Monday, February 09, 2015

tim's vermeer

Tim Jenison is a Renaissance man. An inventor, and engineer, he has a questing, questioning mind. Tim's Vermeer, a documentary film by Penn and Teller, follows Tim in his quest to understand how Vermeer made his paintings, and to prove his personal theory that he used optical devices to get his painterly effects. Teller directed the film and wrote it with Penn Jillette, who also produced and serves as the narrator.

"The Music Lesson, " Johannes Vermeer, 1662–1665, Oil on canvas, Royal Collection, St. James's Palace, London

Tim is not the first to write about or question Johannes Vermeer's techniques. Painter David Hockney famously wrote about it in his book Secret Knowledge, which started Tim on his quest. Teller takes Tim to England to meet the artist, and others as well, including architecture professor Philip Steadman, author of the book Vermeer's Camera, which suggests the camera obscura was behind Vermeer's precise brushwork.

It is fascinating to watch Tim try to rebuild a famous work of art from the inside out. He tries to recreate Vermeer's work by grinding authentic pigments, using real, not modern, electric, or artificial light, even building a room to recreate the "set" of Vermeer's "The Music Lesson." It is also gratifying to see him be awed by the painting in real life, after taking a trip to see it first-hand.

Tim at work in his studio
Art inspires, and Tim is inspired to return home and try to recreate the painting using all that he has learned. Tim is not trained as a painter, but he is eager to learn. During the process he starts to notice little details and anomalies which continue to reveal the skill of the original artist. Some of the same anomalies occur in his process, which leads him to believe he is on the right track with his technique.

When I was in art school, the first year in our Color and Design class we were tasked to recreate an Old master's famous painting. I chose Vermeer's "Woman with Pearl Necklace." It is probably the best class assignment I ever had. I learned so much, like Tim, trying to just recreate the color and light of that wonderful work of art. As Hockney states in Tim's Vermeer, a lot of the formulas for paintings of the past have been lost. It is a worthwhile endeavor to try to recapture them.

Woman with a Pearl Necklace, Johannes Vermeer, 1664, oil on canvas, Staatliche Museen, Berlin


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