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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

Vermeer's Palette

Vermeer's palette was essentially the same as most Dutch painters of the mid seventeenth-century. The only significant difference was his extensive use of  lapis lazuli  instead of cheaper azurite. A typical catalogue of modern commercially prepared oil paints may display scores of pigments. Today's artist has nothing to do but choose tubes of the color and quantity of paint he desires from the art supplier's shelve.1 The situation was not so simple in Vermeer's time. In many cases the painter had to hand grind paint necessary for the day's work. He possessed very few of the pigments, especially the brighter tones, available today. Throughout his entire career Vermeer, probably employed no more than 15 different pigments in all. In a few paintings such as Woman in Blue Reading a Letter, he may have used no more than five or six.

Pigments used in the Girl with a Pearl Earring  
1.   white lead
2.   yellow ochre
3.   vermilion
4.   red madder
5.   red ochre
6.   brown ochre (raw umber?)
7.   charcoal black
8.   bone black
9.   ultramarine (natural lapis lazuli)
10.  indigo
11.  weld

The Anatomy of Paint: Pigment and Binder

The pasty substance know as paint consists primarily of two components: pigment and binder. Pigment is the actual coloring substance and usually is of mineral or organic origin. Some pigments, such as the all important lead white, were artificially produced as well (the Dutch were renowned for their lead-white which was fabricated with the so-called Dutch stack process).  The pigment, after being  separated from impurities and thoroughly cleansed usually presents itself in powdered form although some are organic extracts. These dyes must first be fixed on a more solid, but at the same time transparent, substance such as alum or clay before they are bound with oil.

The binder is an unctuous natural drying oil. Poppy, linseed and walnut were preferred. Each oil has its own characteristics. For example, poppy oil is very light in color, does not yellow and tends to dry slowly but does not impart to the paint the same desirable handling linseed oil. In some cases a protein based substance (probably some kind of animal skin glue) was used bind certain blue pigments since even the slight, but inevitable yellowing of drying oil alters their brilliance to a greater degree than other pigments.

In order to produce paint, pigment and binder are ground into a stiff paste which must have three requirements. It must be brushable, it must adhere permanently to the support's surface and it must not alter significantly in time. In Holland canvas and panel were preferred as elsewhere but copper was also used as support. Through chemical analysis it would appear that Vermeer employed  the same materials to produce his paints as those widely employed by his contemporaries.

Hand Grinding

paints stored in
pig's bladders

Although the principal of hand grinding paint is fairly simple, the actual practice presents many subtleties which can be only  mastered through experience. Pigment and binder are ground together by a stone muller upon a marble surface until the desired consistency is reached. Each pigment absorbs highly varying quantities of binder and in order to produce the most permanent and brilliant paint the artist must also know how long he must grind them. Some pigments must be ground for extended lengths of time to create a suitable paste for painting while others quickly lose their brilliance. In general however, hand ground paint used in Vermeer's times paint was probably stiffer than today's commercially sold paints which often contain fillers to prolong their shelf-life.Metal tubes2 were widely employed only in the mid 1800s so excess paint which had not been used could be kept temporarily in pig's bladders or emerged over night in water to prevent contact with oxygen which induces drying. As already stated, paints were much stiffer than paints in tubes today although each artist could impart to his paint the particular qualities he may have desired. The apprentice was taught how to make  paints in the master's studio. Once he became sufficiently proficient in this task he had to make the paints each morning which would be necessary for the day's work.

The Wooden Palette

Frans van Mieris

Vermeer used a small wood palette like every painter of his time. In the 1676 death inventory of Vermeer's house in the front room of the first floor of the Oude Langendijk, there were listed  "twee schilders eesels, drye paletten", two painters easels, three palettes". In Vermeer's time the familiar painter's palette with a hole for the thumb had replaced the older rectangular kind with a handle. Wood was preferred because it was lightweight, rigid but could be shaped easily.  Another advantage of wood was its warm brown tone. Many painters started their work on a canvas primed with a warm brownish tone that was not dissimilar to the color of the palette. Since the perception colors are strongly influenced by the dominating tone that surrounds them, the paint that was mixed on the palette did not change perceptibly when applied to the canvas.

In a painting (left) by Vermeer's contemporary Frans van Mieris, the allegorical figure representing Pictura can be seen holding a typical palette. It was very small with only enough paint for a day's work. The palette in Van Mieris' painting probably represents the colors necessary for painting flesh tones, which were often represented probably because the correct rendering  flesh was considered the highest test of the artist's ability. The layout of the pigments, from light to dark, was common.

Did Vermeer Hand Grind His Own Paints?

Historical evidence demonstrates that paint was already being produced in the mid seventeenth-century in major artistic centers in Holland. However, it is not to know exactly to what extent painters employed such paint since production methods are unknown and cannot be determined by laboratory analysis. If we consider Vermeer's highly perfectionist approach to the thematic, compositional and technical components of his art, it might be safely assumed that he was more apt to have made his own paint in order to assure the exact quality he desired. This attitude is confirmed by his use of the finest grade of the costly ultramarine (crushed natural lapis lazuli) instead of the cheaper and more common azurite.

