Don’t pay any attention to the critics. Don’t even ignore them

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This page provide a document of the painting process of a Vermeer-like composition painted by Jonathan Janson. The text below explains both the origin of the composition used for this demonstration as well as the techniques and materials employed in the simplest manner possible without resorting to any undue sophistication.

Working Up

The working-up stage corresponds more or less to what is today known as body color. During the working-up stage, the main concern is to give everything its correct coloring, to render texture appropriately, and to fix the final con­tours of the forms. Various consistencies and degrees of transparency of paint were employed in Vermeer’s time taking advantage of the properties of each particular pigment. One ought to strive for the most complete version of the painting at this stage, avoiding both carelessness and hesitancy. However, the final appearance of the painting will rarely be achieved even in the best case and retouching and final light glazes are to be expected.

If one has executed the underpainting properly, it will be easy to cancel an area of unsatisfactory painting in the working up stage. The underpainting will remain perfectly intact and thus the drawing and chiaroscural values will be as fresh as before and painting can be immediately recommenced.

Reading the explanations below, one will note that the number of different pigments in any single paint mixture are kept to a bare minimum. Shadows, in as much as it is possible, should be painted more transparently than lights. Although many modern painters are not used to this age-old traditional practice it, should be done as much as possible. Retouching large masses of transparent or semi transparent paint which represent deep shadows tend to subtract airiness and depth from the shadow leaving them lifeless and sullen.

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1. The dark areas of the upper window structure are worked up with semi-transparent admixtures of black and raw umber. This mixture will be used throughout the painting process, especially when representing objects with a neutral local color.This technique bonds the large dark areas and avoids producing a nervous “checkerboard” effect.

The illuminated parts of the window molding are modeled with thick impasto composed of yellow ocher heightened with white. Little or no medium should be added to these light mixtures lest it softens the brisk texture of the impasto paint.The tone of the illuminated area should be near, but not perfectly white as it is one of the surfaces which receives the incoming light with maximum intensity.

The dark gray admixtures which are used to represent the window structure, except for the light impasto passages, are tempered with a bit of Liquin to render the paint slightly transparent and flowing. The Liquin medium will cause the paint it is mixed with to be thoroughly dry the next day. These passages can be painted over if desired although it is better to let them rest until the whole background area is finished so corrections will be more accurately integrated into the whole scheme.

2. The shadow projected onto the wall by the window is painted with the usual mixture of black, raw umber and a touch of white to reduce transparency and maintain the sense of a shadow being cast on a white object. The illuminated area next to the shadow is painted with white, black and a touch of raw umber to warm the excessive bluish-gray cast of the medium gray mixture. 3. The intensely illuminated surface of the open window is executed with a thick, rugged impasto mixture of white and a small addition of lemon yellow. Both the color and texture contrast with the relative “warmth” and depth of the surrounding shadowed areas making the chiaroscural contrast appear even stronger.

The impasto evidences the brushwork and its irregularity provides a sparkle.The brushwork follows and mimes the natural direction of the veins of the wood. The deep shadowed areas of the closed window are modeled with the same black/raw umber mixture. Some white may be added to cool the excessive warmth of this dark mixture and make it feel more like the white-washed surface it represents. The upper part of the left-hand wall is begun near the upper part of the canvas.

It is painted with the same gray mixture with proportionately more black than raw umber. According to one’s abilities, walnut oil is added to the mixtures which are used to represent all the parts of the white-washed walls in order to maintain the paint workable for at least a full day’s painting with repeated blending of the smooth transitions from dark to light.

4. The area of the lower widow casement is worked up with black/raw umber and is one of the darkest, if not the darkest, values of the entire composition. This darkness provides maximum contrast with the illuminated horizontal surface of the window sill making it seem flooded with light and even brighter than it really is. This sill is rendered with thick white impasto and a touch of lemon yellow. A dark umber/black mixture is applied to the uppermost part of the left-hand wall.

