The Vermeer Project: Part Two

8, May 2013 § 3 Comments

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Detail of Color Application

by Jane Morris Pack

Surprised by the ease of painting in the dark and upside down, I left the reader waiting for an update while our underpaintings dried.

The projection seems bursting with color and light inside of our dark room or ‘camera  obscura’  as is the Italian phrase.  How strange it was to apply color then and find our efforts were too garish in comparison.  Our second surprise with this project– how neutral the image needed to be.

Vermeer Palette

The neutral palette

I first suggested we tint our underpainting with some generalized glazes while still outside the camera.  This gave us a sense of the general warms and cools.  The vase was glazed in a warm transparent brown very thinly applied and wiped back with a rag; the wall was tinted with a veil of blue.  In truth this glazing just barely altered the color of the painting from its monochromatic state to something resembling an old fashioned tinted photograph.

After studying Vermeer I saw that many of his tones are neutral, darks are mostly without color, half tones are very grey, and only lights have true color. This matches what we perceive of the projection.  Highlights are obviously colored yellow or blue, gradations are very soft,  contrasts are muted. Selecting a very limited palette of raw sienna and cobalt blue, with just a touch of cobalt violet (plus black and white), I matched the underpainting’s tones and scumbled on color very lightly. My application of the colors, once viewed in daylight, was too colorful.  I went back in a second time and added greys, warm and cool, softened transitions and added transparent color glazes into the darks.  The feeling of cool light this gave was more northern in feel, the greyed out colors were more photographically ‘real’. The process is somewhat demanding, light off and on, white card up, down, staring at the image, mixing color, all in the half dark.  But it goes fairly quickly nonetheless.

The students were anxious to try a portrait but we quickly discovered that a human model needs to be very still or the results are skewed.  Given fifteen minutes one can attain a likeness; more time generally results in a slumping model and a frustrated painter.

pencil portrait

Pencil portrait

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Ink portrait

vermeer still life

Camera obscura student work 1 

This project has taught us much about the use of color, its potency if restrained in use, the use of selective focus, the beauty of grey.  I don’t think we are any closer to answering the final question of whether Vermeer painted inside of a darkened room but we have certainly understood that it would be possible to do so.

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Camera obscura student work 2

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