The complex and demanding chore of had grinding paint was acquired through the traditional apprentice-master relationship. In fact it, was one of the apprentice's principal daily chores which left the master greater time and energy to spend on the actual act of painting. In Rembrandt: The Painter at Work, Van de Wetering provides convincing evidence that apprentices prepared a limited amount of paints depending on the what the master intended to paint that day rather than the whole range of available colors. This practice finds its roots in the logic of wide-spread painting methods. After having first blocked in the general forms, composition and lighting scheme in a monochrome  grayish underpainting, the artist then proceeded to complete separate areas of the painting one at a time usually in a single sitting. There is no historical  evidence that indicates that Vermeer ever had an apprentice.

The Purchase of Artist's Materials

Painters could acquire their materials from shops specialized in artist's materials, apothecaries, sailors from abroad and even quack doctors.  It should be noted  that "it was quite common for painters to buy equipment outside the cities where they worked. If we examine the accounts of Crijn Hendrikszoon Volmarijn, the major dealer in painter's materials known from Dutch sources of this period, who was active in Rotterdam in the first half of the seventeenth-century , we find that he had a large number of clients from Delft." 2 Materials could also be easily found in Utrecht and Amsterdam were great number of artists lived. However, "in the city of Delft there seems to been an accumulation of  specialized knowledge of the nature, composition and application of pigments and other substances used in painting. In addition to the painters themselves, there was also a group of apothecaries and artisans (largely involved in producing Delftware) who were experienced in the production of pigments."3

It is known that Vermeer had accumulated a debt with the apothecary in Delft where he is believed to have purchased some of his artists materials. Lead tin yellow, the characteristic lemon yellow tone in Vermeer's paintings, was listed among the materials in the apothecary's ledgers.  In the nearby city of Leiden "a Danish student attending the Leiden University described the situation there by remarking that Leiden held public sales of cartloads of books on topics such as pharmacopoeia, pigments, drugs and herbs. The only color not listed in any of the existing shop inventories is ultramarine; this must have been obtained through another channels."4 Vermeer, differently from his contemporaries, made extensive use lapis lazuli, a semi-precious stone used in the production the costly natural ultramarine. In any case, Vermeer had no lack of either the materials of the knowledge necessary to produce the highest quality paints.

The Pigments of Vermeer's Palette

1.  white lead

Used since antiquity, lead white was the only white used in European easel paintings until the 19th century. Lead white strongly absorbs X-rays, thus can be detected in paintings easily. It is one of the oldest man-made pigments, and its history dates back to the Ancient Greeks and Egyptians. It was originally made by filling lead jars and pots with vinegar (which is an acid) and burying the pots in manure piles, an ancient source of generating heat. The lead disintegrated into a white powder that was white lead.

White lead had always been the basis and principal pigment  for oil painting. Its properties in oil as regards grinding, drying, brushing. its opacity, flexibility and durability are superior to those of other whites. The Dutch were renowned for the high quality of their lead white.

Vermeer used lead white to lighten natural ultramarine in the illuminated areas of the turban and it is the principal component of the bright flesh tones as well. Care was take by painters of all periods to  avoid introducing white in deep shadows since it produces a very unnatural chalky sullen effect. Since it is derived from lead it has the disadvantage of being very poisonous.

2. yellow ochre

Yellow ochre is a natural clay colored by iron found in a great number of shades depending on its provenance. It is a very opaque pigment widely used by artists. Mixed with other colors it produces many useful natural shades.

Yellow ochre is the  principle pigment of the girl's garment is yellow ochre and the lighter yellow tones (mixed with lead white) of the falling scarf. It was also mixed with lead white and vermilion to produce the very natural illuminated flesh tones of the painting.

3.  vermilion

Vermilion is manufactured by heating mercury and sulfur. This process was known for centuries although vermilion can also be  found in a natural state called cinnabar. It has excellent qualities for artists and craftsmen alike. It was the artist's brightest red and is very opaque. It possesses characteristic orange undertone and was often glazed over with red madder to produce an intense cherry red otherwise not attainable by direct mixture.

Vermeer  mixed minute quantities of vermilion and yellow ochre with white lead for the flesh tones in the girl's face. This same mixture was widely used by painters. Vermilion is very poisonous and has at times blackened, the cause is still unknown.

4. red madder (madder lake)

Red madder is an extract made by boiling the root of the madder plant (rubia tintorium) and precipitating it on a clay base. It was used as a textile dye in ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome, being the most permanent of the maroon or ruby-red colors of natural dyestuff origin. It is said to have been introduced in Italy by the Crusaders and was cultivated in Europe from the thirteenth-century on. It was the only deep ruby red tone available to painters in Vermeer's time and it has the additional quality of being extremely transparent making it suitable for glazing. It mixes well with other pigments and produces pure rosy tones when mixed with white.

