Vermeer Filter

Girl with a Pearl Earring Study by David Nicol

‘Girl With a Pearl Earring’ by Johannes Vermeer was painted in around 1665. Which means that right at the time when Johannes was getting his paint on in Holland, one third of the people in London at the time were having a pretty rough time with The Black Death. All things being considered, I’d rather be painting a girl with massive earrings than dying of plague, so thumbs up for Vermeer.

A couple of caveats for this post:
1 – I’ve never seen the original painting. The only references I’ve seen are those online (I’ve not seen the film with whatshername in it either).
2 – I’m writing this post before my study is finished.

Why am I writing about Vermeer if I’ve never seen his painting, and haven’t even finished my own shoddy study of his work? Well, this is a blog, and by it’s nature a blogs purpose is to impart information. What I’m writing here is to share progress I’ve made, and what I’ve learnt from painting this study.

I paint mostly landscapes and animals, but I would like to paint human animals at some point. By doing a study, it allows me to learn how a better artist creates a work while providing practice for rendering a human on canvas without the potential embarrassment of cocking it up (it would be awkward if I painted a living person and it didn’t look like them). I chose this painting in particular as I’d seen it a couple of times recently I just thought it would be nice and simple to begin with – no hair, fairly straightforward colour scheme. What could possibly go wrong?

So I got a reference to work from and began my painting. The original is an oil on canvas and is 17.5″ x 15″, my version is oil on board (Ampersand Panel) 10″ x 8″. The reason it’s on board is that I’d recently bought a couple of different supports of various qualities to work out what type I’m most likely going to work on in future.

The board is very smooth and I use Winsor and Newton oils mixed with Liquin. This means that unless I use thick layers of paint (which would mean longer drying times) it takes more layers to fully block out the white primed base. This isn’t a problem for me, my style of painting is to use a lot of thin layers anyway. My initial blocking in looked like this:

This is just getting the shapes right, and some of the values. The reference I was using seemed to show a very dark, almost black background. Personally I don’t like to use black in my painting. I’ll used burnt sienna and a mix of blues to create the darks which is what you can see for the background in the painting above. Due to the smoothness of the board and the Liquin affecting the opacity of the paint the base remained partially visible. I also like to use a kind of random herringbone pattern when filling in large areas – mainly because it transfers more paint onto the support rather than travelling up the bristles. This is an example of how my brushstrokes look close up:

Once that layer had dried I began filling out some of the details and fleshing out the shapes, getting the colours to more closely represent the reference I had. I went over the background again, this time with a darker “mud” made up of the colours I’d been working with, and darkened using burnt sienna along with phthalo blue. The painting now looked like this:

At this point I thought I should probably learn a bit more about the painting, who was the subject, why was it painted, and my first port of call was Wikipedia. The page for Girl with a Pearl Earring contained lots of interesting information that I hadn’t even considered (for example, the original size), including the colours Vermeer had used. Surprisingly to me, Vermeer used quite a lot of black according to the molecular analysis, but the information that gave rise to the title of this blog, and the impetus for me to write this post was in the description section. It reads:

During the restoration, it was discovered that the dark background, today somewhat mottled, was initially intended by the painter to be a deep enamel-like green. This effect was produced by applying a thin transparent layer of paint, called a glaze, over the present-day black background. However, the two organic pigments of the green glaze, indigo and weld, have faded.[citation needed]
[ 15/07/2017 (bold for emphasis)]

Every reference that I have seen for the painting seemed to have a very dark, almost black background. This isn’t unusual, many old masters paintings utilise dark backgrounds to emphasise the subject, but this “enamel-like green” information was compelling. Sure it has “citation needed” on there, so it could be spurious, but it also got me thinking about how the colours would shift if a transparent green was placed over the top. I could see in my mind the deep dark brown gaining an extra depth with the addition of this green glaze. It had to be done.

When the layer was dry I chose my pigment: PG7. A deep transparent green. PG7 is used to make Winsor and Newton Viridian Hue for their Winton range, and also their Winsor Green (Phthalo) in their Artists’ range – PG7 is probably called other things in other paint ranges, but that’s for another blog post. This is what it looks like straight out of the tube:

I mixed it in with some Liquin to create the glaze and started covering the brown background. Straight away I could see that this was something special. This deep colour made the figure really stand out, but at the same time it gave the background depth. It wasn’t just a flat expanse of darkness. What was most surprising was how the underlying layers behaved with the green glaze. Despite the background not being visible, the green glaze made it appear as if there was a transparency there depending on the angle of the light hitting the underlying brushstrokes. As it happened, my haphazard herringbone brushstrokes enhanced the effect:

And so we come to the title of this post: The Vermeer Filter; because adding that green glaze was like putting a coloured filter over a lens when shooting black and white photographs.

Girl with a Pearl Earring Study by David Nicol

Now that I have the background sorted, I really should get on and finish her old boat race.