highlight of the pearl earring which was later altered in the final version. The same observation applies to the subdued highlight in the subject's right eye. To account for the differences between the underpainting and the final image, Gowing argued that "the artist, evidently proceeded, in finishing the picture (fig. 6), to mediate between objectivity and convention."Lawrence Gowing, Vermeer (Berkeley CA: University of California Press, 1997), 138.Since the X-ray image reveals only the presence of heavier lead white while registering the remaining areas as black, the contrast appears exaggerated.

Girl with a Pearl Earring (x-ray image), Johnnes Vermeerfig. 6 Girl with a Pearl Earring (x-ray image)
Johnnes Vermeer

"Gowing's theoryLawrence Gowing, Vermeer (Oakland CA: University of California Press, 1997), reprint edition. is supported by Phillip Steadman's more recent hypothesisPhilip Steadman, Vermeer's Camera: Uncovering the Truth behind the Masterpieces (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002).. Steadman suggests that Vermeer might have used the camera obscura not only to trace the projected image onto the canvas but also to paint in strict correlation, keeping the camera obscura image as a constant reference.

A Hypothesis of Vermeer's Underpainting Methods

The image below (fig. 7) presents a plausible hypothesis for Vermeer's underpainting technique, as conceived by the website's author, Jonathan Janson..

Click here to access a larger version of the underpainting.

Girl in Hyacinth Blue, Jonathan janson
fig. 7 Girl in Hyacinth Blue (underpaintings stage)
Jonathan Janson
Oil on canvas
Hallmark Corporation, St. Louis
  • 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.
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  • 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.
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  • 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


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Looking Over Vermeer’s Shoulder

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

Jonathan Janson

(founder of Essential Vermeer.com)