Vermeer used it in admixtures the shadowed area of the girl's garment but is now completely degraded. The garment probably had a warmer tone than it does today. Red madder has also been detected in the lips of the girl. red madder (madder lake)

5.  red ochre

Red ochre is a native red clay containing oxide of iron. The principle earth colors have been used since the dawn of man. In the Paleolithic and Primitive Cultures, natural red earths were used in cave paintings and for ritualistic purposes; specifically death ceremonies, because the red color can easily symbolize blood. They are also used because of their permanence. Some paintings with red earth hues in the Italian city of Pompeii have withstood wind and rain for over a millennium. In fact, this pigment was so important that the people took risks in locating the it.

It can been found in various shades depending on its origin. Vermeer used it in the Girl with a Pearl Earring only as an admixture. It is very opaque.

6.  brown ochre (raw umber)

Brown ochre, probably raw umber, is a natural earth. The best grade comes from Cyprus. It is semi-transparent and has an inimitable warm tone very useful for depicting deep shadows. When mixed with white is presents a characteristic greenish tone. It was one of the principle pigments used in painting.

Raw umber can be found in the underpainting of the Girl with a Pearl Earring as well as most underpainting  throughout the history of painting.

7.  charcoal black

A pigment used extensively in every age. Made of powdered charcoal or calcinated bones, it has a decidedly brownish tone when compared to lamp black. It is extremely permanent and easy to produce.

Vermeer mixed a very minute amount of charcoal black with white and yellow ochre in the cascading turban to slightly lower the tone. It was also used in parts of the underpainting.

8. bone black

A fine, fluffy powder obtained by collecting soot from burning oils and fats. When mixed with flake white it assumes a bluish undertone that Vermeer exploited when he painted the dark marble floor tiles. It was not uncommon to find more than one black in the same painting since their properties are so different.

Bone black has been detected in the underpainting of deeper shadows of the turban in the blue areas and in the dark background.

9.   ultramarine blue (lapis lazuli)

Genuine ultramarine is made of the powdered semi-precious stone lapis lazuli.  The mineral occurs mainly in a single blue shade, but the color of the extracted pigment depends largely on the quality of the rock, the number of refinements, and the care taken in the extraction process. The best samples are of uniform deep blue; those of a paler color or those intermingled with white crystalline material are low quality or impure. which must   being thoroughly purified by repeated washings.

It is the most difficult pigment to grind by hand. And, for all except the highest quality of mineral, sheer grinding and washing, sufficient for most other pigments, produces only a pale grayish blue powder. Even when the process is mastered the resulting paint has a very fastidious stringy quality which makes it difficult to brush out evenly. However, mixed with white this defect is less noticeable. The final product is a very deep transparent blue. Set aside other pigments on the artist's palette, only black appears darker.  Mixed with lead white, it maintains its purity even in the palest shades. The superior cost, complicated  preparation and poor brushing qualities of genuine ultramarine are offset by the exceptional brilliance of the final product. Discovered by Goethe in 1787 as a byproduct of lime kilns near Palermo, France, artificial ultramarine today is made by heating clay, soda, sulfur, and coal in furnaces.

The girl's turban was first painted with an opaque mixture of white lead and ultramarine blue. It was then glazed with a thin layer of pure ultramarine.

10.  weld

Weld, also called schijtgeel, is an extract made from the yellow flowers of the same name. Weld extract produces the purest and most permanent  of all natural yellow dyes. Since it is not soluble in oil it must be first precipitated on alum and kneaded with transparent chalk.

Vermeer used it with indigo in the dark background   (see "indigo" below for a more detailed explanation).

11. indigo

A deep transparent blue originally obtained from the plants cultivated in India. Originally, the main source of indigo was plant matter. The indigo plants were cut when they began blooming and soaked in water to ferment. The indigo would separate from the water making extraction possible. The extracted indigo in its purest form was a dark blue powder. When indigo was first imported into Europe, many people thought the substance was mined because of its physical as well as chemical characteristics. Its yellow undertone distinguishes it from natural ultramarine. It was used in Europe from very early times as a dyestuff.

Vermeer employed a glaze of indigo and weld over the dark background which has now degraded. The background was originally a deep, glossy translucent green. See  the page about the painting's background for further considerations.

Visit  Pigments Through the Ages at   for further information on the history and chemistry of painter's pigments.

  1. In 1841, the American painter J. Goffe Rand patented a tube made of sheet tin. The following year the English firm of Winsor & Newton changed the patent by improving the cap and put tube colors on the market. The 19th century saw other innovations in paint manufacture, including the industrial grinding of pigments and the use of fats and paraffins as additives. Both of these inventions improved consistency and uniformity of products, especially oil paints. Henceforth, one could butter a canvas with colors, and all would flow on in the same smooth manner.  From: Colors, The Story of Dyes and Pigments, Francois Delamare and Bernard Guineau, Abrams, 200', p. 115
  2. Koos-Levy van Halm, "Where did Vermeer Buy His Painting Materials? Theory and Practice,"  in Vermeer Studies, ed. by Ivan Gaskell, 1995
  3. ibid.