Old Master Drawing and Painting Vermeer I

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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.

The Composition

The composition of The Girl in Hyacinth Blue, which was originally painted for the Hallmark TV production of Brush with Fate (adaption of Susan Vreeland’s best-selling novel Girl in Hyacinth Blue) was chosen to illustrate Vermeer’s painting techniques since it offers a number of identifiable features which are contained in Vermeer’s works. This composition offers an ideal opportunity to illustrate the known procedures which were very likely practiced in the studio of Vermeer. The work load of this painting is divided into four essential stages: canvas preparation, underdrawing, underpainting, working-up, followed by retouching.

Canvas Preparation

Every phase of creating a painting should be considered equally important. Errors committed even at the earliest stages risk being carried through the the entire painting process compromising final results. These include the selection and stretching of the canvas. A canvas that is not properly stretched will destroy any illusion of reality no matter how patiently it has been constructed. By stretching a canvas we mean the semi-permanent fixing of a piece of linen on a adjustable light-weight wood frame, or chassis, as it is also called. Obviously, the canvas must be made flat in order for it to be prepared so that it will accept oil paint properly.

Before paint can be applied to a canvas, it must be properly prepared. In Vermeer’s time this was done in separate stages: sizing, grounding and priming. The term sizing describes an initial layer of heated animal-skin glue which served to close any gaps in the canvas and protects it from binding agents that may be damaging to the canvas. The second layer called grounding was normally a mixture of the same glue and some kind of inert filler, sometimes with the addition of linseed oil to make it more flexible. Today, modern polymer gesso has substituted the older materials which, although still available, are less predictable and less stable than those available today.


1. A common, expandable, light-weight stretcher is chosen for its practicality during the painting process. Mounted, it measures 50 x 55 cm.It is important that the chassis is in square and tightly fitted. Once the final dimensions of the finished painting can be determined, this light-weight chassis can be substituted by a heavy-weight permanent stretcher.
2. A piece of fine, top-grade Belgian linen was cut from a larger role of canvas. It extends about 1 ½ inches over each side of the stretcher.
3. The fine, compact weave of the canvas requires far less grounding material than rough canvas to obtain a smooth surface which facilitates the grounding operation and creates a more structurally sound support. The smoothness also facilitates fine detail.
4. Materials for stretching. The force of a common staple gun is sufficient to penetrate the canvas and wooden stretcher and hold the canvas tightly to wood. Brass staples are preferred since they do not rust although steel ones do not seem to have any adverse effect when they are used. Artist’s special canvas pliers may be used to grasp and pull the raw canvas, but when the chassis is small, the operation can easily be done by hand. Canvas pliers are a necessity when the canvas is grounded before stretching.
5. The canvas is first centered by laying the stretcher over the canvas on a flat surface. It is initially fixed with a staple in the middle of one side of the stretcher. The canvas is then pulled moderately while fixing the second staple directly across the first.
6. The remaining to loose sides of the canvas are then fixed in the same manner pulling the canvas taught but not so much that it risks deforming the stretcher.
7. Proceeding from the center outwards, place one staple or tack on each side of the first middle one while pulling the canvas from the other side, then repeat the operation on the opposite sides. Care is taken to pull just a bit the canvas laterally as well. For small canvases such as those painted by Vermeer, one staple every ½ or ¾ inches is sufficient. This operation is repeated until the corner of the chassis has almost been reached.
8. ditto
9. Excess canvas is stapled to the back of the stretcher to create a clean rectangle to facilitate handling.
10. The four corners are fixed folding the canvas and stapled. They are neatest when folded like the corners of sheets on a bed. The stretched canvas can now be grounded.


11. The materials used for grounding are few: a simple metal palette knife and a common store-bought polymer gesso, in this case, the Le Franc brand. Le Franc produces a somewhat drier surface than those achieved with commercial gesso with higher polymer content. Liquitex brand acrylic raw umber will be later added to the white gesso to tone the canvas once the desired surface texture has been obtained.
  12. A blob of gesso is taken up on the palette knife and deposited on one of the corners of the raw stretched canvas.
13. With the same long, flexible palette knife the gesso is spread across the canvas parallel to one side of the stretched canvas pressing it against the canvas taking care to fill all interstices. The gesso should be “scraped” on the canvas and not “buttered” as a piece of bread. It should leave no “free” material visible  relief on the canvas surface after it has been delicately gone over a few times.
14. Another swatch of gesso is applied in a parallel stroke to the first.
15. ditto
16. ditto
17. ditto until the whole canvas has been covered. Once covered, care must be taken to remove any excess gesso with light strokes of the cleaned palette knife.
18. The surface of the first layer of the primed canvas magnified. After the canvas is thoroughly dry, it is then smoothed with fine sandpaper with a circular movement taking care to remove fine loose fibers which stand up from the canvas surface.
19. Using the same technique for the first layer of grounding, gesso is applied at right angle to the direction of the first application. With the canvas pores filled by the initial gesso covering, far less material will be required to cover the whole surface.
20. ditto
21. ditto
22. ditto
23. Magnified image of the surface of the canvas after the second layer of gesso.
24. The layering process is repeated until the desired surface smoothness has been obtained. In this case, 7 layers of gesso have been applied. Note that the quantity of gesso required to cover the whole canvas surfaces diminishes with every passage and the final passages require a fraction of the first layer.
25. Magnified image of the canvas surface.
26. Image of the canvas surface with strong raking light. The fingertip can just barely feel the tooth of the canvas.


27. The toning of the canvas requires a white gesso and a little bit acrylic raw umber. The brush should be well broken-in so it will not lose its hairs. It should be soft but capable of holding its form.
28. The two components are mixed and thinned with water until they are easily brushable. The toning requires two passages, each of which should not add appreciable material to the surface but not be so light as a mere watercolor wash. Two layers should effectively tone the surface in a more or less homogenous manner.
29. The first toning layer is applied briskly attempting to obtain an even application but not a mechanically homogenous one.  This operation must be done quickly since the paint can no longer be brushed after a minute or even less.
30. The second layer is applied with brushstrokes perpendicular to the first. Once dry, all that is necessary is a light sanding to begin the painting process.
31. Close-up image of the grounded canvas.


Our idea of underdrawing, by which the artist transfers the rudiments of his ideas to the surface of the canvas, corresponds reasonably close to the seventeenth-century concept of “inventing.” Underdrawing serves principally to fix the most significant contours of the subjects onto the canvas as a guide to subsequent stages of the work.
  Chalk, charcoal, tempera and oil paints in a variety of hues were employed for the purpose. Some painters took great care to achieve the most accurate underdrawing while others were content to indicate only prin­ciple lines of their compositions. The underdrawing of this painting was executed in a delicate but deliberate style. If the underdrawing is to marked, it will require more paint to cover it up which is not desirable since many areas of the painting are executed with transparent or semi-transparent paint layers.
  The drawing is executed with a fine #000 lettering  brush (a flexible fine-tipped brush may just as well be used according to ones skills and habits). Raw umber oil paint diluted  in turpentine permits one to obtain precise lines but  a bit of Liquin is added to speed drying time and assure permanence . Depending on ones ability, an underdrawing of this complexity might require two work days to finish.