18" x 24" oil on canvas
Welcome to the 2015 Fall Whitbeck Notes
It is hard to believe, but Fall is here and we are heading into the final shows of the season. The Bruce Museum in Greenwich, Connecticut will be the 10th and 11th of October, and we finish in Bethesda, Maryland with the Bethesda Row Art Festival on the 17th and 18th of October. Being able to work in some studio time in-between the art shows, I was able to produce new work throughout the summer season, so be sure to visit my website www.jameswhitbeck.com and see what is new, or even better, make a trip to one of the fall shows to see them in person.
One of the issues that I have felt like addressing in the Whitbeck Notes was that of the somewhat recent documentary called Tim's Vermeer. During a good part of this season I had often been asked if I had seen the documentary and what I had thought of it. Already having the pre-knowledge that it was basically about an eccentric inventor with a lot of time on his hands who had "figured out how Vermeer painted" and was "proving" that his technique was nothing more then an elaborate paint-by-numbers and that with a little practice anyone could do it, I had made a conscious effort not to see it, and not to indulge in the latest silliness that can be found coming out of the television set. But, finally having given up, putting aside all stubbornness for the sake of curiosity and to be able to have the ability to respond to peoples comments on the film, I did search out and watch Tim's Vermeer.
I think that for the general public the ideas put forward in the documentary might seem convincing. But anyone who knows a little bit about Vermeers technique and has studied even the most basic ideas of it, or has read any technical descriptions of Vermeers work, or even makes a simple comparison of Tim's finished painting and one of Vermeers, might stop and wonder if there is more to it then is suggested.
I am no expert on vermeers technique, but I am a painter and I do know about painting practices of the seventeenth century, and the various points that were trying to be made in the documentary by Tim just do not hold up for me. First and foremost is that Vermeer did not paint and finish his way across a canvas as presented in the film. Tim's small mirror technique of meticulously painting what butts up to the mirror and finishing that section completely before moving on, slowly working his way across the canvas does not, one bit, fit into the proven method that Vermeer was using at the time (be sure to see the documentary to view this in action). X-radiography and indepth study of his work shows that a basic underpainting was used by Vermeer, and that in some parts glazeswere used to produce vibrant colors, a technique that involves layers. Those magnificent blues you find throughout his work cannot be achieved using the technique Tim shows. In Vermeer's painting Little Street, you can see foliage at the left of the painting that has a bluish look to it. This is because there was another translucent paint layer covering this blue layer which resulted in producing a rich green color. But this layer of glazing has disappeared over time, leaving only the blue. If Vermeer was using Tim's mirror technique you would not be seeing effects like this in the paintings. Other instances of this blue foliage can be found in works by other artists of the time. I do find it curious that no experts of Baroque period painting techniques were brought into the documentary for their opinions.
It is also well known that Vermeer used a chalk-line to achieve his perspective lines, and that in a number of his paintings researchers have found tiny pinholes at vanishing points under the paint layers where he had placed a small tack, and using a chalked line was able to snap the lines needed to create the perspective of the walls, windows, floor tiles, etc. This would get rid of any idea that there was any tracing going on or that he had used an optical device to achieve this. Could it have been possible for Vermeer to have used the camera obscura to project an image onto his canvas which he then traced, capturing all the objects in the room (including people) correctly, then used the chalk-line to fine tune all the vanishing point lines? A combination of the two?
There was also an "epiphany" moment in the film where Tim discovers that his painting device is showing the edge of the painted seahorse motif on the virginal in his recreated room as slightly curved, and not straight, as it should be. He then looks at a print (keep in mind, this is a print he is looking at) of the original Music Lesson by Vermeer and sees too that his virginal also has a curved edge, therefore strengthening his case (in his mind) that an optical device had been used. This very well could have been a distortion produced by a camera obscura, if he in fact was using one, or it could have simply been just a slight trailing off by vermeers hand. This area of the virginal is small, not a huge expanse, and so easily could be just human error. I would be curious to see if the original painting also has this pronounced curve that Tim finds in his print.
