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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

Support, Sizing and Grounding

Support

The Girl with a Pearl Earring was painted on canvas with oil paints. Of all 35 surviving Vermeer's, only two works, the Girl with a Flute and Girl with a Red Hat were not painted on canvas but on thin oak (?) panels. However, in Vermeer's death inventory of 1676 there were listed 10 unpainted canvases and 6 unpainted panels in his studio which may indicate that the artist's preference for canvas was not so accentuated as the proportions of his surviving paintings would lead us to believe.

Although canvas as a support for painting was know to the ancients, it became widely used in Italy for oil painting by the end of the fifteenth century. Until then, both tempera and oil painting had been done primarily on wood panels. The word canvas does not refer to any specific material in the field of textile fabrics, it is applied to number of closely woven materials of relatively course fibers. Linen is preferred because it tears with great difficulty. It is also less hygroscopic other fabrics which draw moisture from the air and, upon drying, throw it off and are in a sort of continual expansion and contraction in which the dry pigment cannot participate. This causes the paint to crack severely.

Canvas has various advantages over panel: it is easily transportable, it is easier to prepare, and it can be used to make paintings of far greater dimensions. The Marriage of Cana, the largest known oil painting in the world, by Veronese is an astounding 22 x 32 1/2 ft. (666 x 990 cm.) The tooth and spring of the prepared canvas lends itself to a more rapid and expressive execution. It is also possible to effectively use greater quantities of paint and achieve more varied esthetic solutions. At the same time canvas also permits the painter to obtain a great degree of fine detail although not as much as with panel. Various tones and degrees of roughness and absorption can be achieved by altering the materials and preparation methods.

Vermeer generally used a fine-woven linen for his paintings, the Girl with a Pearl Earring was no exception. The painting's thread count is approximately 14.7 x 14.3 per square centimeter.

Unless treated, canvas is very absorbent and the paint immediately sinks into the fabric making the final chromatic effect of the picture impossible to calculate. Canvas must first be properly stretched, sized and grounded before painting.

Format and Stretching

The Girl with a Pearl Earring measures 17 1/2 x 15 3/8 in. (44.5 x 39 cm.). the same as other paintings by Vermeer of different periods. "This cannot be due to chance, rather it suggests that Vermeer used standard sizes."1 The 1: 1:14. width to height ratio is very nearly square The square format is the most visually stable and psychologically reassuring and of all geometrical forms. It was used widely by Dutch painters although the perfect square was always avoided because it tends to have a stifling effect on the inherent expressive content of a work of art.

Evidence indicates that the Girl with a Pearl Earring was attached to a larger strainer with a string for preparation. This method was a widely used and can often be observed in representations of painters in their studios (right). Although it was employed principally for preparing the canvas, painters also executed their works while they were still on the strainer. The function of these oversize strainers must have been to provide a simple and effective way of stretching and restretching a canvas to take up slack. Once applied to the strainer, the canvas was then sized with a coating of animal skin glue.

Sizing, a glue, seals effectively the canvas against successive ground and paint layers both of which contain drying oils and would be damaging if applied directly. Clippings of rabbit hide, pig skin or parchment were usually used for the purpose Animal skin glue is manufactured in the form of thin brittle sheets or course crystallized grains. It is first soaked in cold water where it swells after which it is heated in a double boiler until it becomes completely fluid. The warm glue, about the consistency of honey, is spread on the taught canvas with a palette knife with quick energetic strokes forcing it to penetrate as deep as possible into the open pours.

Size must never be brought to boiling temperature as it is very liable to crack shortly afterwards. The presence of size can be detected by laboratory analysis for its high protein content.

Grounding

After the sized canvas was dry, it was sanded with a pumice stone and grounded. Grounding, or priming as it is usually called today, provides the final surface suitable for painting. Grounding must produce a smooth surface that can be easily painted upon, it must be hard but not brittle (which causes cracking) and last of all it must be porous enough to allow the oil paint to adhere permanently but not too absorbent as to suck out the oil from the layers of oil paint and cause it to detach.

Vermeer generally used light colored grounds composed of chalk (a filler), linseed oil, white lead and various combinations of coloring pigments. The ground of the Girl with a Pearl Earring contains white lead, black and a little red and brown ochre. The grounded canvas had a cool light gray tone. Painters were aware that the ground's tone strongly influences the overall tone of the painting.

A dark toned canvas greatly aids the rendering of shadowed areas but requires repeated layers of lighter paint to represent the strongly illuminated areas since even the most opaque oil paints are never entirely covering. The tonality of the work is effected throughout and most particularly in the more transparent areas. On the other hand, a very light ground obviously does not evidence the lightest tones which painters use in abundance. Pure white grounds were avoided since it is very difficult to harmonize a strongly colored painting on them. Neutral or warm light grays were used by Vermeer as well as many other Dutch painters of the time. Italian painters tended to use warm reddish grounds that were often very dark as well.

The table below illustrate the optical influence that different colored grounds have on pigment applied to them. The warm gray ground to the left is roughly similar to the ground color of the Girl with a Pearl Earring. When four identical tones are placed on two different grounds they do not produce the same chromatic effect. The yellow swatch on the gray ground seems far more luminous and clean, the blue on the white ground seems much darker, the flesh tone on the white ground seems a bit greenish and the white tone on the white ground can barely be seen. All four swatches on the gray ground seem more active.

Influence of a toned ground on four predominant colors used in the Girl with a Pearl Earring.

gray gound

white ground

Ground Ground was applied with a palette knife in one or two layers. X-ray images of the Girl with a Pearl Earring show that Vermeer applied two layers of ground with a broad palette knife in opposite directions. Once the canvas was properly sized and grounded Vermeer probably transferred it to a fixed stretcher before painting . Expandable stretchers which take up the lost tension by means of wedges inserted in the corners became common only in the 1750's. When the canvas was transferred to the fixed stretcher is was fastened with wooden pegs which in the case of Girl with a Pearl Earring have been replaced long ago. Vermeer's Guitar Player is one of the few paintings of the seventeenth century which still is on its original stretcher with its wooden pegs intact.

The grounded canvas of the Girl with a Pearl Earring was very smooth to the touch and the weave of canvas could be only vaguely perceived.

  1. Ground was applied with a palette knife in one or two layers. X-ray images of the Girl with a Pearl Earringshow that Vermeer applied two layers of ground with a broad palette knife in opposite directions. Once the canvas was properly sized and grounded Vermeer probably transferred it to a fixed stretcher before painting . Expandable stretchers which take up the lost tension by means of wedges inserted in the corners became common only in the 1750's. When the canvas was transferred to the fixed stretcher is was fastened with wooden pegs which in the case of Girl with a Pearl Earring have been replaced long ago. Vermeer's Guitar Player is one of the few paintings of the seventeenth century which still is on its original stretcher with its wooden pegs intact. The grounded canvas of the Girl with a Pearl Earring was very smooth to the touch and the weave of canvas could be only vaguely perceived.
  2. Economics of time and material often played an important role in the genesis of Dutch painting since the market was extremely competitive and generally low prices were paid for paintings.