Vermeer’s Artistic Technique

This is a really incredible demonstration on painting like Vermeer by Thomas Penrose Art. I can’t tell you how many times I have read this article and obsessed over the technique…hope you all enjoy it as much as I do! If you’re interested in learning more about Johannes Vermeer, the Essential Vermeer website has lots of great information.

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The copy of Vermeer’s “Girl with a Pearl Earring” painted in this art instruction exercise.

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Painting a copy of Jan Vermeer’s “Girl with a Pearl Earring” (his original portrait shown to the left) is a challenge primarily because of the subtlety of the girl’s expression, which is very difficult, if not impossible to duplicate. Likewise, the original painting has a softly diffuse and ethereal quality to the brushwork that makes the edges of the girl’s features hard to precisely define. However, it is these very qualities that have made Vermeer’s iconic portrait such a popular subject for oil painters to try to emulate, since many artists and portrait painters would love to have even a small measure of understanding regarding Vermeer’s oil painting technique. Rather than seeking to create a flawless duplicate of Vermeer’s original masterpiece, the aim of this webpage is to give some insights into how glazing mediums and glazed paint layers can be manipulated to model the forms in a painting.

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One of the advantages of learning from doing a copy is that you are dealing with a known quantity –You already know what the painting you are copying should look like once it is completed, and you also know that it has elements that you appreciate a great deal, and would like to understand better. To paint a copy, you will need a color photo of the painting of suitable quality that adequately conveys the physical attributes of color and luminousity that drew you to the painting in the first place. Ideally, one would be able to use the actual painting as their reference, but in this case that is of course not an option.

There are numerous techniques for transferring a drawing of the photo to a stretched canvas. You can use a slide projector, an opaque projector, or you can use the method illustrated here — the use of a grid drawn on the photo, and a corresponding grid of larger squares drawn onto the stretched artist’s canvas.

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By using the horizontal and vertical lines of the grid to orient your pencil, you can do an accurate outline drawing of the main features of the original painting onto your canvas, by concentrating on drawing one square at a time. Notice that I have added a grid of smaller squares in the facial area, to help increase my accuracy at plotting out the position of the girl’s eyes, nose, and mouth. You can use a graphite drawing pencil, or charcoal, conte crayon, etc.

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Whenever I begin an oil portrait I always start with the eyes. They are what give the face an immediate sense of life. It is very hard to work on the other facial features first, and imbue them with lifelike qualities when the eyes are not already conveying this from the start.

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At this stage a loosely applied, almost dry-brushed application of gray paint is being used to begin the modelling of the form of the girl’s head. It is not clear that Vermeer’s technique involved the use of a black and white underpainting (grisaille) like this one, but he more than likely used a monochromatic underpainting technique of some kind, perhaps done in a warm brown tone, as was common with the Northern European school of painting at that time.

When doing an oil painting copy that is colored using glazes, it tends to make it easier to be accurate if a fairly well finished and detailed underpainting is done beforehand, to well define the major light and dark areas. Care must be taken to not allow the light areas of the underpainting to be painted in too dark a value of gray. The light and highlighted areas should be kept quite high key in the underpainting, so that these bright white areas help to illuminate the semi-tranparent layers of glazed oil paint that are applied over them. Throughout the painting process I am using soft synthetic sable type brushes made for oil and acrylic painting, rather than stiff hog bristle oil painting brushes. I am also painting on a finely woven linen artist’s canvas, as Vermeer and other Dutch painters from that period would also have done.

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Once the grisaille underpainting has been suitably completed, it should be allowed to dry fully, since any glazing medium that is applied to the underpainting would tend to loosen and dissolve any undried oil paint layers. To speed up this process, it is possible to use alkyd based artist’s paints to execute the underpainting, allowing the painting to dry fully in as little as a day (so long as the alkyd paint layers are not too thick).

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A comparison with the original “Girl with a Pearl Earring” shows the elusively subtle, ethereal nature of Vermeer’s brushwork. Some scholars believe that it was Vermeer’s use of Venetian Turpentine, a slow drying, resinous oil painting medium ingredient, that would cause his glazes to melt into one another, and also caused the edges of the painted areas to bleed slightly into their surroundings, creating soft edges. However, in this instance I unfortunately failed to experiment with the use of Venetian Turpentine, and used a more conventional oil painting medium recipe.

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For the very first overall glaze application, I am using a simple mixture of cadmium red medium and yellow ochre mixed with some of the glazing medium that I have prepared. The more medium you use, the more it dilutes the paint, and reduces the color intensity, just as in watercolor painting when you thin the paint with water. The oil painting medium recipe I am using is composed of equal parts by weight of linseed oil, pure gum turpentine, and damar varnish (5 lb. cut). I am mixing the paint on a small porcelain plate because it provides a nice white background that makes it easier for the colors of paint I am mixing to show up in these photos.

