Archive for the ‘Painting Technique’ Category

Secrets of a 17th-c. damsel – #1

November 29th, 2008

Although I had seen the Woman with a Pearl Necklace in temporary exhibitions in Washington and Madrid, both times viewing conditions were near prohibitive due to crowds. Consequentially, my understanding of the picture effectively relied on a dozen or so reproductions.

This situation has improved with the current exhibition in Rome, where one may pretty much have the work to himself from 2 to 3 pm and 7 to 8 pm on weekdays.

Having spent some hours in front of the painting, I hope to share a few of its “secrets” which are not evident from reproductions. Nothing astounding mind you. Art historians need not tremble, I am talking about details. But still, if these details were important enough for Vermeer to paint, perhaps they are important enough to consider.

First of all, in reproductions we see only half of the painting: the upper half to be precise. The lower half, even in state-of-the-art reproductions, results as a dark uniform void. This demonstrates one of the limits of photography (which painting does not have) and one that even amateur photographers are aware of. In conditions of extreme contrast of light, if you correctly capture the lights the darks are sacrificed and vice versa.

In reality, the lower half of Vermeer’s composition is not at all a dark void, it is a penumbra teaming with life. Even at first glance we can clearly make out the massive extendable table with all its ornaments, Vermeer’s signature, a few marble floor tiles and a leather covered chair, perhaps one of the most suggestive passages in the painter’s oeuvre.

The posts which follow will inspect some of the details of the painting’s lost half and how they might influence our perception of the picture as a whole.

To glaze or not to glaze

November 15th, 2008

Glazing, once a standard tool in every painter’s repertoire since the invention of oil painting, is not always understood by artists and art historians today since it has fallen into total disuse. In the simplest terms, glazing consists in brushing a transparent layer of paint over another thoroughly dried layer of opaque paint. The effect is analogous to placing a sheet of brightly colored acetate over a monochrome photograph. Glazing creates a unique “shine through” stained glass effect that is not obtainable by direct application of opaque paints no matter how brilliant they might be. The underpainting, on which the glaze is applied, is normally monochromatic but it may also contain some color. Thus, the two separate layers of paint are not physically, but optically mixed. The lower layer determines the form and light while the glaze layer gives it its color.

Glazing technique served chiefly to compensate the pernicious lack of “strong colors” making it particularly adapted for the brightly colored draperies. It should not be forgotten that the masters possessed very few of the brilliant colors that are widely available today. The whole range of cadmiums as well as cobalt and Prussian blue did not exist until the eighteenth century. Glazing was also economical since some of the most important glazing pigments were costly. The principle form and lighting were built up with cheap paint and subsequently glazed over with a minimum of glazing pigment. Thus, a Dutch flower painter might work up his blue flower in white and smalt, a cheap blue, and then glaze with natural ultramarine. Natural ultramarine, the characteristic blue in may of Vermeer’s works and was the costliest pigment of all, was made of powdered lapis lazuli imported from Afghanistan.

Vermeer used glazing as other Dutch painters, with parsimony. They knew glazing is not an answer-all technical solution and is most effective in isolated areas of a painting where its characteristics are fully enhanced. By the way, the lemon yellow jackets of Vermeer’s women are not glazed. They are painted with the defunct lead-tin yellow, a rather thick, dullish yellow which pales next to cadmium yellow but through careful juxtaposition shines in Vermeer’s work.

Here is an example of my own work of a fairly common glaze that Vermeer himself never employed. The girl’s jacket was first worked-up in monochrome with white and raw umber and then glazed with red madder, a brilliant ruby red. Once the whole jacket was uniformly glazed, a little white was added in the lightest area to make them “stand up,” it was left entirely transparent in the shadows which produces a rather handsome sense of airy depth. If glazes are too even and too transparent, they tend to create a candy-apple effect.