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HOW TO PAINT YOUR OWN VERMEER:
Recapturing Materials and Methods of a Seventeenth-Century Master


by Jonathan Janson
2006

An in-depth look into the materials and methods of Johannes Vermeer and the studio practices of 17th-c. Dutch painters

The Dark Backgrounds

paint

Black, indigo and weld.

Dark backgrounds were widely used in portraiture to isolate the figure from distracting elements and enhance the three-dimensional effect of the figure. In fragment 232 of his Treatise on Painting, Leonardo da Vinci had noted that a dark background makes an object appear lighter and vice versa. Leonardo employed the device in some of his portraits. The dark background in the Girl with a Pearl Earring brings to mind works by contemporary Dutch artists such as Frans van Mieris, Rembrandt van Rijn and above all Michael Sweerts.

Presently, the background of the Girl with a Pearl Earring appears somewhat uneven and spotty. During the 1994-1995 restoration it became clear that this defect had been caused by the degraded composition of the paint used by Vermeer. The background was originally meant to have a deep greenish tone produced by a thick, transparent layer of indigo mixed with weld over the dark black underpainting. Indigo and weld are both pigments of organic origin.

The reseda luteola
plant from which
the pigment weld
is derived.

Indigo is deep blue dyestuff derived from the indigo plant. Weld is a natural yellow dyestuff obtained from the flowers of the wouw or woude plant as it was called in Dutch. Mixed together with a rich binding medium (linseed oil) they form a transparent greenish tone. Weld was widely used for dying silk since it was one of the purest and yellow shades available but was equally valuable to the artist. It seems that Vermeer used indigo only rarely.

"Originally, the background must have been made with a smooth, glossy, hard, translucent green paint, which was made to look darker and given depth by the underpaint." 1 The juxtaposition of the green tone probably produced an optical effect which made the flesh tone even more vibrant than it is today.

Although there is no way to determine the original effect of the green tone, the illustration below provides a hypothetical indication. t should be kept in mind that Vermeer may have intended the greenish effect seen in the digital restoration below to be far less apparent.

Dark Backgrounds in Vermeer's Oeuvre

Vermeer used dark backgrounds two other times, once in the Study of a Young Girl, and another in the Mistress and Maid . The Study of a Young Girl and Girl with a Pearl Earring may have been intended as a pendant since the two paintings share a number of common elements other than the background (see Portrait or Pendant?). The present background of the Mistress and Maid may not have been part of the painting's original concept since the outlines of a folded curtain behind the two female figures can still be partially perceived when the painting is observed directly.

  1. Karin M. Groen, 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 Michael Jonker, New Haven, 1998, p. 175