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Once the entire face has been coated with a uniform glaze layer, a soft brush is used to work thinly applied white paint into the wet glaze to bring back the highlighted areas. The idea is to apply a glaze, then bring the highlights back out by scumbling white paint into the glaze in those areas, while letting the glaze build color and richness in the shadow and middle value areas. The damar varnish in the glazing medium tends to allow each coat to dry fairly quickly, allowing a subsequent glaze layer to be applied, often within 24 hours. This drying process can be sped up even more through the addition of a few drops of cobalt drier to your painting medium. Vermeer’s technique, and glazing technique in general, does not tend to allow for the completion of a painting in a single day.

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At this stage, a single glaze layer has been applied and white paint has been scumbled into it to bring the highlighted areas back out. These lighter area are primarily to the left side, on the cheek, forehead, and the edge of the nose. The resulting color is now similar to the effect achieved in a hand-tinted black and white photograph, where the underlying gray still shows through clearly, and the color effect is weak, and lacking in richness. Only by building up numerous layers of glazes is a rich color effect achieved in the shadows and middle values. A common mistake made by students experimenting with glazing is to not take the effect far enough, and the painting never gets beyond being similar to the weakly colored effect of a tinted black and white photo. Executing a successful glazed painting requires more than just applying a coat or two of uniformly colored tinting — you do still have to actually paint in order to create a successful painting.

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In this image, the second glaze layer is being applied over the dried first glaze. This glaze is also composed of cadmium red medium and yellow ochre. I am making this layer a bit more strongly colored than the first glaze by diluting it with less of the glazing medium. It is beginning to impart more color to the shadowed areas of the nose, and cheek (the chin and neck have not been covered yet, and still show the color achieved by the first glaze that was applied in the prior steps).

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Again, the light areas must be brought back out by working white paint into the glaze. The aspect of traditional glazing recipes that is unique is the manner in which their natural, resinous ingredients continue to accept paint even as the glaze is tacking up and drying. Paint applied to this partially drying glaze forms the basis of the “scumbling” technique used in Northern Europe during this time. Even as the glaze is tacking up, paint that is thinly applied in a dry brush technque tends to melt off of the paint brush and absorb into the sticky glaze. Modern synthetic glazing mediums do not have this quality, and in my opinion they should be avoided.

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This image shows the white paint being blended into the glaze layer. The lightest area is to the left side of the forehead, with this lightness feathering out into the slightly darker side of the forehead on the right.

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This image shows how the light areas have been brought up to a rather high key, bright state. It is best to err a bit on the bright side when it comes to emphasizing the highlights, in order for subsequent glazes to not obscure the brightness of these highlighted areas. The sense of brightness can always be reduced later, by glazing accordingly, but if you lose the sense of brightness early on, it is quite hard, if not impossible, to bring it back.

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A little of the brightness of the whites of the eyes is also being brought back out by painting into the wet glaze.

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The white paint applications have been smoothed out a bit in this image, and a second glaze of red is also added to the lips.

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A third glaze is now applied to the dried surface of the painting. In this case I felt that the color imparted to the face by the first two glazes was becoming too intense. So in this glaze I have neutralized the color a bit by adding a little bit of raw umber to the cadmium red medium and yellow ochre. There are numerous ways to neutralize a color. You can add some ivory black, or alternately you could use a brown, such as raw umber or burnt umber, or you could also mix a color with a bit of its complimentary color. In this case the slightly greenish-brown quality of raw umber would serve as a compliment to the red quality of this glaze, and works well to neutralize the color a bit, and make it look like a more natural flesh tone.

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Again, the process of mixing white with the glaze is used to bring back the light areas. At this stage the gray underpainting in the shaded areas has become a bit more colorful. However, there is still something of an effect in which the painting resembles a hand tinted black and white photo — a sort of gray quality to the shadows and middle values, as well as an overall uniformity to the color. When glazing you can also use totally different mixtures of glazes to color the shadow areas alone. You are entirely free to apply color as it is needed in each of the areas of the painting, and are not limited to uniform, overall glaze applications.

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In this image, white has been blended into the forehead, cheeks, and the top of the lip. Keep in mind that the side of the face closest to the source of illumination is always the brightest. Hence, the cheek on the right will not be as bright as the one on the left. Remember that volume and three dimensional shape can never be expressed without changes in value. The human head catches light much in the same way as a sphere, so you must pay attention to how the play of light is handled over the form.

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At this stage I am also working a small amount of a a grayed flesh tone into the glaze in the shaded portion of the nose, to bring out reflected light in this area. Notice that I have applied a similar application of white to the glaze at the bottom of the cheek, where the light reflecting from the earring and the while collar is illuminating this area. This reflected light effect is one of the most charming aspects of this portrait by Vermeer.

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The plate I am using as a palette shows the cadmium red, yellow ochre, and raw umber I am using to mix the overall glazes of flesh tone for the face. Keep in mine that the colors you use to paint flesh tones depend entirely on lighting environment that the person is in. Hence, there is no such thing as a “flesh color”. The color of flesh can be almost any color, depending on the lighting. Regarding the colors that could be used to paint flesh tones, Eugene Delacroix stated, “Give me mud and I will paint the skin of Venus out of it, if you will allow me to paint the background with the colors of my choosing.”

