Vermeer’s Palette

The number of pigments available to the 17th c. Dutch painter were few indeed when compared to those available to the modern artist. While the current catalogue of one of the most respected color producers (Rembrandt) displays more than a hundred pigments, less than 20 pigments have been detected in Vermeer’s oeuvre. Of these few pigments only ten seemed to have been used in a more or less systematic way.

In Vermeer’s time, each pigment was different in regards to permanence, workability, drying time, and means of production. Moreover, many pigments were not mutually compatible and had to be used separately. The following study examines the history and origin of each pigment and how they were employed by Vermeer and his contemporaries as well as essential aspects of the artist’s palette.

Some of Vermeer’s pigments:

Azurite mineral is usually associated in nature with malachite, the green basic carbonate of copper that is far more abundant. Azurite was the most important blue pigment in European painting throughout the middle ages and Renaissance by contrast, despite the more exotic and costly ultramarine having received greater acclaim.

Vermeer seems to have used azurite in light grays and mixtures of green where the brilliance of ultramarine would not have been appreciable. Like other painters of the time, Vermeer may have used azurite as a base color on which the far more costly natural ultramarine was painter over, for economical reasons

Green Earth

The name green earth  is applied to several different minerals, but most importantly in medieval painting is the light, cold green of celadonite, found chiefly in small deposits in rock in the area of Verona, Italy. Today the color is chiefly a durable mixture of chromium oxide, black, white and ochre, since the natural product is scarcely obtainable.

In Vermeer’s painting green earth was  found mixed with white-lead and a little lead-tin yellow in the lighter tones of the trompe d’oile curtain of Vermeer’s early Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window.

Raw Umber

 Ochre containing manganese oxide and iron hydroxide. Colored earth is mined, ground and washed, leaving a mixture of minerals – essentially rust-stained clay. Burnt umber is produced by heating umber.

The best variety is sold under the name of Cyprus umber, which comes chiefly from the Harz mountains. Painter have used umber to paint the shadows of flesh tones replacing green earth widely used in the medieval times. Umbers with  greenish tinge are highly valued by artists. Rembrandt and Rubens used umber extensively  in their underpaintings.

The artist has long appreciated the variety of cool and warm hues, which serve as a valuable shadding tool in any sort of painting technique. When umber is used transparently or semi-transparently on a light or medium toned ground it produces a warm brown but not “hot” ground. However, when it is mixed with white  in varying quantities, a range of very greenish and silvery  grays are produced.

Lead-Tin Yellow

Natural ultramarine blue could be considered the king of Vermeer’s palette, lead-tin yellow would justly be called   its queen. What is now commonly called lead-tin yellow has had several different names in the past. Italian manuscripts have described a color, giallolino, which is identical to lead-tin yellow. In northern parts of England the term massicot  was used to describe the same pigment. The current name lead-tin yellow is self explanatory. It is a result of the components of the pigment lead and tin which combine to form a yellow hue. Due to its high lead content, it is very poisonous and has been replaced by safer products. Used between 13th and 18th centuries, but most common from 15th to 17th centuries.

White Lead

White has always played an important part in the art and craft of painting. The great part of pigments on a progressive scale of gray would fall into the medium dark to dark category. Only lead-tin yellow is by itself light pigment. In order to portray the light areas which are for indispensable to convey the sense of natural illumination, white must be added to heighten most of the darker pigments.

Vermeer, as all other painters of the time, used it extensively to lighten other colors and as the principle component used to depict the characteristic white-washed walls (see right below) seen in so many of his paintings. Vermeer was also aware that the rendering of surface textures enhances the visual significance of various material realities he portrayed.

Information taken from:

  Essential Vermeer