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Recapturing Materials and Methods of a Seventeenth-Century Master

by Jonathan Janson

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


Although it is not known exactly how Vermeer made the initial drawing of the Girl with a Pearl Earring some light ochre colored strokes of paint have been detected on the ground at the edges of the face with the aid of a stereomicroscope. Preliminary drawing on canvas was generally intended generally fix the most significant contours of the composition and to serve as a guide during the subsequent painting process. Chalk, charcoal, tempera and oil paints in various tones were employed. Since the preliminary drawing is inevitably covered by successive layers of opaque paint, it leaves little material evidence and thus our knowledge of Vermeer's drawing procedure is mostly speculative.

The Art of painting, detail

Detail of Vermeer's
Art of Painting

It is sometimes noted that Vermeer may have revealed some of his own working methods Art of Painting. On the artist's canvas (right) an initial light toned drawing and gray ground can be seen on the canvas in front of the seated painter. At first thought, the procedure might suggest that he used the same method for the Girl with a Pearl Earring. However, on close inspection, there are many discrepancies between real working habits seen in representations of painter's studios of the seventeenth century and those illustrated in the Art of Painting which scholars now believe to be an idealized representation of the an artist at work rather than a realistic one.

In most representations the artist's studio, a cabinet that contained equipment (brushes, pigments, solvents, oils essences, etc.) was shown nearby the artist at work. It would be hard to imagine the artist in Vermeer's painting standing up and walking a few steps just to clean his brush or pick up more pigment. "He paints in a "paint-by numbers" fashion which resembles a child's notion of of drawing." 1 The painter applies color directly to the top of the canvas where the laurel leaves are represented without the presence of a monochrome underpainting. Laboratory examinations demonstrate that in many cases Vermeer used a brownish monochrome underpainting (also present in the Girl with a Pearl Earring) to define composition, form and lighting before applying color.

The costume worn by the painter is one of the past; none similar can be found in other paintings of the same period. Furthermore, judging by the preliminary drawing on the canvas the trumpet held in the model's hands cannot fit within the bounds of the canvas in front of him. While some of the indications given by the Art of Painting of the painter's technique may be factual, others may have a more decorative or iconographic function.

In any case, from a technical point of view, the initial drawing of the Girl with a Pearl Earring would not have required more than average manual ability to complete. As such, the procedure used does not seem to have much bearing on the genesis or outcome of the work of art. However, a few consideration on Vermeer's drawings may nonetheless be of interest.

Drawing attributed to Van Vliet

It may come as a surprise to know that not even a single preparatory or finished drawing by Vermeer has survived till today. It is especially so if we take into account the complexities of his compositions and the extreme accuracy of draughtsmanship and perspective. It is far more practical and economic to execute preliminary studies on paper since they can easily be corrected or entirely redone. A few examples of these kinds of drawings by Vermeer's contemporaries such as Peter Saenredam , which represent elaborate church interiors, have survived. One that is attributed to the Delft painter Van Vliet can seen to the right.

The preparatory drawing could be transferred to the canvas in a number of ways. One of the most common and efficient was to was to prick a series of holes along the lines of the drawing with a pin.2 The drawing was then laid directly over the canvas and fine powdered charcoal dust was gently filtered through the pin-holes. When the drawing was lifted from the canvas, the filtered charcoal dust accurately indicated the lines of the drawings. The artist may have then passed over with brush and paint to fix the lines more permanently. In the detail of Leonardo's preparatory drawing (right) for the portrait of Isabella D' Este an example of pricking procedure can be clearly observed.

Detail of a drawing by Leonardo

Detail of a drawing by Leonardo

Using this simple technique, the fresco painter could transfer a very large drawing in a few minutes. This practice was eminently practical since the fresco painter works on humid plaster which dries within a few hours. The same technique used for transferring minutely detailed work of smaller dimensions as well as drawings which adorned the renowned porcelain production of Delft.

Had Vermeer used the pouncing technique, he would not have most likely retained the cartoons. Very few remain from any period.

As strange as it may seem, it is not impossible that Vermeer was able to transfer the final image of his composition without having ever realized any kind of material drawing. Philip Steadman, in his study on Vermeer's use of the camera obscura (a sort of precursor of the modern photographic camera widely known by painters of the time) believes that the artist may have actually traced the image projected by the camera obscura directly on the canvas. The camera obscura, which probably served Vermeer principally as a compositional aid, would have rendered preparatory drawing superfluous. Some scholars strongly dissent with Steadman's arguments even though they have a strong rational base. (For detailed information on the subject, read Steadman's Vermeer's Camera: Uncovering the Truth Behind the Masterpieces, or visit his web site at:

Although no preparatory or final drawings on paper of Vermeer remain, this does not necessarily mean that he had not at some time or the other produced them. Drawings, although collected by a few connoisseurs at the time, did not have the same value as they do today and considering that Vermeer's preparatory drawings might have been done in a more schematic rather than expressive style, it is not unreasonable that they were not deemed of great value. A single "folio" such as the ones listed in the artist's death inventory may have contained his precious drawings which could have been lost or destroyed.

  1. Brian Jay Wolf, Vermeer and the Invention of Seeing,  Chicago, 2001, p. 196
  2. Interestingly this technique of pouncing is still employed by sign painters. The only modern improvements are [1] the pounce wheel and [2] the electrical pounce machine which perforates the holes with an electric spark. These expensive  machines must be regarded with caution since when wound up to the maximum as is needed for piercing multiple layers or thick paper, it delivers a nasty shock.