"Working-Up," or Body Color

After Vermeer had defined the composition and the basic lighting scheme with the underpainting, he proceeded to the next stage called "working-up." Working-up in Dutch was called "opmaken" which means "to finish." "During the working-up stage the main concern was to give everything its correct coloring, to render materials appropriately, and to fix the final contours of the forms." 1 Each distinctive area of the painting was executed as a separate entity and finished in one or two sessions. Whenever it was necessary to achieve strong, bright colors, (for red, yellow, and blue robes and the like), the passage concerned was executed within carefully delineated contours in accordance with a fixed recipe, involving a specific layering or fixed type of underpainting."2

The Art of Painting (detail), Johannes Vermeer
The Art of Painting
(detail showing artist in the initial phase of working up)
Johannes Vermeer
c. 1662 - 1668
Oil on canvas, 120 X 100 cm.
Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

The technique of completing paintings one area at a time evolved when water based tempera, which is technically even more limiting than oil paint, was in universal usage. An example of this procedure can be observed in Michelangelo's unfinished Manchester Madonna (See image right). Painters generally worked up one passage at a time, roughly analogously to the manner in which the fresco painter painted successive areas of wet plaster called "giornate."

There are essentially two reasons for painting piecemeal one area at a time. The first is that painters of Vermeer's age had to grind their paints by hand each day.3 Neither the vast number of pigments, nor the pre-prepared paint in convenient metal tubes existed until the mid 19th-century. Since hand grinding is a laborious and time consuming chore, artists had learned to limit the number of costly paints necessary for the day's work by painting in a restricted area where few colors were necessary. Moreover, each pigment presented its own inherent possibilities and limitations, and were thus combined only when necessary. Permanence, workability, compatibility and drying qualities could differ so strongly from one pigment to another that is was normal to use pigments in the purest form possible or mixed with a very limited number of other pigments. In fact, contemporary representations of artists at work generally show them holding very small palettes with few colors.

The second reason for completing one area at a time was that paintings were oftne more complex in composition and far more detailed than they are today. This was even more so when the multi-step working method was being perfected during previous centuries by artists such as Jan van Eyck and Albrecht Dürer. In effect, becasue each passage of the painting corresponded to a distinct visual experience, a different technical approach was required in order to convincingly render its visual experience. The luxurious sheen of satin could not be rendered with the same technique used for the rough texture of the bark of an ancient tree. For example, Vermeer most likely used a stiff bristle hog's-hair brush to manipulate of the heavy impasto necessary to create the brilliant passage of white-washed wall in The Art of Painting. The rough texture of the paint surface imitates the texture of the white-washed wall and its peaks catches rays of raking light, making it sparkle. On the other hand, the softness of the artist'sbusht hair was worked with a thin layer of muted ocher and smoothed imperceptibly with a badger brush.

Although the working-up method would seem an adversry of the extraordinary pictorial unity prevalent in Baroque painting, the difficulty in harmonizing each separate passage with the others was largely offset by the unifying effect of the monochrome underpainting.

Once relatively ready-to-use, mutually compatible industrial manufactured paints became available and neither detail nor naturalistic effects considered desirable, the multi-step working method vanished, and replaced by alla prima painting.

Working-Up in Vermeer's Painting

Recent study of Vermeer's canvases indicates that the artist most likely adopted the standard working-up method. Many passages of his mature works are completed with only one or two layers of paint. There is reason to believe that considerable time occurred between sittings. Rather than a being a slow painter, Vermeer was meditative painter who pondered every passage of his current work with the utmost concentration.

One would expect that a painting constructed in such a piecemeal manner would resemble a patchwork whose parts are clearly distinct one from the other. How then was Vermeer able to achieve such an unprecedented pictorial unity for which his art is known? One reason is that Vermeer used few pigments, perhaps no more than 20 in all, while only a dozen or so were used with any regularity. The Woman in Blue Reading a Letter was most likely painted with white lead, ultramarine blue, one or two earth colors (raw umber and/or yellow ocher), black and a red limited to the backing upholstery of the right hand chair. Some traces of red may also have been found in the face which most likely have faded with time. A reduced number of colors facilitates harmony..

The pictorial unity of Vermeer's compositions was also sustained by the monochrome underpainting the elementary relationship between darks and lights were fixed before addressing color. Once the underpainting was dry, the artist superimposed layers of colored paint. The chiaroscural values of the underpainting helped the artist to match the darkness or lightnessu of the subsequent colored paint layers. While the lighter areas were generally rendered with full body color consisting in one or two pigments mixed in varying proportions, shadows were often painted in very thin semi-transparent layers of paint, leaving the warm ground to acting as a unifying agent. The warm brown underpainting in the robe of the Girl with a Red Hat can been seen through the irregular brushstrokes of the natural ultramarine paint which lies over it.

In any case, it is difficult to understand the sequence in which Vermeer worked up each passage. By analyzing the system of overlapping areas of pigment, Ernst van der Wetering has hypothesized that Rembrandt worked from "the back to the front." No such study has been preformed on Vermeer's painting. However, one might reason that the background walls, which play such an important role in the artist's pictorial conception, may have been among the first areas to be completed in the working-up phase. More than any other pictorial element, the walls determine the amount and quality of light that will be represented in a given scene. Analogously, landscape painters often depict the sky first in order to gauge the correct colors of actual landscape below. It is obviously that the sky influences the tone of the landscape and not vice versa. After the tones of wall had been established , Vermeer then worked-up the larger areas of color such as the various costumes worn by the models, which play a decisive role in the chromatic the painting's harmony.

  1. Ernst van de Wetering, Rembrandt: The Painter at Work, Berkeley, London, Los Angeles, 2002
  2. ibid.
  3. Although the principal of hand grinding paint is fairly simple, the actual practice presents many subtleties that can be only mastered through experience. The pigment and binder are spread out a marble surface and ground with stone muller until the desired consistency is reached. Hand ground paint used in Vermeer's time was probably stiffer than today's commercially sold paints in tubes, which contain thickeners and fillers to prolong their shelf-life. Metal tubes were widely employed only in mid 1800s so excess paint that had not been used could be kept temporarily in pig's bladders or emerged in water over night to prevent contact with oxygen, which induces drying. Each artist could impart to his paints particular qualities he may have desired. The apprentice were taught how to make paints in the master's studio. Once he became sufficiently proficient he only the quantity of paint that would be necessary for the day's work.
Manchester Madonna, Michalangelo
The Virgin and Child with
Saint John and Angels
(The Manchester Madonna)
c. 1497
Egg tempera on wood, 104.5 x 77 cm.
National Gallery, London