It is not an easy chore to reconstruct with precision how Vermeer painted. What we now know of contemporary Dutch 17th c. painting methods is based largely on information gleaned from contemporary painting manuals integrated with the results of modern scientific analysis. Period painting manuals were more apt to discuss theoretic issues of the art of painting rather than practical side of every day studio practice. Even though basic methodology was occasionally outlined and recipes were given for specific palettes, the actual craft of making a picture was largely transmitted from masters to aspiring young artists through years of apprenticeship (normally from 4 to 6). Few historical records of studio practice survive. None of them regard Vermeer.
Although Vermeer experimented ceaselessly with specific techniques to render the effects of natural illumination, evidence points to the fact that he worked largely within the boundaries of traditional studio methods of Northern European artists. These methods were very different than those used by artists today. Modern painters usually execute their works a unified whole. They work while standing so they can walk back to envision the totality of the painting. The painting is worked up directly with full color on a white or off-white canvas. Their palettes usually contain every pigment which will likely be present in the finished work. Experimentation and improvisation play vital roles in the working process. Since craft is not is retained an indispensable component of artistic expression there no longer exists uniform instruction in regards.
Instead, 17th c. painters proceeded according to a relatively fixed step-by-step method which they had assimilated in a master’s studio. The work load was divided into distinct phases in order to deal with the principle pictorial components one at a time. The rationale behind this division of labor was based on both technical and economical reasons. It must be remembered that paintings of the 17th c. were generally far more complex in composition and great attention was given to perspective accuracy, naturalistic illumination and fine detail. Once the drawing and lighting scheme had been worked out in the drawing and underpainting stage, artists worked up their compositions in a piecemeal fashion, completing one restricted area at a time.
Almost all representations of artists at work showed them at work seated holding small palettes. The pigments they possessed were very few compared to those available to any modern painter and usually had to be hand ground each day before setting out to work. Moreover, some pigments were not mutually compatible and had to be used separately. To overcome the scarcity of pigments and the inherent limitations of available materials, artists had learned to compensate through the use of complex pictorial techniques such as monochrome underpainting, glazing and by varying paint consistencies and methods of application.
“Research into painter’s terminology has revealed that for the seventeenth-century painter there were three or four main stages: “inventing”, the “dead-coloring”, and the “working-up”, followed (according to Lairesse) by “retouching”.1
The term “inventing”, corresponds to the modern terms drawing or sketching, “dead-coloring” to underpainting and “working-up” to finishing or the application of color and detail. Each phase, along the preparation of the painting’s support, is discussed in depth on separate pages which can be accessed below. Glazing, a separate technique, is analyzed by itself.
This information is taken from: http://www.essentialvermeer.com/technique/technique_overview.html