Old Master Drawing and Painting Vermeer II

Print Friendly, PDF & Email




This page is under construction.

Link to Part I

Link to Part III

Link to Pictures on Picasa


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.


Underpainting is seldom practiced today and even its underlying logic is not always clear to the majority of painters. Why should an artist labor considerable hours on his underpainting only to cover it up in the later stages of the painting process? For the last century, artists have simply begun their painting directly on commercially-prepared white canvases with full color surpassing any other passage except, perhaps, an abbreviated drawing. Therefore, it is understandable that neither the function nor the practice of underpainting is fully comprehended.

In the simplest terms, an underpainting is a monochrome or a low-key, colored version of the final painting. In the underpainting stage, the artist attempts to fix the main compositional elements, give volume to each form and distribute darks and lights in order to create the effect of illumination. Thus, a correctly executed underpainting anticipates the artist’s final intention even if full color and fine detail are absent. Underpainting is particularly recommended for creating paintings with strong chiaroscural effects.

In the seventeenth century, underpainting appears in various forms and it is clear that the now defunct term dead-coloring was a somewhat flexible. Sometimes underpaintings were executed in monochrome and at other times they appeared as an assembly of evenly blocked-out areas of dull colors which anticipated the final colors. Following this later method, each individual area approximated the final color in a flat tint. Anthony van Dyck described this approach as follows: “Dead-coloring is called the maniera lavata, that is to say the washed manner; because it fills in the area within the outline only with one color.”

The great part of the monochrome underpainting in this work is executed with raw umber oil paint and a small amount of Liquin medium to speed drying and assure a tough surface that will eventually be able to resist removal of successive wet paint layers with turpentine. The underpainting serves essentially as a tonal guide to subsequent application of full color. It should be overall lighter in tone than the final painting, executed carefully but vigorously. Pure white oil paint is introduced only at the end of the underpainting to pick out the maximum lights and augment the tonal range of the painting. Various sizes of brushes are employed but all are round-tipped except for the badger brush. Synthetic brushes which have lost their point are particularly indicated for filling in larger masses. A certain liveliness of touch is desirable.


The underpainting begins at the top left-hand corner where the darkest value of the painting is found establishing criteria for gauging all the other tones of the composition.
Adjacent areas of the upper window frame are underpainted slowly completing little by little the whole image. Working from left to right permits the painter’s hand to rest on the canvas without touching the painted surface.
Pure white oil paint is employed to heighten the lightest areas of the composition which include the ceramic vase, the illuminated side of the whicker basket, some of the background wall and the illuminated side of the girl’s face. Highlights are also picked out here in there.
Details of various areas of the underpainting.

Palette, Paint Qualitites and Mediums


From left to right:a. fine lettering brush, #0
b. fine-tipped, round brush, #0
c. fine-tipped, round brush, #1
d. fine-tipped, round brush, #4
e. worn-down synthetic brush, #2
f.  worn-down synthetic brush, #4
g. synthetic badger brush, #00

Very few types and sizes of brushes are used in the painting, however, for each of the seven brushes listed, two of the same identical size are employed, one for the light tints and one for the darker tints. This helps to keep each tint as clean and fresh as possible. The size indicated on the list below must be consulted with extreme caution. Unfortunately, there exist no standard for brush sizes. Sizes are generally numbered, but the numbering is very inconsistent from brand to brand. About all one can be sure of is that within one shape, a given brand, higher numbers are bigger. What one company calls a #6 round might be a #9 from another company. And even within a single brand, a #8 filbert might be much larger than a #8 bright. So it is difficult, if not impossible, to indicate the exact size of brush.


Mediums and varnish: from left to right: artist retouch varnish, Liquin, stand oil and walnut oil.

Painters of the seventeenth century had an extraordinarily narrow choice of pigments when compared to the number of pigments available on the shelf of any medium-stocked art supplies store today. Although the pigments of Vermeer’s paintings have not been systematically examined, evidence points to the fact that the number of pigments he ever employed was quite limited and that his “working palette” did not contain more than a dozen pigments. He like other painters, had learned to combine paints, brushwork and paint layering to create an extraordinary range of optical effects, effective widening the range of colors. To demonstrate a few of these qualities, various pigments and pigment combinations have been brushed out on a canvas identical to the one used for painting Girl in Hyacinth Blue.

Vermeer and other Dutch painters used a number of blacks each one according to their physical and optical properties, often in the same painting. The left-hand example contains pure lamp black brushed out straight from the tube (lamp black was the only black pigment used during the painting process of the Girl in Hyacinth Blue). Lamp black is the deepest and most intense of all blacks and possesses great covering power. The swatch next to the pure black one consists of the same lamp black with varying proportion of white. Quite surprisingly, with the addition of white, the neutral black takes on a decidedly bluish cast which is further augmented by the warm ground which surrounds it. Vermeer combined black and white paints to create a gamma of fine, pearly grays both for the rendering of the objects of white local color and for the rendering of the all-important background walls. It would seem that a few of these walls were painted entirely with shades of black and white. By capitalizing on the combination of the two pigments, varying their density and transparency with the additions of drying oils as well as taking advantage of the brown underground, Vermeer was able to suggest in the most efficient but technically economic manner the play of raking light across a simple white-washed wall which many modern painters fail to capture with more complex mixtures. Vermeer also added raw umber to this basic black and white mixture which produces a “friendlier,” more conventional gray.

Next to each other, the two most transparent pigments, alizarin crimson and ultramarine blue, are brushed out with a touch of stand oil. Alizarin crimson has taken the place of the original organic red madder while ultramarine blue has completely replaced the original natural ultramarine (powdered lapis lazuli) so favored by Vermeer. Both modern substitutes present brushing and optical qualities highly analogous to the originals and can be used in their place without fear. Both pigments were of extreme value in the seventeenth-century for glazing and Vermeer employed both extensively. He used natural ultramarine both for glazing and mixed with white to produce some of the finest passages of his oeuvre.

All the paints used in this project from left to right: a. ultramarine blue
b. lamp black
c. raw umber
d. alizarin crimson
e. cadmium red, light
f. yellow ocher
g. cadmium yellow, lemon
h. titanium white