Archive for the ‘Painting Technique’ Category

Vermeer-related lecture

February 28th, 2015
steadman

LUNCH HOUR LECTURE: VERMEER’S CAMERA AND TIM’S VERMEER
Philip Steadman
Darwin Lecture Theatre, Darwin Building, London
March 5, 2015, 13:15-13:55
price: free
contact: +44 (0)20 3108 3841 | events@ucl.ac.uk
event page

In 2001 Philip Steadman published Vermeer’s Camera, a book that offered new evidence that the great Dutch painter relied on optical methods. An American video engineer Tim Jenison read the book and, believing he could take the argument further, proposed a simple arrangement of lens and mirrors that Vermeer might have employed. Jenison used this setup to paint a version of Vermeer’s Music Lesson in the Queen’s collection. The process was filmed for the Oscar-shortlisted documentary Tim’s Vermeer, released in 2014. Jenison’s method throws more light, literally, on how Vermeer could have achieved his distinctively “photographic” tonal effects.

The lecture will be streamed live online and recorded for YouTube or downloaded.

Tim’s Vermeer…from a painter’s point of view

June 21st, 2014

After I posted various reports about the documentary film Tim’s Vermeer, a few readers encouraged me to give a scholarly assessment of Jenison’s claim that Vermeer had used an optical device called a comparator mirror as an aid to his painting. Given my limited knowledge of the use of optics in seventeenth-century painting, I found it more appropriate to examine the issue from a technical viewpoint, since I am by profession a painter. The fact that I have studied Vermeer’s painting technique and attempted to emulate his manner for over 40 years, I hope, might give me a discreet edge over non-painters in evaluating if Jenison’s device is or is not compatible with what we know of Vermeer’s pictorial strategy and technical procedures.

Following some lively discussions with Mr. Jenison on the finer points of Vermeer’s painting procedures, I was able to meet him in Texas and experiment with the comparator mirror on the premises of a full-scale mockup of scene of Vermeer’s Music Lesson which Jenison had built in order to test his hypothesis by paintings his own Vermeer.

My first attempt to use the comparator mirror was frustrating. Not only was I unable to produce acceptable pencil outlines of a black and white photograph with which Jenison had used in his first experiments, I was utterly incapable of matching on paper any of the photograph’s tonal values. To use the comparator, at least as I was attempting to use it at the moment, one is constrained to work within an extremely small area of the drawing, along a thin edge where the image of the comparator mirror abuts on the drawing below and the two can be compared. Initially I found this procedure mentally and visually stressing, and at odds with my experience in conceiving and making paintings.

With a little more practice I was able to produce a few acceptable contours, even though they lacked any sort of artistic quality. However, seeing that I am not particularly skilled with a pencil, I though it best to test the device with paint and brush with which I have greater familiarity, even though on first consideration the oil painting technique seemed even more at odds with the mirror’s limitations than with dry drawing.

Surprisingly, I made rapid progress with the oil medium. Although with a certain fatigue, I learned to define first simple and then complex contours with a fine-tipped brush and began, even more surprisingly, to marvel at how it was possible to match with utmost precision both the chromatic and tonal values of my painting with those of the mirror in a completely objective manner.

Having made substantial progress in coordinating mind, eye, brush and mirror after a few painting sessions, I started afresh and began to depict a small portion of Jenison’s Vermeer mockup Vermeer room following what I have come to understand of Vermeer’s multi-step painting technique. Beginning with a schematic line drawing which served to fixed the most salient contours of the scene, I first underpainted the lights and darks with monochrome brown (raw umber plus black) and white paints without, however, systematically consulting the comparator mirror. I was, in fact, interested in testing how close I could get to the correct values on my own.

Once the underpainting was thoroughly dry, I began to apply the final colors over it using thick opaque paint in the lights and thinner paint in the shadows, according to seventeenth-century prescription. In order to render a given passage I first mixed, as all painters do, the proper paints on the palette attempting to match them as closely as possible to the color and tonal value combining what I perceived in nature with I had learned through practice. I then applied the mixture to the canvas and compared the values of my paint to those of the corresponding passage in the mirror. I sometimes discovered that both the color and tone of my mixture were very close to those seen in the mirror, but just as often I was struck by how poorly I had interpreted nature notwithstanding my decades of experience. In a back and forth manner I was able to register the erred values of my work with those of the mirror and return to painting. Once the proper values were firmly in place, I freehanded most of the modelling as I would have done without using an optical aid, taking care to verify the accuracy of my progress via the comparator mirror at regular intervals. The comparator mirror was also of help in verifying difficult contours and defining the smallest details that I had been unable to capture by freehand.

In any case, once I had registered the values of my painting with those of the mirror, the passage appeared much more true to life (painters simply say “right”).

