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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


Glazing was a technique widely employed by painters since the invention of oil painting. Although in theory it is very simple, in practice glazing can be a very complex undertaking. In the simplest terms, glazing consists in brushing a transparent layer of paint over another thoroughly dried layer of opaque paint. The underpainting, as the dried layer is usually called, is usually monochromatic but it can also be colored. The two layers of paint are not physically but optically mixed. It is very similar to placing a sheet of colored acetate over a monochrome photograph. This creates a unique "shine through" stained glass effect that is not obtainable by direct mixture of paint. The paint used to glaze must be diluted by an oil to achieve the correct fluidity for brushing. It is insufficient to know how a glaze is to be applied, one has to determine with the utmost precision, how thick or thin the glaze-paint should be, a little too scanty or a trifle too lavish an application can change a color or shade to an important degree. The same holds true for the underpainting which must also be brought to its final degree of detail since once glazed it can no longer be corrected easily.

paint glazes

1. genuine ultramarine glaze
2. indigo and weld glaze

Vermeer used glazing in two areas of the Girl with a Pearl Earring. The blue part of the turban was first modeled with ultramarine blue and white lead. Once dry, it was glazed with a thin transparent layer of ultramarine. The ultramarine glaze added depth and chromatic power to the underlying opaque blue.

In the 1994 restoration of the painting it was discovered that Vermeer had glazed the whole background, initially painted in black, with a mixture of indigo and weld which together, produced a deep transparent green. Both pigments are adapted for glazing since they are very transparent. Weld1 is an organic extract of the weld flower, it has a strong yellow tone. Indigo, an extract of the indigo plant, has a deep blue tone. The background of the painting was originally a smooth, glossy translucent hard green paint. Vermeer probably wanted to convey "a perfect illusion of a precious object made of enamel." 2

Why Glaze?

Glazing was basically utilized for two reasons. One, the artist had very few of the brilliant colors that are available today. For example, purple had to be made by glazing blue over red or vice a versa. Two, glazing created, as we have said, an extraordinarily luminosity impossible to achieve otherwise. In order to appreciate this effect one has to view the painting directly for no reproduction can convey its jewel-like quality. Glazing, however, has more than one drawback. It is very difficult to accurately anticipate the exact chromatic effect the glazed area will have in the overall harmony of the finished work. Due to its transparency, it also tends to attract the viewer's eye more than the surrounding painted surfaces. For these reasons glazing was not used for other than very specific areas of the painting. Lastly, as already stated, only very transparent paints are suited for glazing and in the past there were very few of them available to painters. The principle pigments used traditionally for glazing were red madder, carmine, ultramarine blue, Indian yellow, virdigris, various organic yellow lakes, and indigo. For further information on these pigments see Palette.

Today there are various informative studies which discuss glazing in Vermeer's paintings. However, some of them probably tend to overstate Vermeer's use of glazing and do not distinguish between glazing used as a corrective measure (very light glazes meant only to slightly alter the underlying paint layer) and true glazing which instead aims to create a very specific and otherwise unachievable pictorial effect. The two glazes in the Girl with a Pearl Earring mentioned above can be considered true glazing.

Example of Glazing in Vermeer's Painting

underpainting modeled with
vermilion and black

Girl with a Red Hat, Johannes Vermeer

finished area glazed
with red madder

An excellent example of glazing can be found in Vermeer's Girl with a Red Hat. The plumed hat was first modeled in vermilion and black. Vermilion, unlike red madder, is a very opaque pigment making it ideal for strong modeling and as can be seen in the image to the right, it has a distinct orange undertone. Once the underpainting was thoroughly dry, it was glazed with red madder probably with the aid of a badger brush to produce the characteristic cherry red. This particular glaze was widely employed by painters since the beginnings of oil painting.

Corrective glazing should not be considered a technique itself because it does not have a clear pre-planned aim. This difference might not seem a fundamental one but the idea that Vermeer built up his paintings in a series of successive glazes is incorrect and creates a distorted perception of Vermeer's painting methods. An oil painting cannot be created by a series of successive glazes as if they were water color washes.

Glazing, as the Italians say, "mangia la luce" (eats light) which mans that when hung in low light, glazed areas appear to sink in respects to the areas painted with opaque paint. Glazes also attracts dust due to the its high oil content. The particles of dust imbedded in the transparent paint in turn attract attract pigment in the glaze and ruin the visual effect. Successive glazes only multiply this problem especially in such finely detailed paintings such as Vermeer's. Most areas the painting' surface were created by straightforward opaque or semi-opaque paint layers. Dutch painters like Vermeer, used glazing very selectively and in specific cases only.

  1. Reseda luteola is a plant species in the genus Reseda. Common names include dyer's rocket, dyer's weed, weld, woold, and yellow weed. A native of Eurasia, the plant can be found in North America as an introduced species and common weed.
  2. Jørgen Wadum, Vermeer Illuminated. Conservation, Restoration and Research. With contributions by L. Struik van der Loeff and R. Hoppenbrouwers (1994) The Hague