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5. The murky shadow mixture of the left-hand side wall is brought down to the bottom of the canvas and is more or less the same tone. A bit of white is added to the generalized color of the shadow to represent light reflecting off the carpet and chair. 6. Care is taken to subtly blend the two areas of light and dark paint to make the transitions appear naturally smooth and not over worked and tired. 7. Two negative spaces created by the side wall and the wooden structure of the foreground chair are filled in with a similar mixture already used for the side wall nearby. Some raw umber was added to give a bit of warmth. 8. ditto, proceeding left to right, dark paint is added to the upper right area of the wall.

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9. Two large patches of the base dark black/raw umber mixture are laid down side by side. The application is done with lively brushstrokes and blended softly with each other to achieve the correct gradation from dark to light. The paint is laid on with a medium size, worn round-tip brush. 10. A slightly lighter, more diluted mixture of the same dark mixture is gradually brought down towards the still life. This paint is slightly thinner allowing more of the warmth of the underpainting to react with the cooler paint layer above. 11. The shadow cast by the window is completed. 12. Heavy impasto light gray paint is brushed on vigorously in the most illuminated part of the background wall. Some black pigment has been added to the white in order to reduce its luminosity to more faithfully represent raking remembering that the highest value of light in the painting is elsewhere. For it is the figure that should catch the strongest light and the attention of the viewer.

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13. The area of the wall to the left of the figure is filled in with a light mixture of paint. Small quantities of black are added as the wall recedes to the right. In painting the background wall, care is taken to keep the surface lively exposing the warmth of the underpainting. The adjacent areas of light and dark are blended as subtly as possible avoiding “contaminating” and spoiling the darker area with too much white.

As stated before, the entire area of light paint which intends to represent the background wall is painted with the addition of nut oil which has two advantages: it dries slowly allowing one or two painting sessions for the careful adjusting of the large masses of paint and, it yellows very little with age thus preserving the luminosity of one of the key passages of the work.

The rendering of the wall explains to the viewer the nature, direction and intensity of the incoming light. All the props in the rest of the painting will be rendered according to the quality of that light represented. Great part of the large shadowed area near the window had to be lightened by thinning the paint layer patting it softly with a large, soft watercolor brush and afterwards adding a very small amount of white. This was necessary since once the impasto light gray paint was put in place, it became evident that the contrast between the light and shadow was too violent.

14. Impasto, light-toned gray paint is laid down to the right of the figure’s head. It has been toned down with a small quantity of black lending it an apparent bluish tinge that imitates the cool intensity of the receding light as it rakes almost parallel across the wall’s surface. 15. Extending the white background wall down along the chair, two patches of darker toned paint are laid in briskly. Some raw umber along with the black is added to the lower, darker one. 16. The two areas of paint are delicately blended but not overblended. The whole wall area has been painted with synthetic brushes which have lost their point. Being slightly stiffer than their natural counterpart, these humble low-cost brushes work well since their spring permits the brush to subtly “dig in” the light paint layer exposing tiny speckles of the warmer underpainting.

The contrast between the warm underpainting and the cool light mixture above adds luminosity and spirit to the wall which otherwise becomes too mechanical and drab in appearance.

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17. The rendering of the wooden frame of the opened widow enhances the ethereal thinness of the gray background wall in shadow. A mixture of black with a hint of white in slightly varying proportions was used for the whole rectangle.

The thickness and brushing of the paint varies to recall the unevenness of the wooden structure. Brush strokes follow and imitate to some degree the veins of the wood.

18. ditto 19. With a mixture of black, raw umber and a dash of white, the single window pains are worked up individually. 20. Care is taken not to cover the lead rods which hold the square panes of glass nor to overwork them in order to preserve natural unevenness and the complex but barely perceptible reflections. White is added to the upper panes which reflect light.

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21. The window frame and panes are completed. The leading is modeled with dark paint only on the side which does not receive light.

Each illuminated side is left largely unpainted with underpainting peering through. A few highlights are picked up with white here and there.

22. A mixture of yellow ochre, light cadmium red plus a dash of white is used to render the illuminated upper section side of the foreground chair. 23. The shadows of the wood parts of the chair are instead painted primarily with raw umber with a small quantity of black in the darkest areas. 24. ditto

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25. The legs of the foreground chair are completed and the seat of the same chair is modeled with a mixture of black and a little white which lends the black a slight bluish cast. The four spherical, metal fasteners of the side of the seat are left uncovered by the dark paint of the seat covering andare modeled with raw umber.

