Paint application

Vermeer was a master at applying paint to canvas. By examining and analysing detailed images of his brushstrokes this article uncovers his techniques and secrets.

Vermeer's methods of applying paint were among the most inventive of any 17th-century Dutch artist. The deliberation of his painting practice indicates his persistent search for the most effective way of translating into paint the light effects he observed. It has been argued that Vermeer used a camera obscura (an optical device capable of projecting an image onto a flat surface) to achieve these unique effects. He was undoubtedly familiar with the device, but probably used its characteristic optical distortions merely as a springboard for his own creativity.

The details shown here reveal the abstract beauty and variety of Vermeer's brushwork. With each image, a scale bar is included to help gauge the level of magnification.

I.

Vermeer used multiple paint layers to achieve a variety of effects. He did not always completely obscure his initial tonal underpainting – 'dead colouring' – but made its subtle tones and textures an integral part of the finished painting [figs.1–9]. 

In 'The Music Lesson' (Royal Collection), Vermeer made extensive use of his tonal underpainting to influence both the colour and modeling of the finished painting. A brick-red/brown underpaint was used in the highlighted area of the table carpet, while a dark brown was used for areas of shadow. Milky white highlights with very fine granular texture are also visible on the surface.

Undermodelling is also employed to great effect in the skirt of the Young Woman seated at a Virginal. Examination of this area at magnification revealed dark brownish paint under the blue at the edges of the dress (and this corresponds to where the image appears dark in infrared). By contrast, in the centre of the dress, the ultramarine blue paint layer appears to have been painted directly over the pinkish-grey ground.1

In the hair of the woman in 'The Music Lesson', Vermeer used textured brushstrokes in the underpaint to develop contours and provide light-catching texture through the thin layers of surface paint.

Pale brushstrokes are built up both horizontally and vertically over dark underpaint to produce a subtle wood-grain effect on the side of the viol in 'The Music Lesson'.

To achieve the silvery glimmer of the bandolier worn by the man in 'The Music Lesson', Vermeer layered a translucent milky-white wash over a transparent purple colour, and then added opaque dashes of white paint on the surface.

The effect of dappled light playing on the woman's glossy ringlets in 'Woman seated at a Virginal' is captured with a few touches of golden-yellow paint.

Vermeer used tiny dashes of colour to reproduce the scintillating effects of light playing over textured surfaces, as in this detail of the chair back in 'Young Woman seated at the Virginal'.

For the lion's-head chair finial in 'The Music Lesson', dappled highlights and dashes of colour are applied directly over the dark brown underpaint which is left exposed in places as a mid-tone.

For the worked-metal platter on the table in 'The Music Lesson', Vermeer used the brown underpaint to set the mid-tone, then painted dashes of lighter colours on top to suggest an intricately worked surface.

II.

Vermeer consciously varied the consistency of his paint to achieve particular effects. For example, he used paint of a consistency that retains the impression of the brush in both underpaint and sections of high impasto to provide light-catching texture while a more fluid application could suggest silky surfaces [figs.10–14].

The thickly-painted highlight at the tip of The Guitar Player’s left thumb retains the impression of the brush which catches the light in this tiny detail. This is a clear example of purposeful manipulation of the oil paint medium. Since this painting has not been relined we can be certain that the loose, fluid impasto and pooling observed is part of Vermeer's original technique and has not been affected by the process of relining which can, through the effects of pressure and moisture, flatten passages of impasto paint.

Impasto highlights and milky washes of thin paint are juxtaposed in the lid of the jug on the table in 'The Music Lesson'.

For the pearl necklace worn by the figure in 'The Guitar Player', Vermeer painted a band of pale greenish white, followed by a thin modulated pinkish-white, finished with dots of pinkish-white impasto paint to indicate the highlights on individual pearls.

The silky sleeve of the woman in 'Young Woman seated at a Virginal' is created with a loose, fluid impasto.

In 'The Guitar Player', the intricate decoration filling the guitar’s sound-hole is suggested with a flurry of impasto highlights, while the sharp contours of the sound-hole itself are reinforced with a thin line incised in the wet paint.

Thin, liquid paint was used to delineate intricate patterns on the virginal in 'The Music Lesson'.

Vermeer used thick paint, loose brushwork and a few scratches for the tiles at the base of the wall in 'Young Woman seated at a Virginal' [figs.15–17]. 

III.

Vermeer's sophisticated understanding of how the eye registers optical effects is demonstrated by his careful rendering of the edges of objects, according to whether they were brightly illuminated or in shadow. He often overlapped colours, or left gaps between them to achieve the desired effect [figs.18–19].

To soften and blur the transition between individual floor tiles in 'The Music Lesson', Vermeer allowed the thin, blue surface paint layer of the darker tiles to slightly overlap the edges of the white tiles.

The purplish-blue window leads in 'The Music Lesson' are painted directly on top of the brown underpaint. To recreate the shimmering effect of leaded glass, Vermeer left a sliver of the underpaint visible between the darker leads and the pale blue and yellow tints of the light emanating from outside.

To create complex spatial effects, Vermeer left areas of ground or underpaint exposed and used complex overlays of outline as in the edge of the jug handle in 'The Music Lesson' and also the shadow on the wall behind the lid of the virginal in this painting.2

In some places Vermeer used feathered brushstrokes to blur the transition between different areas of paint. This could impart a sense of volume – as in the rounded handle of the jug in 'The Music Lesson' – or suggest the softness of fur tufts catching the light, as in the ermine edging of 'The Guitar Player's' jacket.

To help create a sense of volume Vermeer uses scumbles of paint to merge boundaries of light and dark, as for example the scumble of paint applied to soften the edge of the shadow in the fur at 'The Guitar Player's' elbow [figs.20–26].

Helen Howard is Scientific Officer – Microscopist at the National Gallery. This material was published to coincide with the exhibition Vermeer and Music: The Art of Love and Leisure.

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Original methods and material

Time and transformation

1. See also the patterned curtain in 'Young Woman seated at a Virginal'. A sample taken from this curtain reveals that the ultramarine here was underpainted with green earth combined with charcoal black – elsewhere in earlier works such as 'The Art of Painting' (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna) and 'Woman in Blue reading a Letter' (Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam), ultramarine has been underpainted with verdigris.

2. The nature of contours and light effects in Vermeer's painting has been discussed in detail by: J. Wadum, 'Contours of Vermeer', in I. Gaskell and M. Jonker, eds., 'Vermeer Studies', New Haven and London 1998, pp. 201–23; and M. Gifford, 'Painting Light: Recent Observations on Vermeer's Technique', in I. Gaskell and M. Jonker, eds., 'Vermeer Studies', New Haven and London 1998, pp. 185–99.

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