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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

Vermeer and the Camera Obscura

Evidence

The extraordinary impact of the young girl's face owes as much to her particular physiognomy and facial expression as to the singular economy with which this startling passage has be realized. It has been noted more than once that the Girl with a Pearl Earring is one of Vermeer's most broadly painted works. No other painting in the artist's oeuvre is more divergent from the pictorial convention of Dutch finschilders, whose works had strongly influenced Vermeer's own, by which every incident of nature, no matter how insignificant, was registered with religious dedication. René Huyghe correctly noted that it is mistaken to praise Vermeer for his painstaking detail and that the artist scorns "petty precision, and which, viewed close at hand...gives the impression of a slightly blurred image not quite 'in register'..."

Girl with a Pearl Earring, (detail)

Girl with a Pearl Earring (detail)

In the Girl with a Pearl Earring, no line follows the profile of the girl's nose on the left-hand side. The bridge of the nose is given precisely the color and tone of the adjacent cheek. The lines of the right side of her nose and nostril are lost in shadow. Thhe blue part of the turban has been reduced to two essential tones of ultramarine blue, one lighter and one darker. There is no indication of the cloth's folds which would have been no doubt perceptible and the yellow ocher garment worn by the girl is so summarily rendered that no scholar has been able to clearly identify the type or material of the garment. These and other characteristics have lead more than one scholar to believe that Vermeer had created the Girl with a Pearl Earring with the aid of camera obscura, a sort of precursor of the modern photographic camera.

radiograph of Girl with a Pearl Earring

Radiograph of Girl with
a Pearl Earring
(detail)

"Limitations of the technical perfection of the early camera obscura account for some of the arresting effects that have been noted in Vermeer's paintings. Despite their astonishing accuracy, seventeenth-century lenses did not focus with complete precision through the entire depth of fields. Like objects through the camera obscura, Vermeer's forms are defined by contrasting areas of light and dark color rather than by hard outlines. This clear, smooth, but soft-edged contouring often yields geometric abstraction, of the sort seen in the Girl with a Pearl Earring. Here the shape of the head is conceived in broad areas of light and dark, separated by softly rounded edges."1

"Whatever the role of the camera obscura in his actual artistic process, Vermeer probably emphasized visual effects related to its use because of the high estimation accorded to the images it created. Constantijn Huygens, Samuel van Hoogstraten and other contemporaries marveled at the sense of reality conveyed by the 'truly natural painting', as the camera obscura image was often called."

radiograph of Girl with a Pearl Earring, Johannes Vermeer

Radiograph of
Girl with a Pearl
Earring
(detail)

Some 50 years ago Gowing remarked that an x-ray photograph (above left) of the face of the Girl with a Pearl Earring points to the use of the camera obscura and most likely constitutes evidence of the artist's painting techncique as well. X-rays images reveal the presence of lead, which is the primary component of lead-white, the principal white pigment used by painters in Vermeer's time. Gowing assumed that the white areas of the image correspond the underpainting and are a direct transcription of the incidence of light on the screen of the camera obscura. Particularly suggestive of the image produced by the camera obscura's is the perfectly spherical highlight (lower left) of the pearl earring which has been altered in the final version. The same may be said of the dim highlight of the right-hand eye. Gowing believes that in a later phase "the artist, evidently proceeded, in finishing the picture, to mediate between objectivity and convention." Gowing's hypothesis has been recently corroborated by Phillip Steadman's in-depth study of Vermeer and the camera obscura. Steadman has produced convincing evidence that Vermeer not only employed the camera obscura as an aid to composition but may have used the it to trace the projected camera.

Studio Methods

If one agrees that Vermeer did employ the camera obscura as an aid to paint the Girl with a Pearl Earring, how might we picture the artist at work with the device?

camera obscura, booth type

booth type camera obscura

Judging by the strongly contrasted light scheme of the painting the young girl would have likely been seated near an open window. Light poured in from the left to right as was conventional in European painting. The artist sat at his easel a few steps away. Nearby stood a simple cabinet with drawers that contained brushes, pigments and essences, portrayed in many representations of seventeenth-century Dutch artists at work. Presumably, camera obscura would have been set somewhere near the painter.

Two types of camera obscuras were probably available to Vermeer: the booth type and portable type. The booth camera is a sort of closed box fitted with some arrangement of len(es) and/or mirrors large enough for an observer to be seated inside. The portable type can be seen to the right. Each kind has its advantages and disadvantages for the artist.

The closed booth type is excellent for observational purposes. Since the booth is entirely sealed from outside light except for that emitted through the camera's lens, the resulting image is clear and as bright as possible. However, a short period of time must elapse before ones eyes can be accustomed to the relative darkness and perceive most optimally the camera's image. Composition, as well as the spectacular effects produced by monocular vision afforded by the device, could be studied with great ease . If desired, the camera's image could be easily traced making it ideal resource for studying and transferring complex compositional arrangement to the canvas. However, it is highly unlikely that actual painting process could be conducted within camera obscure of this kind. The fine nuances of modeling and tone of the girl's face would have been perceptible only in ideal favorable lighting conditions.

portable camera obscura

portable type camera obscura

Moreover, the booth type of camera obscura would have been of no significant advantaged for either composing or drawing a single bust-length figure, a technical feat easily within reach of a seventeenth-century artist with discreet technical capacity. Had Vermeer used this kind of camera it is likely that he spent a relatively long period of intense observation followed by a long period of painting.

