Posts Tagged ‘Tim’s Vermeer’

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.

Tim’s Vermeer: Pollice verso, but which way?

February 23rd, 2014

Curiously, the two most prominent studies of Vermeer in the second half of the 20th century were not authored by art historians. The American economist John Michael Montias pieced together a coherent biography of Vermeer after having translated and transcribed over 400 legal depositions, wills, deeds, warrants, inventories, promissory notes and other official documents related to Vermeer and his extended family. The British architect Philip Steadman meticulously reviewed the long-debated hypothesis that Vermeer had employed the camera obscura as an aid to his painting. Not only did Steadman confirm the hypothesis, he virtually proved (with numbers in hand) that Vermeer used the device to trace the outlines of his compositions directly to his canvas.

Is the Texan tech pioneer Tim Jenison a serious candidate to make the Montias/Steadman duo a trio? The verdict is still out, or to be more precise, it probably hasn’t been pronounced. Yes, it is true that Tim’s Vermeer has slain dead the general public and mesmerized lay press with a revolutionary take on how Vermeer painted with a simple lens device. But to date, art specialists have remained impressively silent (to those who are familiar with the art history mindset that may already be a pretty clear verdict).

Recently, however, the art critic Jonathan Jones of the Guardian broke file to become the first naysayer to step on the stage. Jones takes big swings and holds no punches. He relegates the Texan and his illusionist partners Penn & Teller to the ranks of dilettante outsiders who accomplish little more than producing a passionless, paint-by-numbers copy of a real masterpiece and creating one big illusion of their own: that virtually anyone can replicate a Vermeer painting by a lens and mirror device discovered by Tim.

Read here: DIY Vermeer documentary utterly misses the point about old masters: Tim Jenison tried for a whole year to recreate a Vermeer painting – and all he got was a pedantic imitation

Tim’s Vermeer update

December 2nd, 2013

More on the documentary film, TIM’S VERMEER.

Vermeer-jug

Can anyone do this?

The press has really sunken their teeth in it. Three new articles look at how Tim Jenison, an American tech wizard and compulsive inventor, believes he has discovered how Vermeer painted and then painted one to prove it. (see a quick summary of Tim’s story below).

Kurt Andersen of Vanity Fair looks at some of the technical aspects of the undertaking. Tim shows his cards and throws in a high-resolution image of his finished Vermeer to prove his point. To get yourself convinced or unconvinced, read the article, see Tim’s painting and then click here to see the original on which Tim’s reconstruction is based.

Dave Itzkoff of the New York Times registers the art history community’s first reactions. As you would expect, they are doubtful without being explicitly dismissive. I would suspect this not so much to avoid the unsavory prospect of being caught on the wrong side of history (remember how dreadfully wrong some got the Impressionists and Van Meegeren and how much they paid for it?) but for institutional good manners and an understandable apprehension about alienating the broad public which the movie targets and will likely win over. Could any one calculate how many more visitors will be pushing though the turnsyles of Vermeer museums if Tim’s Vermeer clinches an Oscar for best documentary feature?

Stefanie Cohen of the Wall Street Journal furnishes background information about the “optical question” posed by Steadman and then describes Tim’s venture reserving Philip Steadman’s iffy comment for last. Steadman’s meticulous investigation and lucid argumentation regarding Vermeer’s use the camera obscura eventually brought almost all art historians onboard his not-easy to-digest hypothesis (i.e. Vermeer used the camera and traced with it too), no easy trick for an art history outsider.

Will layman Tim do as well? Tim’s story has just begun to be told.

Tim’s Vermeer opens Dec. 6 at Lincoln Plaza Cinema, 1886 Broadway, Manhattan. Opens Dec. 13 in Los Angeles, nationwide on Jan. 31.

“Reverse-Engineering a Genius (Has a Vermeer Mystery Been Solved?)”
Kurt Andersen, Vanity Fair
November 29, 2013
http://www.vanityfair.com/culture/2013/11/vermeer-secret-tool-mirrors-lenses

“Engineering His Own Vermeer. Tim Jenison, an Inventor, Paints ‘The Music Lesson'”
Dave Itzkoff, New York Times
November 27, 2013
http://www.nytimes.com/2013/12/01/movies/tim-jenison-an-inventor-paints-the-music-lesson.html?emc=eta1

“A Man Obsessed by a Dutch Master: In ‘Tim’s Vermeer,’ a documentary co-produced by Penn and Teller, an inventor tries to reach into Vermeer’s bag of tricks”
Stefanie Cohen, Wall Street Journal, Nov. 28, 2013
http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052702304011304579222152499998092

Tim’s Vermeer – Shaking Things Up?