Although the set of mirrors and lens (Jenison’s used a double convex lens of the camera obscura in coordination with a concave mirror and a comparator mirror) requires periodic adjustments in order to view the different areas of the scene, this does not unduly interrupt the painting process once one has acquired the necessary skill maneuver them.

Conclusion

Given Jenison’s complete lack of painting experience, he painted his Vermeer employing the comparator mirror, as would be expected, in the most literal of manners. He painstakingly matched what he saw in the mirror with paint applied directly, alla prima, forgoing any sort of layering techniques that we know Vermeer and his more accomplished colleagues sometimes employed. This aspect of Jenison’s approach provoked considerable criticism, including my own. It was reasoned that Vermeer could not have used the comparator mirror because Jenison’s essentially paint-by-numbers technique, and the consequential one-layer paint structure gotten by such an approach, is completely at odds with the multi-layered structure of Vermeer’s paintings.

According to my experience the comparator mirror neither dictates nor limits the painter to any fixed procedure or techniques, including those used by Vermeer. Certainly, it would interfere no more with the creative painting process than a systematic use of the camera obscura.

If it is used in a “painterly” manner, as any experienced painter would be naturally inclined to do, the comparator mirror opens the possibility to study color more precisely than can be done with the camera obscura alone and allows the artist to match with remarkable efficacy the illusive tonal values of nature, which in effect are crucial to Vermeer’s unique brand of realism. Furthermore, I discovered that the erred tonal values of my monochrome underpainting did not compromise the rendering of the proper tones and colors of the final paint layers. The aim of seventeenth-century underpainting, as I understand it, was not to establish the precise tonal values of the final work from the very beginning, but rather to approximate the distribution of darks and lights thereby creating a sort of compositional blueprint which provided a solid base on to which the successive layers of colored paint could be applied in a more efficient manner. Although I used the glazing technique in only one passage (red madder over an underpainting of vermillion), it was evident that with some practice it would be relatively easy for any practiced painter to anticipate the tonal and chromatic values of the colored underpainting so they might eventually match those made visible in the mirror once the passage had been glazed with the final color.

The use of such a simple device as the comparator mirror in tandem with the camera obscura lens, in my opinion, is technically compatible with Vermeer’s known painting techniques (to be distinguished from his “pointillist” mannerism), and it is in line with what Lawrence Gowing appropriately called the artist’s “optical way” as well as the artist’s search for absolute tonal authenticity.

When getting it right is too easy

September 7th, 2013

One of the pleasures of being a painter is being able (more or less) to copy paintings you love or are interested in. Since I had seven Vermeers (by my count five and a half) at a 35-minute walk from my home here in Rome last year (and free entrance), I took some time off and made three copies: the NG Lady Standing Lady at the Virginals, the NGA The Girl with a Red Hat and the newly attributed Young Woman at the Virginal (New York private collection).

my-rolin

The London experience was dreadful. Although I cheated by projecting the drawing onto the canvas, had a state-of-the-art digital image of the Lady Standing Lady at the Virginals on my studio monitor and could check my progress by viewing at the original any time I wished, things went wrong. The make-or-break tonal values broke down. The contours looked weary, the modeling exhausted and even the local colors, which in theory should be approachable, were off key. Yes, time does things to paintings that no painter can do, but after 40+ years at the easel, I though I could do better.

The Girl with a Red Hat went better—in the beginning. I got the hat glazed properly and was foolish enough to take a deep breath and whack in the background all at once, spontaneously, as it should be done. Not bad. Obviously, I postponed doing the face for as long possible knowing it is one of Vermeer’s most finessed. But when I finally threw caution to the wind and attempted to approximate the play of silvery greens and pinks that make the lady glow, I got something like a face made with dark and light mud.

Last try, the New York picture: a work I do not admire and really don’t want a copy of. But since I am doing a lengthy analysis on the miniscule painting, I decided it would be a good idea to walk in Vermeer’s shoes to see what might have caused him (or whoever made it) to paint such an unsual work. What surprised me is that I didn’t get any surprises. Things went as expected. The grays were straightforward grays, the yellow was yellow and the uniformly non-descript brown shadows were very nondescript. Contours were easy (evenly sharp, the easiest to do) and the tonal values were hardly challenging. Yes, my background gray is a bit too light (maybe that’s better), the cheeks did not come out pink enough and I couldn’t bring myself to make the shadows of the face as dark as the original’s, but the painting presented no technical nuance that was substantially not within the reach of my modest talents. These are shoes I can wear.

Now that I have three Vermeers for myself, I’ll keep two turned to the wall for the moment and one framed, but hung somewhere in my house where I won’t see it too much.

Vermeer and Technique: a National Gallery web study

September 1st, 2013
vermeer-eye

Click here to discover the techniques and materials behind four of Vermeer’s music-themed paintings on display in the exhibition Vermeer and Music: The Art of Love and Leisure.