Later, highlights will be added. The cushion on the foreground chair is worked up with a mixture of white tempered with raw umber and a touch of black. The darker shadows are done with less white.

26. ditto 27. The black tiles beneath the seat of the foreground chair are painted with black and a whisper of white to render the black a bit more opaque and to suggest the tiles’ subtle bluish cast. The tone of all the black tiles in the deeply shadowed areas of the composition is rendered with the same paint mixture.

Great care is taken to lay on the paint as evenly as possible in order to evoke the glass-like evenness of the tiles’ surface. The edges of the tiles must not be to sharply rendered lest they jump out towards the eye and appear too mechanical. This passage, although repetitive, requires extremely controlled handling. A small touch of stand oil is added to the paint to permit superior control.

28. ditto

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29. The choice of color for the white tiles is of utmost importance. Although the end mixture is a variation of the white, black and raw umber base, the paint must be laid on with great care.

Capturing the precise nuance of hue is essential. It should be same as the shadowed areas of the shadowed background wall but a bit cooler to evoke the smoothness and hardness of the tiles’ material.

30.  ditto 31. Pure thick impasto white is used to render the strongly lit white tiles to the right of the seated model nearest the background wall.

The shadowed white tiles beneath are rendered with the same mixture as the ones in the deeper shadows but with a bit more white.

32. The illuminated black tiles nearest the wall are done with a medium gray composed of black and white according to how much light they receive.

The shadows and lights are blended as subtly as possible to avoid excessive intermingling. This makes the two tones appear fresher.

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33. The black and white tiles on the same section are completed. 34. ditto 35. The shadow cast onto the map on the background wall is painted with a badger brush with a mixture of raw umber, a bit of white to lower its transparency and a hint of black.

The large sweeps of the badger brush and variation of brush pressure create a soft modulation of tone which recalls the subtly undulated surface of the old parchment map. The paint is applied with a good amount of Liquin paint medium which renders it somewhat transparent.

In this way the complex underdrawing of the map is not entirely hidden and can be repainted in the proper tone and hue once the broader areas of the map have dried.

36. The transparent shadow mixture is darkened with a bit of black and brought to the right-hand edge of the painting.

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37. More Liquin medium is added to the shadow mixture to render the shadow’s tine lighter as it approaches the lower edge of the map where it receives a bit of reflected light from the strongly illuminated floor. 38. The whole area of the cast map shadow is reworked with the same sweeping, but delicate strokes of the badger brush.

The rod and “rolen” ball which in serve in reality to keep the map taught is modeled with pure black. A bit of white is added to the illuminated surfaces.

39. The rod and ball are completed with fine brushes. 40. The shadowed part of the upper chair covering where the girl is seated is rendered with a dark mixture of black, ultramarine and a hint of white to remove excess transparency and make the material of the covering seem more substantial.

The spherical nail heads are left uncovered by the ultramarine mixture.

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41. The spherical nail heads which keep the leather covering attached to the chair’s frame are then modeled separately with a bit of raw umber for the darks and yellow ocher in the lights.

The so-called half-lights remain the same color as the brownish underpainting. The highlights are painted with perfectly round dabs of pure impasto white with a hint of lemon yellow to imitate the local color of the brass. The highlights of the nail heads which are immersed in the shadows are later glazed with a bit of raw umber.

The illuminated section of the chair covering is worked up with a medium-light mixture of ultramarine, a bit of black and white. As usual, care is taken not to overblend adjacent light and dark mixtures.

The lion-head finials of the chair are modeled with raw umber in the darks and a mixture of white and ocher in the lights in short calligraphic dabs to evoke the sense of intricate carving. The highlights are rendered with thick impasto dabs of white (with a hint of yellow ochre).

42. The bluish leather covering of the back-side of the foreground chair is composed of the same mixture as the illuminated parts of the background chair.

Paint is applied briskly with a stiff, but fine brush so that it recalls the roughness and rawness of the material itself and the way it catches the raking light unevenly.

43. The covering is completed. The medium ultramarine mixture is not allowed to intermix with the deep transparent shadows of the underpainting cast by the chair’s frame which would rob them of their depth and transparency. 44. The gown of rustic brown fabric is approximated with a mixture of raw umber, light cadmium red and black.

