Today’s artists have a virtually unlimited palette with tubes of commercial oil paints available in every possible color and shade. Not only that, modern oil paints are easy to combine with one another, making it possible to create any color imaginable. In the past, artists had to hand grind pigments, mixing their oils individually before each painting session. The book, The Girl with the Pearl Earring, gave us a glimpse into this world, showing us Vermeer at work carefully mixing the brilliant colors by hand.
In fact, Vermeer used a simple palette consisting of about a dozen pigments to create The Girl with the Pearl Earring. This palette was similar to the palettes commonly used by Dutch painters of the time though Vermeer opted for the more expensive lapis lazuli over azurite. His brilliant blues were not the result of picking out a tube of paint that met his needs; they were the result of his mastery of mixing oil paints as well as his underpainting techniques.
Grinding pigments is an involved art form in its own right. Not only did the artist need to create the colors consistently for each painting session, the process involves precise measurements and precise grinding times. A minor adjustment changes the characteristics of the paint which could lead to undesirable colors and consistencies.
Oil paint consists of two components: pigment and oil. Pigments are usually mineral based or organic in nature. Most pigments come in powered form though some dyes are mixed with alum or clay. Oils act as binders to the pigment as well as lend their own characteristics to the paint. For example, linseed oil, walnut oil, and poppy oil each have their own characteristics both in terms of how well they handle as well as how the oil affects the color once the paint is dry.
Once an artist selects the pigment and binder, these components are then hand ground into a paste. Using a marble surface and a stone muller, the artist then grinds the paint until the desired characteristics have been achieved. In Vermeer’s time, the paints were of a much thicker consistency than the oil paints of today. The hand-ground oil paints of the time usually had to be created daily, as long-term storage was not feasible. Some excess paint could be stored in pig bladders temporarily.
In Vermeer’s time, and as illustrated in the book, an apprentice was often tasked with grinding and mixing oil paints. Once the apprentice mastered the art of mixing oil paints, the artist could then focus on the artwork itself.
However, Vermeer didn’t simply apply his freshly mixed oil paints to the canvas as modern artists do today. First, he had to prepare the canvas, draw the outline, and then begin painting by using a process known as “underpainting.” This process involves painting a monochromatic version of the composition. Once dry, layers of color are then added. The underpainting provides depth and luminance to the final artwork. X-ray images of The Girl with a Pearl Earring reveal the presence of lead which indicates that Vermeer used lead white in his underpainting. Some scholars also believe that Vermeer used the camera obscura technique with this painting.
Regardless of how Vermeer crafted The Girl with the Pearl Earring, it is clear that Vermeer was a master indeed. From hand grinding pigments into brilliant colors to capturing the girl’s seductive innocence, a lifetime of dedication to art reveals itself on canvas.
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