Although there are a number of excellent studies which explore particular aspects of Vermeer’s painting techniques and materials, there still exists no single work which describe in detail Vermeer’s painting procedures. The difficulty of describing Vermeer’s painting methods is further complicated by the fact that the artist experimented with different techniques throughout his career.
- Early works
In Vermeer’s early works, thickly applied impasto paint is characteristic. This evident paint build-up combined with a relative freedom of brushwork create uneven and granular effects. The artist probably wished to accentuate the material presence of his subjects although repeated overpainting may at times be considered evidence of technical uncertainty. Tones tend to be rather muted and in more than one painting, such as the Maid Asleep, they create an overall sullen effect. In Vermeer’s early interiors, which immediately followed the mythological and religious themes, impasto is used more selectively and the complicated admixtures of pigments found in preceding works are less frequent. The brilliant tones needed to suggest the intensity of incoming daylight, which had become one of his principle artistic preoccupations, are generally composed of two or three pigments. In this early phase Vermeer’s contours tend to be very sharp, sometimes to the point of brittleness.
- Late works
In his last years of artistic activity Vermeer had acquired an extremely high degree of control of every facet of painting technique. Outline had become again distinct, but paint is applied with the utmost economy and his brushwork often calligraphic, at times borders on the virtuoso. A sense of brittleness is adverted in the modeling of his sitters. In some areas paint has been applied so thinly that the underlying ground can easily be seen. This fact has even lead some scholars to believe some of the paintings were not completely finished.