Care is taken to keep deep shadows slightly transparent so the direction of the sweeping brushstrokes can be read informing the viewer of the flow and fall of the fabric.

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45. ditto 46. The small patches of illuminated fabric are rendered with a fine-pointed brush in a mixture of raw umber and white. 47. The various parts of the light beige-colored material under the model’s resting arm are modeled with raw umber. 48. Shadows in the area mentioned above are applied very lightly while the illuminated areas are painted with flowing but controlled brushwork.

The illuminated part of the map is painted with a mixture of yellow ocher and white.

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49. A swatch of the white sleeve of the right-hand arm is painted with a light gray mixture. 50. The highlights of the open hand and upheld fingertips are accentuated with sharp dabs of full white impasto paint which will be later overpainted with the local flesh color.

The material strength of the impasto will give the local flesh color greater brilliance.

51. Light cadmium red heightened with a bit of white is employed to represent the decorative red stripes around the lower and left-hand border of the map. 52. Pure light cadmium red with a touch of light is applied with a fine-tipped brush to represent the red, illuminated sections of the carpet. This “stippled” or “patted on” in order to imitate the knotty texture of the carpet.

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53. Light cadmium red, with an addition of some ultramarine, is used represent the red parts of the carpet in the shadows.

Ultramarine was used to darken the vermilion rather than black as it creates a more luminous color than black.

The whole area of the shadowed surface of the carpet will be later toned down with a light glaze of transparent paint.

54. The illuminated blue parts of the decorative design are painted with pure ultramarine heightened with white. This mixture is rather opaque and must be glazed at a later stage to lend it nuance.

All glazes will be applied once the painting is completely covered and securely dry. This permits the possibility to experiment with different glazes.

55. The darker blue parts of the carpet are painted with ultramarine and only a whisper of black.

The transparency of the ultramarine allows the dark brown underpainting to shine through a bit creating a refined optical effect.

56. The design of the carpet progresses. A few light blue parts of the design are executed with a light mixture of ultramarine and white.

The white areas are painted with a light gray mixture of black and white.

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57. The design of the carpet is perfected accentuating the lighter areas and deepening some of the darker ones. 58. ditto 59. The blue piece of drapery wrapped around the model’s bust is begun. Only two pigments are used in the lighter areas and its shadows: ultramarine and white.

First the shadows are set in with a thin mixture or ultramarine and white.

60. A very pale mixture of white and ultramarine is laid in where the drapery receives light. The whole garment is painted lighter than the final version since it will be glazed with transparent ultramarine once it is thoroughly dry during the final stages of the painting.

Since the drapery is rendered on in a semi-opaque paint, the warm brown underpaint lowers the ultramarine’s intensity making it appear as if there had been admixed a dark neutral color.

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61. The area of the blue drapery mentioned above is perfected, as usual, attempting to avoid excessive blending of the shadows and lights. 62. The lighter parts of the drapery are worked up with various proportions of ultramarine and white. 63. All the parts which receive light are touced up. 64. The darker shadows are laid in with the same thin white and ultramarine mixture.

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65. A close-up of the blue drapery. 66. A close-up of the carpet. 67. The parts of the wrap which have been worked up are refines. 68. The deep shadowed areas of the drapery are done in a semi-transparent mixture of ultramarine and black.

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69. The deep shadows are almost completed. 70. The strongly lit areas of blue are reinforced and the deep shadows are completed.

The shadow of the white porcelain vase are rendered with a pale mixture of white, black and a bit of ultramarine.

71. The illuminated side of the whicker basket and broken pieces of bread of the still life are worked up with a light mixture of white and yellow ocher to approximate the final color. 72. The remaining areas of the still life cast in shadow are thinly painted with a bit of ocher and raw umber.

Highlights are picked up with thick impast of light paint. Some areas of the basket and bread are left untouched lending the substances greater chromatic complexity.

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73. An admixture of white, light cadmium red and yellow ocher is applied very lightly to the left-hand side of the model’s face. This is the basic flesh tone used by many painters of the past. 74. Close-up of the face and bust. 75. The right-hand side of the face is worked up with the same basic flesh mixture with a bit less white. 76. Close-up of the face and bust.