Illuminating and richly illustrated. All articles are authored by the National Gallery’s Helen Howard, Scientific Officer – Microscopist; David Peggie, Scientific Officer – Organic Analyst; and Rachel Billinge, Research Associate in the Conservation department.

Topics include:

Support and ground
Infrared examination
Vermeer’s palette
Binding medium
Paint application
Secrets of the studio
Altered appearance of ultramarine
Fading of yellow and red lake pigments
Drying and paint defects
Formation of lead and zinc soaps

from the National Gallery website:
The extended loan of Vermeer’s The Guitar Player from Kenwood House enabled National Gallery researchers to analyse the painting’s materials and closely study the techniques used. The findings were compared with other late paintings by Vermeer in the National Gallery (A Young Woman Seated at a Virginal and A Young Woman Standing at a Virginal), and a slightly earlier work (The Music Lesson) kindly lent by the Royal Collection for the National Gallery’s 2013 summer exhibition Vermeer and Music: The Art of Love and Leisure.

 

Vermeer-related study

September 1st, 2013

From Perception to Paint: the practical use of the Camera Obscura in the time of Vermeer
Jane Jelley
in Art and Perception
July 2013

janejelly

There has been much debate as to whether Vermeer himself would have used any kind of optical aid in the execution of his paintings. The paintings themselves appear to show optical effects and distortions, seen only through a lens and not with the naked eye. Was Vermeer just influenced by the view through a camera, or did he transfer the projected images directly to his paintings?

Jane Jelly’s experiment shows a method that would have made transfers from a projection to a canvas a practical possibility, using readily available materials and contemporary technology. This technique not only solves the problems of the reversals of camera obscura images, but significantly, the resultant transfers from the lens show striking resonances with Vermeer’s own underpainting, revealed by scientific analysis. This research also provides some answers about the use of particular materials in the 17th-century studio.

click here to download PDF

The Revenge of a Forger

April 26th, 2010

Van Meegeren’s Fake Vermeers
Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam
12 May – 22 August 2010

from the museum website:
The Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen presents Van Meegeren’s Fake Vermeers, an exhibition of the famous forgeries of Han van Meegeren. Van Meegeren craftily exploited art historians’ desire to discover early works by Johannes Vermeer. During a famous court case in which Van Meegeren was accused of Nazi collaboration, he admitted that he had forged old master paintings, including several Vermeers. Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen had acquired one of the fake Vermeer from Van Meegeren. The exhibition explores Van Meegeren’s technique, his masterpieces and his downfall.
Included are approximately ten forgeries by Van Meegeren  most in the style of Vermeer, although there are some forgeries of Frans Hals, Pieter de Hooch and Gerard ter Borch.

Van Meegeren’s life as a forger is further illuminated through a documentary film and objects from his studio.

Van Meegeren’s technique remains exceptional. For his masterpiece The Supper at Emmaus, Van Meegeren used a genuine seventeenth-century canvas and historical pigments. He bound the pigments with bakelite, which hardened when heated to produce a surface very similar to that of a seventeenth-century painting. This technique, combined with Van Meegeren’s choice of subject matter and composition, was an important factor in convincing so many people of the authenticity of his works. Van Meegeren created the missing link between Vermeer’s early and late works. The exhibition at Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen sheds new light on Van Meegeren’s technique, resulting from new technical research undertaken by the Rijksmuseum.

Zooming-in #2: an unfinished picture is worth a thousand words

June 19th, 2009
del_sarto

zoom what it’s about: For a painter who wishes to comprehend the technique of Vermeer, the best imaginable venue would be to spend a day, even an hour, watching him paint.

The next best thing, this one at least theoretically possible, would be to be able study a half-finished work by Vermeer, say somewhere between the underpainting and the final working-up stages. No luck here either.

In fact, to think of it, we rarely come across incomplete paintings in any museums by any author or from any age, not because they are down on the gallery racks out of view, but because very few have survived. Most often, when a painter died or an incomplete work surfaced, either an apprentice or a competent colleague was called in to make it salable. Authorship, even in the case of the most renowned masters, did not have the same aura as it does today.

The third best solution would be able to study an unfinished 17th-century canvas by a competent artist. Wish granted. And not only is there such a picture, it’s viewable in an excellent Zoom on the net. To be frank, there is too much to learn just by looking, so get clicking.

If you are a painter and you need background information to make sense of Del Sarto’s canvas, my book How to Paint Your Own Vermeer on Vermeer’s methods and materials covers quite a bit of common 17th-century studio practices. If you are not a painter and would like to delve in to some of the mysteries of the masters’ workshop, you get the same information in lay terms in my Looking over Vermeer’s Shoulder.