One other point I would like to make is that not one of Vermeers fellow painters of the period produced work anything like his, and that if he was using the comparator mirror device, he was keeping it very secret. If other artist had heard of, or seen this device, you would think that somewhere there would have been similar paintings produced, which there are not. There are two known landscapes that Vermeer created, the first is The Little Street, the second is the well known View of Delft. If he was using the mirror device, he would have been painting on the spot where his method of painting would have been clearly observed by passers by, and not working hidden away in his studio. And because of the large amount of time it takes to finish a painting using the mirror, as Tim's documentary shows, Vermeer would have been out in the public eye for months at a time, exposing his technique to all. You could say with The Little Street that Vermeer possibly could have set up his studio across the street, and was able to, in privacy, work on his painting with no one observing. But with The View of Delft this could not be the case, as research has shown that from where he would have painted the scene there was no buildings, just moored boats in front, and orchards behind. Plus, there is that fact that the weather would have been changing continuously, and that all those details he was seeing would have been in constant flux.
Here is where I do agree with the documentary. I do think that there is no doubt that Vermeer used the camera obscura as an aid, why wouldn't he? To me this is obvious in the lion head finial of the chair in his later painting The Girl with the Red Hat. The unfocused appearance of the lion head is very much like how it would have appeared seen through a camera obscura, an effect that would not be seen with the naked eye. Other paintings of his contain objects which also have this diffused look to them. So it would seem that an optical device could have been used, and that for certain effects Vermeer supplemented his amazing talent with such outside help.
With today's innovations, it is very easy for an artist to use as an aid, in a small or large part, some sort of technology. Either in a simple transfer of image to canvas, or even further with the projection of an image right onto the the canvas where it is than just painted as shown, or even going so far as a print on canvas that is just painted over (which is looked poorly on by any real artist).Even though I do not use any of these methods, there have always been artists who were looking for an easier way to cut some corner, or simplify one of the earlier stages of the painting process. There is the example in the sixteenth century of a large wood frame containing a rope grid which the artist would have their subject sit behind so he could then easily grid them out onto his canvas or panel, therefore eliminating any mistakes in proportion. Look at some of Rembrandt's history paintings, once in a while you see that the arms are too short! Or some proportion is just not right. He could have benefited from one of these grids I think.
So basically I agree with the documentary on the idea that Vermeer used, as an aid, an optical device for parts of his paintings. But I whole heartedly disagree that there was something like Tim's mirror invention being used, or with the idea that Vermeer's very unique paintings were created by a rote mechanical means that could be mastered with a little practice and that anyone could do it. To me, there is no comparison between Tim's recreation and that of the original. This could easily be proven by hanging them both side by side, at which point I guarantee you would have some skepticism. There has to be some middleground here, where techniques of the time we were combined with new optical technology which Vermeer, because of his obvious gift, was able to produce works of art that were very unique for the Baroque period.
To finish, I also wanted to say how much I enjoyed the film. Other then disagreeing with Tim's main point, I found it fascinating with the recreation of The Music Lesson room, and the intense research that went into producing all of its parts. Being not only a fan of seventeenth century Dutch painting, but also having a big attraction to the objects of everyday life, my wife Gale and I go out of our way to find exact reproductions for our home, even to the point of making my own. With the right tools even a seventeenth century English oak bench was certainly not out of the question. To see how Tim went about recreating the furniture and glass was fascinating, and for me made the documentary was worth watching. If you have not yet seen it, I hope that this little writing will have piqued your interest in searching it out. It is worth it, and I know you will enjoy it wether you agree or disagree. I also hope that you will share your thoughts on it with me, as I am curious of others opinions on it.
I found Tim's Vermeer on youtube. As to Vermeers painting technique there is much written, but one site I found very informative is called Essential Vermeer. This is a good place to get an idea for how he was painting and much more. His blog on the subject I found very interesting. To view a wide variety of opinions on this subject, just search Tim's Vermeer on the internet, where you can find some amusing opinions as well as some really informative ones.