Johannes Vermeer

Figure 1: Vermeer 1665. A Lady Writing.

Like many artists and contemporary photographers, Johannes Vermeer's art has inspired and influenced my practice, and it’s easy to understand why. Vermeer was a highly technical painter, a master of composition, realism, painting light, shadows and depicting the luminance and tonal values of colours. In photography terms, his camera technique was excellent in addition to his darkroom and Lightroom skills. Vermeer's remarkable detailed depiction of light and shadow has led to a wide and accepted speculation that he used a Camera Obscura. Vermeer was also a master at using one dominant colour with varying tones in his work, continues to draw admiration and an increased fan base. During his lifetime Vermeer was not particularly well known, though it’s been suggested that he had some benefactor, how else could he have afforded the best quality powdered pigments to paint? During the 17th century, colours were rare and limited in scope. And perhaps this is why Vermeer palette had at times a very dominant colour that varied in tonal values; maybe it was a practical necessity he had forced to manage with that led to improvisation and the mastering of his distinct palette.


Vermeer, like any professional artist, or professional photographer, wanted the best tools that would enhance the quality of his work. The artist had taken to underpainting with the Ultramarine pigment, which he applied with a heavy hand. The pigment was made by crushing lapis lazuli, a semi-precious stone. Needless to say, it was very rare and very costly, but Vermeer felt he needed it, he believed it enhanced and defined the quality of his work, and it was a routine part of his technique.

Vermeer's Palette

In times when pigments were scarce, the artist palette was limiting with minimal vibrant, punchy colours, and although Vermeer had an impressive 17 pigment palette, most were varying hues of a particular colour, i.e.

Yellows: Weld, Lead-Tin Yellow, Yellow Ochre, Schijtgeel

Reds: Madder Lake, Carmine, Vermilion, Red Ochre

Blues: Azurite, Smalt, Natural Ultramarine, Indigo

Greens: Vivianite, Green Earth, Verdigris

Vermeer’s Palette also included black and white pigments.

Black: Charcoal Black, Bone Black

White: Lead White

This selection was a contributing factor in the appreciation and visual connection we have for Vermeer’s art. Among these seventeen pigments, Lead-Tin Yellow is featured predominantly in his painting, A Lady Writing a Letter.

Figure 2: Vermeer 1665. Girl with a Pearl Earring.

Vermeer - The Studio Photographer

With some familiarity of Vermeer’s palette, you can begin to decipher how colour influenced his art, in Girl with a Pearl Earring, Vermeer contrasted his dark background with beautiful tones of yellow and blue pigments with a touch of red on the lips. There are only two recognisable brush strokes on this painting, the white on the pearl earring; it’s almost like it is simulating the highlights and the direct reflection of a strobe light. Vermeer wants the viewer to focus on the pearl earring as much as on the girl, hence the title. Another reason this particular portrait appeals to photographers is the lack of background reference, similar to the plain, dark backdrops in a photographer's studio.

Tronie or Portrait?

Experts often use the word Tronie in categorising Girl with a Pearl Earring. A Tronie is used to describe the facial expressions of the sitter or model, the painting we now call a portrait, in fact back then was not a typical portrait. Portrait paintings at the time were commissioned and painted to display and define the social status of the person. The Girl with a Pearl Earring has fascinated contemporary art historians and photographers, who is she? Did she exist? Some have speculated as well that the portrait is of Vermeer’s daughter, whatever the truth, Vermeer has left an outstanding body of work that can enrich any photographer's practice. Vermeer's understanding of composition, light and shadows, colours and tones embody the knowledge necessary to excel and enhance the photographer's mind.

Figure 3: Baptiste 2017. Melons on Velvet.

The photograph, Melons on Velvet is a recent edition to my project portfolio, partially inspired by Northern baroque artist Vermeer. To create this image, I selected a similar colour construction as Vermeer, using a dark chocolate brown backdrop and a similar brown velvet fabric. I maintained a monochromatic colour base that served as my set preparation, in painting terms, my canvas preparation, my underpainting. The three melons were carefully selected for their colour strengths, shapes and sizes, and were strategically placed to emphasise highlights, depth, and the subtle contrasting colours and tonal values, giving semblance to Vermeer's palette and technique applied in photography.

Figure 4: triptych comparison.

As you can see that darkness in backdrop was typical in Northern European baroque artists like Vermeer, this helps to create a similar aesthetic image in line with that era.

'Melons on Velvet' is currently featured in my exhibition 'Lost in Velvet: Antoinette on Display' in Abu Dhabi. 'Lost in Velvet' is part of a group exhibition 'Landings' SEARCHING FOR MEANING, featuring the 'work-in-progress portfolio exhibitions by students and staff of the Online MA Photography course at Falmouth University'.


Introduction: Vermeer and technique | Vermeer and technique | Research | The National Gallery, London. n.d. [online]. Available at: [accessed 12 August 2017].

JANSON, JONATHAN. n.d. "Vermeer's Palette". [online]. Available at: [accessed 12 August 2017].

Johannes Vermeer Style and Technique. n.d. Artble [online]. Available at: [accessed 12 August 2017].


Figure 1. VERMEER, JOHANNES. 1665. A Lady Writing. National Gallery of Art.

Figure 2. VERMEER, JOHANNES. 1665. The Girl with a Pearl Earring

[oil on canvas]. Wikipedia Commons [online] Available at:

Figure 3. BAPTISTE, MANDISA. 2017. Melons on Velvet.

#Girlwithapearlearring #ALadyWriting #arthistory #JohannesVermeer

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