Editorial Feature

Painting light: Vermeer's technique transformed reality

Dr Melanie Gifford explores how Vermeer translated light effects into paint

Johannes Vermeer’s remarkable paintings evoked light with subtle effects that speak to our visual experience, creating a sense of physical immediacy. His painting methods, revealed through technical examination of three paintings in the collection of the National Gallery of Art, clarify the practical choices that created his striking visual effects.

Vermeer frequently started his paintings with a monochrome painted sketch. In Woman Holding a Balance (fig. 1) he used brown oil paint to plan out his composition on the buff-colored ground layer that prepared his canvas. He defined the composition with painted lines, but this painted sketch was not simply an outline. Vermeer used the sketch to establish the play of light as a central element of his composition from the start, representing shadows with broader areas of brown paint and leaving the light ground color as highlights. An unfinished painting by the Le Nain brothers shows such a painted sketch.

(fig. 1) Woman Holding a Balance by Johannes Vermeer (From the collection of the National Gallery of Art, Washington DC)

Because Vermeer’s sketched lines are delicate, they are usually hidden below his final paint. Often, he blended his paint to soften the boundary between forms, but at times he left an almost imperceptible space. With a microscope we see that in places Vermeer painted up to, but not over, the fine brown line that sketched the woman’s hand (fig. 2). The resulting spaces and glimpses of brown sketch combine to define the contour.

(fig. 2) Woman Holding a Balance by Vermeer, microscopic view of the hand showing glimpses of a fine line of the brown painted sketch, seen through the overlying final paint (photomicrograph E. Melanie Gifford)

When creating Girl with the Red Hat (fig. 3) Vermeer painted over a monochrome sketch that a different artist had left unfinished. The first image, a man wearing a broad-brimmed hat, can be seen clearly in a false-color infrared reflectogram (fig. 4). Vermeer apparently felt no need to obscure this image as paint cross sections reveal no intervening layer. He simply turned the panel upside-down and painted directly over the unfinished sketch. It is intriguing to speculate that the earlier sketch may have contributed (whether consciously or subliminally) to Vermeer's dramatic design. Brush strokes in the (inverted) infrared image that correspond closely to the dramatic sweep of the girl's exotic red hat belong, in fact, to the image below: the sweeping strokes laid out the broad folds of the man’s collar or a cloak tossed over his shoulder.

(fig. 3) Girl with the Red Hat by Johannes Vermeer (From the collection of the National Gallery of Art, Washington DC)
(fig. 4) Girl with the Red Hat by Vermeer, false-color infrared reflectogram, inverted to show the underlying study of a man. In this image (by John Delaney, Kate Dooley, Damon Conover, National Gallery of Art) three different regions of the infrared image are assigned to the red, green and blue channels

Dark paint layers (including the sketch) below the surface played an important role in Vermeer’s luminous paintings. He exploited these underlayers by varying the thickness of his final paint. In Woman Holding a Balance he dragged the bluish paint of the jacket thinly in the shadows, allowing the brown sketch to show through. The tension between these warm brownish shadows and the cool-toned jacket, painted with ultramarine blue, is an essential part of Vermeer’s distinctive color harmony. In a similar way he exploited a dark underlayer in the white kerchief that frames the chin of the Girl in the Red Hat. When revising the kerchief, he painted partly over the dark tapestry background. By rapidly pushing aside his white paint, he revealed the dark paint below to create the shadows (fig. 5).

(fig. 5) Girl with the Red Hat by Vermeer, detail of the white kerchief. Vermeer exposed dark paint below the white to serve as shadows 

In other paintings, there is no evidence of a monochrome painted sketch. It seems likely that Vermeer began these works with the stages he illustrated in the unfinished painting of The Art of Painting (fig. 6): indicating the basic elements of his composition with a simple, white chalk outline drawing (which would not be seen through the paint with technical imaging or a microscope) followed by a colored underpainting that prepared the colors of the final image.

(fig. 6) The Art of Painting by Johannes Vermeer (From the collection of the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna), detail of the artist with an unfinished painting on the easel

In A Lady Writing (fig. 7), Vermeer textured his underpaint by using granular pigments and leaving brush-marked paint. Comparatively, rough underpaint may seem surprising in an artist known for subtle technique, but Vermeer used this to further his exceptional characterization of light. In highlights, this underlying texture draws the viewer's attention: the lightest passages are literally the most light-catching parts of the painting.

(fig. 7) A Lady Writing by Johannes Vermeer (From the collection of the National Gallery of Art, Washington DC)

In the tablecloth, Vermeer evoked the play of light on swags of fabric (fig. 8) with arcs of thick yellow underpaint below the thin, dark surface paint (seen in a paint cross section, fig. 9). Vermeer also left delicate glimpses of the rough underpaint beside his remarkably refined final paint layers. In the strand of pearls on the tabletop a microscope reveals the contrast between rough underpaint and the satin-smooth final paint (fig. 10).

(fig. 8) A Lady Writing by Vermeer, detail of the tabletop. The sample shown in fig. 9 was taken from the left edge
(fig. 9) A Lady Writing by Vermeer, microscopic cross-section paint sample. From the bottom: warm ground layer, underpaint including lead-tin yellow, dark surface paint including natural ultramarine (photomicrograph E. Melanie Gifford). 
(fig. 10) A Lady Writing by Vermeer, microscopic view of pearls on the tabletop (photomicrograph E Melanie Gifford)

For another light effect, rounded highlights on the lion’s-head finial of Girl with the Red Hat (fig. 11), he dropped liquid white paint into the still-wet midtones. These drops diffused outward, creating an impression of hovering, intangible light. The possibility that Vermeer used a camera obscura (a 17th-century ancestor of the modern camera) has sparked heated discussion. Visual effects in his mature work – exaggerated contrasts of light and dark, shallow depth of field, and these unfocused highlights reminiscent of “circles of confusion” seen with early lenses – suggest that he had seen one.

(fig. 11) Girl with the Red Hat by Vermeer, highly magnified view of the lion’s head finial

But the paintings show that Vermeer’s visual language was not a byproduct of the camera obscura’s visual qualities: those qualities spoke to him because they suited his already-established way of painting. Unlike circles of confusion in the camera obscura, which appear on polished surfaces, Vermeer’s diffused highlights often appear on fabrics. This signature feature is integral to paintings throughout his career. In Diana and her Companions, an early work without evidence of optical effects such as strong contrast or shallow focus, he already touched the folds of Diana's deep yellow gown with rounded dabs of paint (fig. 12).

(fig. 12) Diana and her Nymphs, by Johannes Vermeer (From the collection of the Mauritshuis, The Hague), detail showing rounded highlights in the skirt

At mid-career, in A Lady Writing, he dabbed the yellow jacket’s paint with characteristic rounded touches, abstractly suggesting the play of light (fig. 13). In a work from the end of his career, A Lady Standing at the Virginal, he allowed the lace of the musician's sleeve to dissolve in an evanescent cloud of dots (fig. 14).

(fig. 14) A Lady Writing by Vermeer, detail showing round highlights in the jacket
(fig. 15) A Young Woman standing at a Virginal by Johannes Vermeer (From the collection of the National Gallery, London) by Johannes Vermeer, detail showing dotted highlights in the lace

Vermeer's painting practices reveal the awareness with which he translated his light effects into paint. His optical effects are not accidental byproducts of mechanically transcribing the world: they are fundamental to his visionary transformation of reality.

This article is excerpted from: E. Melanie Gifford. "Painting Light: Recent Observations on Vermeer's Technique." Studies in the History of Art 55 (1998): 184-99. For the full article with references, click here.


Words by Melanie Gifford
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