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77. A hint of light cadmium red is added to the cheek while the resting arm is given some local color, again a mixture of the same basic flesh tone in varying proportion. 78. Close-up of the face and bust. 79. The whole painting. No doubt one will have noticed that the pigments in this work used are very few and admixtures are never composed of more than three different pigments.

This lends clarity to the image. Scientific analysis of many paintings has demonstrated that this approach was also employed by many Old Masters.




Glazing & Final Touches

The technique known as glazing was extensively exploited by artists since the invention of oil painting. With the advent of Impressionism this invaluable technical tool was largely abandoned. 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.

Since glazing has fallen out of use, most modern painters fail to comprehend the theory and correct practice behind this technique. Unfortunately, there exist no written historic source which describes in any degree of detail either the materials or basic procedures of glazing used by early painters. The difficulty of grasping the rationale behind glazing has been compounded by a misunderstanding that was diffused in the first half of the twentieth century by Max Doerner and has resisted until today. Doerner’s “glazing myth,” as it is now referred to, asserted that Rembrandt constructed his images in two stages. According to Doerner, Rembrandt painted a monochrome underpainting which was intended to establish the fundamental form and lighting scheme of his image. In order to give full color, he then applied a series of transparent colored glazes upon this pictorial skeleton using a highly transparent resinous medium. There exists no scientific evidence which supports Doerner’s hypothesis. While it is true that Rembrandt, like the great part of his contemporaries, worked up his painting over a monochrome underpainting, the great part of the colored areas were painted in a straightforward conventional manner using mixtures of opaque or semi-opaque paint to approximate the final color. In sum, Rembrandt did not build up the image with a series of transparent glazes. He used them with the parsimony as did other painters of the time. Perhaps Doerner’s “glazing myth” has influenced more than one Vermeer expert and not a few modern painters who earnestly wish to emulate Vermeer’s or the Great Masters’ technique. Glazing must be used sparingly and for specific passages, it is not a painting method in itself. The best works of the Dutch masters, including Vermeer, worked up their compositions with opaque and semi-opaque paint and inserted glazes were they were needed.
Every accomplished painter knows that a few perfectly placed touches may have an enormous impact on days, weeks or even months of hard work. Final touches not only serve to define more precisely form, texture and enhance the sensation of light, but bring into focus or register more correctly the original image of the artist’s mind. Final touches may range from a slight glaze to tone down a color or a dash of impasto white to indicate a highlight on the edge of a ceramic bowl to render its glass-like surface. Of all the facets of painting, perhaps the final touching stage is the most difficult reduce to methodical procedure. Some final touches are programmed but a great many are required to compensate for the effects that the painter had not been able to achieve in the working-up phase. Some painters barely put more than a few highlights after the working-up stage while other painters, who have a more perfectionist approach, spend days on end making minor alterations that even the most distinguished connoisseurs of the time would have failed to recognize.

At this point the painting has been worked up in almost the entire surface. This third phase is followed by a refining of modeling and adjusting of tonal values which are not all clearly perceptible in these digital images. Some areas which have been painted with much raw umber (the legs of the foreground chair) have “sunken in.” They seem lighter in tone and create a fastidious chalky finish that, however, will be restored to its original depth and color with a light passage of retouch varnish once the whole surface of the painting has been brought to the very final stages of the working process. Glazes too are generally executed in the later stages of the work since they are very hard to calibrate and must take into account the overall equilibrium of the composition as well as the reigning color harmony.

