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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

Overview of Vermeer's Painting Techniques with a Brief Outline of the Artist's Stylistic and Technical Evolution & a few notes on the Painting Techniques of the Old Masters

Although there are a number of excellent studies which explore particular aspects of Vermeer's painting techniques and materials, there still exists no single work which describe in detail Vermeer's painting procedures within an organic context such as Ernst van de Wetering's Rembrandt: A Painter at Work. The difficulty of describing Vermeer's painting methods is further complicated by the fact that the artist experimented with different techniques throughout his career

Even though Vermeer's painting technique was never formulaic, eevidence points to the fact that his methods and materials were substantially analogous to those his contemporaries. He seems to have used no specific painting technique that was not known by his contemporaries and perhaps the only difference in regards to materials was his abundant use of genuine ultramarine instead of more common blue pigments azurite and smalt.

Three  Stages of Vermeer's Painting Technique

Each of the three stages of Vermeer's painting technique in general as well as in regards to the Girl with a Pearl Earring are discussed separately. These studies can be accessed by clicking on the links below.

1.  drawing
2.  underpainting
3.  working-up

glazing - a particular painting technique which employs a layer of transparent paint over an opaque layer)

palette - characteristics of the palette used to paint the Girl with a Pearl Earring

support, sizing and grounding - the preparation of the painting

A Brief Stylistic and Technical  Outline of Vermeer's Oeuvre

Early Works

In Vermeer's early works, thickly applied impasto paint is characteristic. This evident paint build-up combined with a relative freedom of brushwork create uneven and granular effects. The artist probably wished to accentuate the material presence of his subjects although repeated overpainting may at times be considered evidence of technical uncertainty. Tones tend to be rather muted and in more than one painting, such as the Maid Asleep in the Metropolitan, they create an overall sullen effect. In Vermeer's early interiors, which immediately followed  the mythological and religious themes, impasto is used more selectively and the complicated admixtures of pigments found in preceding works are less frequent. The brilliant tones needed to suggest the intensity of incoming daylight, which had become one of his principle artistic preoccupations, are generally composed of two or three pigments. In this early phase Vermeer's contours tend to be very sharp, sometimes  to the point of brittleness.

Works of the mid-1660s

In the mid 1660s, when the Girl with a Pearl Earring was most likely painted, the surface of Vermeer's paintings have an almost levigated effect. Contours are suffused, especially in the shadows, and the objects in his paintings appear suggested by subtle manipulation of tonal values rather than being meticulously described. Paint layers are generally applied thinly and it is probable that Vermeer employed glazing more systematically. Although Vermeer drew inspiration from the so-called fijnschielders Gerrit Dou and Frans van Mieris, his rendering never reaches such extreme level of detail for which their painting had become renowned throughout Europe. The broad but controlled manner of the Girl with a Pearl Earring is a prime example of this difference. In this period may have also made use of the badger brush which was commonly employed to smooth brush marks and blend imperceptibly adjacent areas of color.

Late Works

In his last years of artistic activity Vermeer had acquired an extremely high degree of control of every facet of painting technique.  Outline had become again distinct, but paint is applied with the utmost economy and his brushwork often calligraphic, at times borders on the virtuoso. A sense of brittleness is adverted in the modeling of his sitters. In some areas paint has been applied so thinly that the underlying ground can easily be seen.  This fact has even lead some scholars to believe some of the paintings were not completely finished.

A Few Notes on the Methods of the Old Masters

Through modern scientific analysis many of the materials used by the old masters can be identified with certainty. Understanding painting technique, however, is another matter. Modern methods of observation such as x-ray and the recently invented infrared   radiographic photography, have revealed hitherto hidden aspects of the masters' paintings but these investigative methods must be used in conjunction with contemporary painters' manuals, direct observation and the comprehension of artists' expressive aims in order to form a reasonable overall picture of the artists' procedures.

The principle difference in Dutch seventeenth-century and modern painting technique is that antique painters broke down the working procedure in a series of distinct phases executed in a predefined order. This was due to the greater complexity of composition and above all by the need to simultaneously represent form, color and atmosphere in the most naturalistic manner possible. The principle difference between materials is that antique painters generally hand-made their own pigments which were very few in number when compared to the industrially pre-prepared paints available today. Modern paints have an almost uniform consistency while hand-made paints have entirely different characteristics from one another, which painters had learned to use to their advantage.

Old Master "Lost" Painting Materials

The search for lost old masters materials had already begun shortly after the end of the famed Golden Age. Dutch painters had achieved extraordinary levels of technical proficiency that successive generations of artists were at a loss as how to reproduce. Speculation continued into the twentieth century, especially among painters who attempted to emulate the painting styles of the past. Fortunately, modern scientific investigations of the paintings of the period conducted by the principle  museums in the later part of the twentieth  century, have slowly come to a common position in regards. It would now seem that the almost irreproducible technical results seen in Dutch masters were, in fact, not due to any particular use of material or complex procedure, rather they are consequence of superior creative and imaginative powers.

Ernst van Wetering  faces the question in his monumental study of Rembrandt's painting methods3 using the metaphor of the violin bow. "The impact of this rather simple implement on the richness of the musical effects depends almost entirely on the talent, skill and imagination of the musician who handles it. The same violin may sound either utterly dull or heavenly rich just from the way in which the same bow is handled........Rembrandt's pictorial richness is exclusively determined by the talent, skill and imagination with which he wielded the brush."

The composition of Rembrandt's painting medium (a medium is the oil based substance which is mixed with the paint to impart to it a particular handling  property) which had been the source of almost endless speculation, has been demonstrated to have been composed of nothing more but common linseed oil. Rarely did Rembrandt use walnut oil used, and the presence of the presence of egg was detected  together with linseed oil only occasionally.

  1. A number of sources were used as reference  including antique painters' manuals, modern studies of painting technique, the writings of  P. T. A. Swillens, Koos Levy-van Halm, Nicola Costara, E. Melanie Gifford, Arthur K. Wheelock Jr. and especially Ernst van de Wetering and Jorgen Wadum who was kind enough to have  answered some of my questions regarding the technique used in the Girl with a Pearl Earring. Thanks  to Richard Hyman, a contemporary painter, who offered many suggestions regarding Vermeer's painting technique and modern painting technique and materials as well.
  2. Ernst van de Wetering, Rembrandt: The Painter at Work, Berkley, Los Angeles and London, 2000