Zooming-in #1: the selected flesh palette

June 2nd, 2009
honthorst_palette

zoom what is it?Gerrit van Honthorst, like a number of 17th-century Dutch painters, knew his trade and worked well in different genres. He was equally comfortable in history painting, raucous bordello scenes and refined portraiture alike. Although sought-after in his own age, few average museum-goers are familiar with his work even though he was far more influential in his age than Vermeer. He was also far richer. In 1654, he sold his house in The Hague for the astronomical sum of 14,000 guilders (an average Dutch house might have gone for 1,000 or less) and lent Elizebeth, Princess of Hohenzollern no less than 35,000.

zoom what to look for – Although the present canvas may not be particularly inspiring, it is nonetheless a solid piece of 17th-century painterly skill.

The most informative detail is the painter’s “selected” palette on which are disposed two rows of perfectly ordered paints blobs. The top are all the pigments conventionally used for mixing flesh tones. The bottom row presents the ready-to-use basic mixtures. If you don’t believe flesh can be so miraculously evoked with a hand-full of different tones, scroll up and inspect the faces of the lovely painter, the putto and her sitter. Analogous flesh palettes were employed by Rembrandt and Vermeer.

The choice of representing the selected flesh palette was far from random. From the very beginning of European tradition of easel painting, the depiction of human flesh was given great importance and it still constitutes one of the most telling technical challenges until this day. Willem Beur, artist and art writer of Vermeer’s time, wrote: “Just as we humans consider ourselves the foremost amongst animals; so too, are we the foremost subject of the art of paintings, and it is in painting human flesh that its highest achievements are to be seen, whenever a painter succeeds in rendering the diversity of colors and strong hues found in human flesh and particularly in the faces, adequately depicting the intricacy of the diversity of people or their different emotions.”

For the painter and the technically-minded, the top row of pigments probably are (left to right): lead white, yellow ochre, vermillion, red ochre, red madder, raw umber, black and a last unidentified pigment.

Selected palettes were the norm in 17th-century painting when complicated compositions were worked up in a piecemeal fashion, area by area. Painters laid on their palettes only those pigments which were strictly necessary for the day’s work in order to avoid waste of grinding time and raw materials.

Samuel van Hoogstraten Symposium

January 2nd, 2009

The universal art of Samuel van Hoogstraten (1627-1678), painter, writer and courtier
Symposium: 9 January 2009

Universiteit van Amsterdam – Agnietenkapel
Oudezijdsvoorburgwal 231
NL-1012 EZ Amsterdam
The Netherlands

information from the organizers:
The versatile painter, poet, courtier and European traveller Samuel van Hoogstraten (1627-1678), one of Rembrandt’s pupils, has received much scholarly attention in the last two decades. Whereas older historians allotted him a marginal role as a minor figure in his master’s studio, he is now recognized for his central position in the world of art and letters in the Dutch Golden Age. This new evaluation is mainly due to careful studies of his treatise on painting, Inleyding tot de Hooge Schoole der Schilderkonst (Introduction to the Academy of Painting, 1678). His book has been mined for unique insights not only into Rembrandt’s working methods but also into profounder problems relative to Dutch art and culture, such as pictorial realism, imitation and illusion, the rise of landscape and still life and the status of the “learned artist.” Whereas traditional Rembrandt scholarship seems to have hit upon the limits posed by the available documents on the artist, the work of pupils like Van Hoogstraten keeps offering new possibilities for research. Recently, Van Hoogstraten’s book was allotted a place in the canon of Key Texts for the Cultural History of the Low Countries.

This conference will be the first meeting of Van Hoogstraten specialists from various countries, who will bring their different approaches and scholarly traditions to bear on his art and writing.

confirmed speakers:
Dr. Jan Blanc (Université de Lausanne)
Prof. Celeste Brusati (University of Michigan)
Dr. Herman Colenbrander (independent scholar, Amsterdam)
Dr. Hans-Jörg Czech (Wiesbaden Museum)
Dr. Michiel Roscam Abbing (independent scholar, Amsterdam)
Dr. Paul Taylor (The Warburg Institute, London)
Dr. Thijs Weststeijn (University of Amsterdam)

further information & registration

download program (pdf)

Lecture: Vermeer’s painting techniques

December 24th, 2008

from the: Norton Simon press release

Vermeer’s Painting Techniques: Time Stilled and Light Made Tangible
Melanie Gifford, Research Conservator, Scientific Research Department, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
Saturday, January 3, 2009, 4:00 p.m.

Vermeer’s paintings suggest that time has been momentarily stopped, giving the viewer leisure to explore his light-filled rooms and contemplate his pensive figures. Technical study of Vermeer’s materials and methods has revealed painting practices the artist developed to achieve these luminous effects, and artistic choices he made to create a timeless and self-contained world. Melanie Gifford explores A Lady Writing in the context of Vermeer’s techniques throughout his career, illustrated with close details and microscopic images of the paintings that give a new view of his extraordinary gifts.