Pigment and Vermeer

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Master painters of the seventeenth-century often developed techniques that were drawn from experimenting with paint and its application in innovative ways; from the observation of light in its real use to the use of a camera obscura to capture the very essence of light. These experimentations were applied to current works and then further expanded upon, continuing the development of painting as a medium. This collaboration and development by artists working in the same medium over a period of many years, creates works that not only utilize the knowledge of an extensive amount of minda, but exemplifies the very style of the painter creating the work. Even though Vermeer was not originally recognized as a Dutch Master by his contemporaries until after his death, the precise techniques that he used to create the vibrant colors and realistic light sources in his paintings set him a part as an expert handler of light and color, and the techniques that he worked in that made him famous are seen most clearly in paintings such as The Milkmaid. Of his limited oeuvre, The Milkmaid best displays Vermeer’s expert handling of pointille, realistic illumination and complex composition. Although relatively small painting, this visually stunning piece displays the core formula of Vermeer’s work- a quiet domestic scene, one or two figures working, (often looking away from the viewer), and a subtle message moral. Painted sometime between 1958 and 1961, this well handled image offers a glimpse into the working process of an artist in the seventeenth-century; an artist that stretched his techniques to the max to develop a style that became known as his own and easily recognized for its delicate impasto and pointille. The Milkmaid not only reveals some of Vermeer’s developments as an artist, it is also one of his greatest achievements in light and color.

To understand Vermeer’s approach to painting and his techniques used in The Milkmaid, one should have a basic understanding of what methods seventeenth-century artists used. Even though Vermeer experimented extensively with various techniques in order to effectively render the look of natural illumination, evidence also suggests that he worked predominantly within the styles of traditional studio methods of seventeenth-century Dutch artists. Seventeenth-century artists like Vermeer, approached their works in a relatively fixed step-by-step method. The work load was divided into distinct phases in order to deal with the main elements of the composition one at a time. Since paintings in the seventeenth-century are generally far more complex in composition, accuracy of perspective, fine detail and naturalistic illumination than modern paintings, this division of labor was both economic and technical in nature. Artists like Vermeer followed these steps closely, starting with the selection of a surface to paint on.

Once Vermeer had selected a canvas or board to paint on, a layer of sizing was applied to the surface. Sizing was the agent used to effectively seal the canvas against the layers of ground and paint, (both of which contain drying oils that could be damaging the canvas if applied directly). Sizing was a substance made up of the clippings from various animals hide. When the clippings were heated, they became a sticky, glue like material that was spread generously onto and into the canvas. Animal skin glue can only be found on canvases through laboratory tests that look for for high protein content. The presence of size, an organic material, in Vermeer's The Milkmaid indicate that it was painted on a canvas that had been primed with a layer of sizing. After the sized canvas dried completely, it was sanded and ground was applied. Grounding, or priming as it is generally referred to today, provides the final surface for painting used by painters to create a smooth, impermeable layer on which to paint (two layers of ground were often applied by Dutch artists to create this final surface)....
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