If Vermeer utilized the portable type camera, it would logically have had to been placed on a table at the same height and very near the young girl's face in order to produce a sufficiently large image, and consequentially, very near the window. If a mirror was placed at a 45 degree angle inside the camera (see upper left) the image would be projected onto a translucent horizontal screen right side up right but reversed left-to-right. If the camera contained no mirror, the image would be projected on a the vertical back side of the camera where a translucent sheet of paper could have been attached making the image visible from outside the camera) u. The image would have appeared pside down and reversed left- to-right. In any case, even in the best of cases, the camera's image is rather dim and if not duly shielded from the incoming light. Some sort of device, a hood similar those used by earlier photographers or a rigid cowling, would have been necessary to shade the camera's image (see image below).

A booth and portable types camera obscura pictured in a
landscape, perhaps meant to suggest their usefulness as an
aid to drawing.

Clearly, a number of difficulties would be encountered when painting with either of the two types of camera obscuras mentioned, the most important being that its image was probably visible not at every moment to the artist at work. However, such a difficulty cannot be considered serious enough to impede systematic use of the camera had the artist deemed fundamental the information derived from its use. Perhaps it is enough to remember that seventeenth-century Dutch landscape painters were able to able to render every nuance of the ever changing clouds and lighting even though worked in their studios based on monochrome sketches, memory and imagination. The naturalness obtained by Dutch marine painters is astounding when one considers both how little time the artist could have spent in actual observation of the sea in constant motion and in an almost infinite number of lighting conditions. Thus, the difficulties of transposing the particular, albeit fairly predictable, effects of a fixed camera obscura image onto a canvas a few steps a way, seem nil compared to the chore of the landscape and marine artist. Very possibly, Vermeer had become very knowledgeable of the quality of the camera obscura image through years of patient study. In the painting the Girl with a Pearl Earring the camera obscura was most likely employed as a reference source for occasional consultation and comparison.

A Brief Overview of the Camera Obscura

"The principle of the camera obscura is as simple as it seems magical even today. The windowless box or chamber has a small hole in one site and a white side of wall opposite the side with the hole. Light entering the camera obscura through the hole projects onto the screen wall, and (following the laws of optics) produces and upside-down and reversed image. Most camera obscuras were fitted with a lens in the hole to focus the image. In portable form, the camera obscura became popular for recording landscape and city views. Using a system of lenses and mirrors that allowed the image to appear on a translucent screen, draughtsman could trace the views to produce early versions of tourist snapshots. The rooms-sized version of the camera obscura was useful to scientists interested in the behavior of light."4 Constantijn Huygens, a major figure of Dutch contemporary culture who seems to have been aware of Vermeer's work, bought a camera obscura in 1662 in London and wrote: "it produces admirable effects by reflecting on a wall in a dark room. I cannot describe its beauty in words, but all painting seems dead by comparison...." Huygens took the camera obscura back the Netherlands where is know to have recommended its use to painters.

Almost certainly Vermeer used the camera obscura to compose his complex interiors. By observing the image on the camera obscura's screen the artist could immediately envision the two dimensional version of the three dimensional reality in his studio which he intended portray. When register minor changes in composition moving a bit to the left or right a geographical map or chair , there was no longer need to painstakingly redraw such complex forms on canvas or paper. Although there can be no doubt that Vermeer possessed one of the most uncanny senses of composition in the history of western art, he probably owed much to the camera obscura for the ease with which he could pursue through trial and error a handful of perfectly balanced compositions.

Since then a great number of studies have investigated the subject and although most scholars now agree that Vermeer did in fact use a camera obscura, there is still great debate to exactly to what extent he did so. For those who wish to investigate this fascinating topic which is beyond the scope of this web page, the resources listed below should provide a wide range of facts and interpretations.

CAMERA OBSCURA RESOURCES:

Publications (in chronological order)

  • Mayor Hyatt A., "The Photographic Eye." Bulletin of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, new series vol. 1, 1946
  • Heinrick Schwarts, "Vermeer and the Camera Obscura." in Pantheon 24, 1966
  • Daniel A. Fink, "Vermeer's Use of the Camera Obscura - A Comparative Study." The Art Bulletin 53, 1971
  • Jean-Luc Delsau', "The Camera Obscura and the Painting in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries." in Vermeer Studies, 199
  • Phillip Steadman Vermeer's Camera: Uncovering the Truth Behind the Masterpieces , 2001 One of the most exhaustive investigations, and also the most disputed. It is required reading for anyone interested not only in Vermeer's working methods, but in the artist himself.

WEBSITES:

  1. Mariët Westermann, Vermeer and the Dutch Interior, Madrid, 2003, p. 226
  2. Arthur K. Wheelock Jr., Vermeer and the Art of Painting, New Haven and London, 1995, p. 139
  3. Lawrence Gowing, Vermeer, London, 1952
  4. Mariët Westermann, ibid p. 266