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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


After the underpainting was completed Vermeer proceeded to the next stage called working-up. "During the working-up the main concern was to give everything its correct coloring, to render materials appropriately, and to fix the final contours of the forms." 1 Each distinctive area of the painting was generally executed as a separate entity and finished in one or two sessions.

The technique of completing paintings one area at a time evolved when water based tempera, which is technically even more limiting than oil paints, was primarily used. An example of this procedure can be observed in Michelangelo's unfinished Manchester Madonna.

The Manchester Madonna

The are essentially two reasons for working-up one area at a time. The first is that painters in Vermeer's age had to produce their paints by hand each day before working.2 Neither the vast number of pigments, nor the pre-prepared paint in convenient metal tubes existed. Since hand grinding is a laborious and time consuming chore, artists had learned to limit the number of costly paints necessary for the day's work by painting in a restricted area. In fact, contemporary representations of artists at work generally show them holding very small palettes with a limited range or colors in small quantities of pigment.

The second reason for completing one area at a time was that paintings were generally more complex in their composition and far more detailed than they are today, this was even more so when this method of working was being perfected in the centuries before by artists such as Jan van Eyck and Albrecht Dürer. In effect, each area of the painting corresponded to a distinct visual experience which required a different technical approach and degree of concentration in order to render the illusionistic visual experience as convincing as possible. The luxurious sheen of silk or satin could not be rendered with the same technique used for the rough texture of the bark of an ancient tree. For example, in the Art of Painting Vermeer employed different pigments, brushes and paint applications when painting the highly detailed map of Holland as opposed to the softness of the artist's hair. While the painting separate areas individually would seem to be in direct contrast to the extraordinary pictorial unity prevalent in Baroque painting, the difficulty in harmonizing each separate area was largely offset by the unifying effect of underpainting which allowed to artist to envision at all times the totality of his artistic vision.

Once relatively cheap, ready-to-use, mutually compatible industrial manufactured paints in tubes became available and detailed rendering of naturalistic effects was no longer artistically desirable, this method of working vanished.

It is likely Vermeer adopted the same working-up procedure in the Girl with the Pearl Earring as other painters of the time. However, it is not at the moment possible to establish with any certainty the sequence in which each area was worked-up. What would seem more certain is that the working-up of the Girl with the Pearl Earring was probably done quite rapidly. On close inspection the headgear is modeled with surprisingly rapid and broad brushwork, laboratory analysis reveals that the illuminated blue part of the turban was executed with a single layer of white lead mixed with ultramarine blue and then successively glazed with a transparent of the same blue with a very small addition of red madder. The yellow ochre garment seems even more abbreviated, if not spuriously, executed. The dark background which was already been set in the underpainting stage was then glazed with a mixture of indigo (an deep toned organic blue) and welt (a yellow organic lake commonly used as a dyestuff) to achieve a somewhat greenish tonality that has degraded in time. The only area of the painting which may have required considerable time to paint was the face of the young girl. But since only two layers of paint above the dark underpainting have been detected, much of the careful balancing of chiaroscuro may have been achieved in the underpainting phase itself.

The illuminated part of the girl's face was worked-up in two layers of thin flesh tones. Two sittings or more may have been necessary to achieve both the extremely subtle gradations of tone and chiaroscuro. Vermeer seems to have used badger brush: a flat fan shaped brush used only to blend imperceptibly areas of adjacent paint together.

The first layer of flesh tone probably served to define the gradations of darks and lights with a uniform flesh tone. The more specific tones of color, such as the warmer tones on the cheeks and lips were completely realized in the second layer although their warmer tone may have been suggested from the beginning. Various incomplete painting of the times show faces whose modeling is fairly well defined but usually lacking in color. Analysis of samples taken from the illuminated flesh tones reveal the presence of white lead, yellow ochre and vermilion.

  1. Ernst van de Wetering, Rembrandt: The Painter at Work, Berkley, London, Los Angeles, 2002,  p.33
  2. Although the principal of hand grinding paint is fairly simple, the actual practice presents many subtleties which can be only  mastered through experience. The pigment and binder are ground together by a stone muller upon a marble surface until the desired consistency is reached. In general however, hand ground paint used in Vermeer's times paint was probably stiffer than today's commercially sold paints in tubes which often contain fillers to prolong their shelf-life. Metal tubes were widely employed only in 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. In general paints were much stiffer than paints in tubes today although each artist could impart to his paints particular qualities he may have desired. The apprentice were taught how to make  paints in the master's studio. Once he became sufficiently proficient he had to make the paints each morning which would be necessary for the day's work.