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A fourth overall glaze application is applied. In this case it is also one that has been mixed with some raw umber to neutralize the color a bit, and keep the portrait from becoming too garishly colored. A very common mistake when students experiment with glazes is to use glazes that are too harshly colored. A brightly colored glaze on top of a darkly shaded area of the underpainting, in particular, creates an effect in which the color seems to sit or “float”on top of the dark underpainting beneath it, which does not create a pleasing effect.

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Again, white paint is scumbled into the light areas to bring back the lightness of these areas.

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…and white is also blended into the cheek.

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In this image the white applied in the prior two images has been blended out and softened. The intensity of the white has also been reduced as it has mixed with the wet glaze of color. I am not applying a glaze of blue to the girl’s turban (this painting by Vermeer is alternately known by the title of “Girl in a Turban”). At a certain point it is a good idea to bring out some of the colors in the surrounding parts of the painting before the face is completed. This allows you to get a better idea of how the colors of the face are developing relative to the other colors that surround it, and create its environment.

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As with the face, white paint is also worked into the lighter area of the turban, to bring out the brightness where the light strikes it most strongly.

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This closeup shows some of the texture of the stretched linen canvas and the paint applications. There is a still a need to unify some of these colors with further glaze applications. One of the characteristics of the grisaille underpainting is the manner in which the gray tones showing through slightly from underneath can add a pleasing cool tone to the shadow areas.

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Although the face is still in need of more work, the rest of the painting needs to be brought to a higher level of completion so that the final coloration of the face is executed more accurately than otherwise could if it was still surrounded by a gray underpainting. In this case, a heavy uniform glaze of cadmium yellow is applied to the turban. Notice that the shadow areas of this area are still showing through the yellow as a gray color. Again, this illustrates the need to bring out the true color in these shaded areas, which will be done in subsequent steps.

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A uniform glaze of cadmium red, yellow ochre, and raw umber is applied to the face, creating a more unified appearance, but also flattening out the light areas a bit too much.

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White is carefully and sparingly scumbled into this wet glaze, to bring out the highlights a bit.

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The whites of the eyes are also modelled. Remember that eyeballs are spherical, and must be modelled accordingly, to convey their round form. The whites of eyes cannot be painted by simply applying a uniform white application of paint. Remember that nothing can convey a sense of three dimensional form if it is not modelled to some degree. Otherwise it will simply look flat.

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Some more carefully applied scumbled paint, to emphasize the lights.

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A second uniform glaze of raw sienna is applied to the girl’s tunic, instensifying the color achieved by the first glaze underneath it.

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Some yellow and white is scumbled into the wet glaze of raw sienna to bring out the lighter areas of the folds in the fabric.

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And, a mixture of white and cadmium yellow is used to bring out the light areas of the turban fabric.

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Nearing the final stages, the use of broad glaze applications gives way to the use of detailed glazes, which serve to adjust small areas in order to bring the painting to completion. Edges that are too hard are softened, hightlighted areas that are too bright or too colorful are darkened or neutralized, and close attention is paid to the final effect that the portrait is intended to make. In this case, a glaze of cadmium red has been neutralized with sap green and applied to reduce the intensity of the color of the flesh tones of the face, and refine some of the middle values.

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The overall effect is now looking a little less “airbrushed” once the uniform glaze coatings have given way to more “attention to detail”, as each facial feature is scrutinized and refined.

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This close-up again shows the relation of the glazed oil paint layers to the linen canvas texture. As mentioned earlier, the painting is being executed on a fine weave linen canvas, as was the practice in 17th century Holland. When glaze painting technique is performed on a more coarsely woven artist’s canvas, the liquid tends to pool within the the spaces between the threads. While you can see the canvas texture in this image, the texture itself is smooth enough that the liquid glaze medium cannot pool between the threads. Many glazed paintings by Northern European painters such as Hans Holbein or Jan Van Eyck were painted on smooth wooden panels, which were thought to be especially well suited for this technique. However, very few paintings attributed to Vermeer were painted on wooden panels, as he seemed to prefer smooth, closely woven stretched linen canvas.

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A dark glaze of burnt umber and raw sienna is used to add more color to the shaded areas of the girl’s tunic, covering the gray from the underpainting that is still showing through. Shaded areas have plenty of color in them, so it is important to not just rely on middle value glazes to impart all the color that is needed to give richness to the most darkly shaded areas. I tend to use some amount of glazing medium mixed with all paint applications though, since it keeps the texture and gloss of the painting’s surface consistent. It becomes very hard to work on a painting when it become a patchwork of matte, dull painted areas and glossy areas that are more rich in linseed oil and varnish (painters also use retouch varnish to even out such irregularities as they occur.)

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The detail work that was done on the face now also extends into the turban and other areas. In this case, some of the brown tunic color used in the image above is used to color the most darkly shaded areas of the yellow turban wraps.

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A bit more work on the iris of the eye, as in the image below.

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The painting is about as finished as I am capable of making it at this point. Just a tiny bit more detail work on the eye, and I will bring this project to an end.

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Not a perfect likeness, but it perhaps conveys some of the sense of luminousity of the original. Hopefully as a visitor to these pages you will have come away with something that you can experiment with in your own oil paintings or art work.

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