After the initial outline drawing was completed, 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, accurate depictions of light and chromatic subtleties.
Underpainting is rarely practiced today. For the last century, artists have simply begun painting directly on pre-prepared white canvases with full color surpassing anything but an abbreviated drawing. Therefore, neither the function nor the practice of underpainting is well understood.
The complete book about 17the-century painting techniques and materials with particular focus on the painting of Johannes Vermeer.
by Jonathan Janson | 2020 | PDF | 3 volumes, 294 pages
Looking Over Vermeer's Shoulder is a comprehensive study of the materials and painting techniques that made Vermeer one of the greatest masters of European art. But to gain the clearest picture of Vermeer's day-to-day methods we must not only look at what went on his inside studio but inside the studios of his most accomplished colleagues as well.
Looking Over Vermeer's Shoulder, then, lays out in clear, comprehensible language every facet of 17th-century and Vermeer's painting practices including training, canvas preparation, underdrawing, underpainting, glazing, palette, brushes, pigments and composition. Also investigated are a number of key issues as they relate specifically to Vermeer such as the camera obscura, studio organization as well as how he depicted wall-maps, floor tiles, pictures-within-pictures, carpets and other of his most characteristic motifs.
Bolstered by his qualifications as a practicing painter and a Vermeer connoisseur, the three-volume PDF format permits the author to address each of the book's 24 topics with requisite attention. By observing at close quarters the studio practices of Vermeer and his preeminent contemporaries, the reader will acquire a concrete understanding of 17th-century painting methods and gain a fresh view of Vermeer's 35 works of art, which reveal a seamless unity of craft and poetry.
While not written as a "how-to" manual, aspiring realist painters will find a true treasure trove of technical information that can be apapted to almost any style of figurative painting.
Looking Over Vermeer's Shoulder (beta version)
author: Jonathan Janson
date: 2020 (second edition)
format: PDF | 3 volumes
illustrations: 200-plus illustrations and diagrams
3 Volumes: $29.95 | $14.95
VOL I (11MB)
1 / Vermeer's Training, Technical Background and Ambitions
2 / An Overview of Vermeer’s Technical & Stylistic Evolution
3 / Fame, Originality & Subject Matter
4 / Reality or Illusion: Did Vermeer’s Interiors ever Exist?
5 / Color
6 / Composition
7 / Mimesi & Illusionism
VOL II (17MB)
8 / Perspective
9 / Camera Obscura Vision
10 / Light & Modeling
11 / Studio
12 / Four Essential Motifs in Vermeer’s Oeuvre
13 / Drapery
14 / Painting Flesh
VOL III (13MB)
15 / Canvas
16 / Grounding
17 / “Inventing,” or Underdrawing
18 / “Dead-Coloring,” or Underpainting
19 / “Working-up,” or Finishing
20 / Glazing
21 / Mediums, Binders & Varnishes
22 / Paint Application & Consistency
23 / Pigments, Paints & Palettes
24 / 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 distribute 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, at times mixed with black, were frequently used for this purpose. Cool gray underpaintings were also employed. An example of a sketchy brown underpainting can be seen in the right-hand side of the face of an unfinished portrait by the Italian painter Andrea del Sarto. Relatively ew underpaintings have survived.
In Leonardo da Vinci's unfinished Adoration of the Magi (fig. 1), both the initial drawing (of the Virgin) and various stages of the underpainting (of the infant Jesus) can be clearly seen. Rubens used white to heighten the illuminated areas of the underpainting.
Thus, with a minimum of effort, the artist was able to envision the totality of his pictorial idea. He could observe the defective parts and correct them with relative ease, for it is far easier to model form with a few neutral tones than with more complex color mixtures. Even broad areas of the canvas which seemed too dark could be easily worked up and lighter ones darkened. The degree of finish and the exact 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 know to have used underpainting very effectively. It is believed that artists once kept a number of underpaintings in their studio waiting for clients' interest before completing the painting with full color and detail.
Underpainting was not only a rapid and economical way to envision and elaborate the composition, it aided the painter to create a number of optical effects that cannot be achieved by direct mixing of paint.
It now seems certain that underpainting was a fundamental step in Vermeer's creative process. Laboratory analysis demonstrates that in the underpainting stage, the artist made many major and minor alterations in the type, placement and dimensions of objects found in his compositions.1 Chairs, maps, framed paintings, musical instruments, baskets, a standing cavalier and even a dog can no longer be seen where they were originally represented. Vermeer probably painted them out in the underpainting stage having seen that they 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. Edges of maps were moved to the left or 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 of the effect of the underpainting.
It has been noticed that in The Geographer there are various passages that seems to have been left uncompleted or that have become exposed over time. Perhaps, a significant part of the deep shaded area of the carpet reveals Vermeer's method of underpainting. If this is so, his method would appear similar to those of his contemporaries.
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. 3) constitutes evidence of the artist's painting method. X-rays images reveal the presence of lead, which is the primary component of lead white, the principal white pigment used by painters until the mid-19 century. Gowing assumes that the white areas of the image correspond the underpainting stage and was a direct transcription of the incidence of light on the screen of the camera obscura (fig. 4) . Particularly suggestive of the camera obscura's effect is the perfectly spherical highlight of the pearl earring which has been altered in the final version. The same can be said for the dim highlight of the right-hand eye. To explain the difference between the underpainting and the final image Gowing held that "the artist, evidently proceeded, in finishing the picture, to mediate between objectivity and convention."1 Since the x-ray image only reveals the presence of the heavier lead white and the remaining areas are registered as black, contrast is exaggerated.
Gowing's idea has been corroborated by Phillip Steadman's more recent hypothesis that Vermeer may have used the camera obscura not only to trace the projected camera obscura image on the canvas, but also to paint in strict correlation with camera obscura image always close at hand.
The image below (fig. 5) shows a reasonable hypothesis of Vermeer's underpainting method, as conceived by the author of this website, Jonathan Janson.