November 18th, 2013
tim

Tim Jenison

In Tim’s Vermeer, Tim Jenison, a Texas-based inventor and giant of video and post-production software for home computers, (Video Toaster, LightWave, TriCaster) attempts to solve one of the greatest mysteries in European art: How did the seventeenth- century Dutch master Johannes Vermeer manage to paint so realistically – 150 years before the invention of photography?

In the search of an answer, Jenison began by working off of the theories set forth in David Hockney’s Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters and Philip Steadman’s Vermeer’s Camera: Uncovering the Truth behind the Masterpieces, both of which allege that Vermeer employed an optical device, the camera obscura, as an aid to his painting. Fascinated by the theories of Hockney and Steadman (both outsiders to the art history enclave), Jenison built his own camera obscura but found something was amiss. He immediately came to suspect that not only had Vermeer used some sort of optical device to trace the drawing of his motif onto his canvas (as Steadman had for all practical purposes proved) but must have used it to register the colors and tonal values of his paintings which have been long admired for their uncanny precision, apparently out of reach of his contemporaries.

While viewing in person Vermeer’s Music Lesson, perhaps the artist’s most “optically based” work, Jenison, a video engineer well versed in analyzing images scientifically, became firmly convinced that the work presents optical information that cannot be gathered by retinal observation. Pondering how Vermeer could have achieved such results, he invented—the idea came to him as he was relaxing in a bath tub—a simple, easy-to-use optical device, whose technology was easily within the reach of the seventeenth-century artist, and painstakingly taught himself to paint with it. The mirror of Jenison’s device reflects an object in such a way that a painter can duplicate on his canvas not only an object’s contours on canvas but its colors and tones as well. Putting his theory to the ultimate test, Jenison built a perfectly scaled “set” of the Music Lesson in a San Antonio studio and “repainted” Vermeer’s Music Lesson from it using the device. After various false starts, Jenison learned how to handle the device with greater efficacy, how to hand grind paint and how to domesticate paint and brush, an entierly new experience for the digital engeneer. He employed seven months to complete the work, which he claims is easily accurate enough to uphold his hypothesis.

Although Jenison admits that there is no historical evidence that proves his hypothesis, he believes that if his method for transferring form, color and tone form with a mechanical device to a canvas were used by Vermeer, a chapter of art history would have to be rewritten.

Jenison’s friends, the illusionists and professional debunkers Penn & Teller, united with him to fully document his years- long investigation into the mysterious methods of Dutch Master Johannes Vermeer. The movie includes commentary from Jillett, Hockney and Steadman. Speaking of the film, Hockney said, “It might disturb quite a lot of people,” since it forces you to question everything that you thought you knew about great art and the people responsible for it. But, as Jillette points out, it doesn’t argue that they weren’t geniuses; it just shows that they were fathomable geniuses, rather than unfathomable ones.

video interviews:
Click here to view a YouTube interview with Jenison and hear his his ideas on Vermeer at 34:35 minutes into the video.

Another interveiw with Jenison, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sfsbSK0WPqU

review:
Variety, “Penn and Teller’s uncanny crowdpleaser begs the question, is it still a masterpiece if an amateur could do it?”, Peter Debruge
http://variety.com/2013/film/reviews/telluride-film-review-tims-vermeer-1200596123/

TIM’S VERMEEER
director: Penn Jillette
producers: Penn Jillette and Farley Ziegler
principal cast: Penn Jillette, Tim Jenison, Martin Mull, Philip Steadman, David Hockney, Colin Blakemore
cinematographer: Shane F. Kelly
editor: Patrick Sheffield
music: Conrad Pope
u.s. distributor: Sony Pictures Classics
canadian dist.: Mongrel Media
release date; 2013
duration: 80 minutes
production website: http://sonyclassics.com/timsvermeer/