(01ftchs.jpg) This close-up image shows the still life as it is being retouched. Impasto retouching can be seen on the bright side of the ceramic vase, the details of the carpet and the illuminated parts of the models white sleeve.
(02ftchs.jpg) After the blue wrap has been modeled in tints white and ultramarine and is thoroughly dried, it is glazed with a small quantity of pure ultramarine blue beginning with the lowest area near the foreground chair and afterwards proceeding upwards gradually lightening the glaze as the light-fall of light intensifies. Although glazes are by definition transparent layers of paint, it is generally believed that at least a touch of white should be added to the most transparent pigments to ever-so-slightly reduce their transparency to avoid a glassy, “candy-apple” effect. The purpose of this light glaze is to deepen the blue wrap and give it more substance and chromatic vibrancy. This kind of light ultramarine blue glaze over a pastel-colored light blue was used by Vermeer in the blue turban of the Girl with a Pearl Earring. The glaze has been applied loosely with a worn round-tipped brush. It will be smoothed out when all the areas intended glazed are covered appropriately. The glaze medium consists equal parts of Liquin and stand oil.
(03ftchs.jpg) The ultramarine glaze is brought up slowly towards the top of the wrap.
(04ftchs.jpg) The ultramarine glaze completely covers the light blue underpainting. Some dark accents are placed in the darker shadows to define the folds of the wrap.
(05ftchs.jpg) The lighter areas of the drapery near the still life are retouched with a bit of white to increase the illusion of light. The model’s hair is deepened with a bit of raw umber. The falling curls in the shadowed part of the face are defined with fine brush.
(06ftchs.jpg) The ultramarine glaze is smoothed out with a sweeping motion of a very soft badger brush. This kind of brush is not generally used dry for applying the paint. It is used dry to remove brush marks, even out a layer of paint and blend adjacent colors imperceptibly. The badger brush must be use only for specific tasks, abusing it will draw all the life out of a work.
(07ftchs.jpg) The carpet must now be glazed to alter the local colors and create a sense of depth in the shadows and ulterior brilliance in the lights.
(08ftchs.jpg) This detail of the carpet shows that the local color of the shadows have been applied sparingly and that the tooth of the canvas can be made out here and there.
(09ftchs.jpg) With the blue wrap firmly in place, the last important glazes are reserved for the oriental carpet. There are essentially two glazes in this passage, one for the red part of the carpet and one for the blue. With a fine, pointed brush, a deep blue glaze of ultramarine blues is slowly applied to the decorative elements of the carpet, beginning on the left-hand side. The medium used to glaze is stand oil with a very light touch of turpentine. Mixed with the ultramarine blue, this paint becomes very thick, almost tacky, inhibiting the easy flow of oil paint. Since it does not flow, one can more precisely lay in the glaze. The purpose of such a thick paint is that it can be evened out with a badger brush but the borders of the glazed areas will remain almost unaltered, imperceptibly blurred lending a natural softness to the design of carpet.
(10ftchs.jpg) The ultramarine glaze is brought all the way to the left-hand side of the carpet. This ultramarine glazes deepens the underlying blue giving it a jewel-like quality that cannot be obtain with admixtures of opaque paints. The shadow becomes much more suggestive and airy even though the tone is not lowered dramatically.
(11ftchs.jpg) Detail of the carpet showing the ultramarine blue glaze.
(12ftchs.jpg) The ultramarine blue glaze is evened out with a badger brush.
(13ftchs.jpg) From the right-hand side to the left, a thick glaze of alizarin red plus a touch of black is laid on with the utmost care over the shadowed red areas of the carpet previously painted with light cadmium red. This glaze is very thick being applied with the same stand oil/turpentine medium. The slight addition of black tones down the excessive chromatic power of the alizarin.
(14ftchs.jpg) Close-up image of the carpet showing the beginning of the red glaze.
(15ftchs.jpg) The alizarin glaze is completed and some of the redddih areas are deepened with a bit of black.
(16ftchs.jpg) Detail of the glazed carpet.
(17ftchs.jpg) Detail of the foreground chair.
(18ftchs.jpg) High quality image of the complete painting, before being varnished.
(19ftchs.jpg) Detail of the map.
(20ftchs.jpg) Detail of the open window.
(21ftchs.jpg) ditto
(22ftchs.jpg) Detail of the still life.
(23tchs.jpg) Detail of the map.
(24ftchs.jpg) detail of the model’s resting hand.
(25ftchs.jpg) Detail of the background wall.
(26ftchs.jpg) Detail of the open window.
(27ftchs.jpg) Detail of the model’s face.
(28ftchs.jpg) Detail of the foreground chair.
(29ftchs.jpg) Detail of the background chair.
(30ftchs.jpg) detail of the cushion.
(30ftchs.jpg) Detail of the resting hand.

praxis | Old Master Drawing and Painting Vermeer III