Among the old masters, Johannes Vermeer stands out for his near-photorealistic use of light and color. Even while David Hockney’s theory that artists started using optical devices to aid their works doesn’t quite explain it. A camera obscura, for instance, provides a projected image that an artist can easily trace, but color-matching is all but impossible, even for large patches of a single tone.
Vermeer not only gets the proportions and color right, he uses subtle gradients as light falls across his subjects. A human eye (and brain) will not pick up the difference in tone from one side of the gradient to the other. It’s the converse of the optical illusion where a light object in shadow and a dark object in the light are both rendered with the same shade, but they look very different to a human observer. So, was Vermeer gifted with a superhuman optical system that could somehow sense absolute — rather than relative — colors?
Computer graphics technician Tim Jenison thought about this question a lot, and he was convinced there must be a technological solution. Directed by Teller and narrated by Penn, Tim’s Vermeer tells the story of Tim’s journey from inspiration to a proof of his concept: painting his very own Vermeer with no previous experience with oil painting.
The basic concept is simple: starting from a projected image, a small mirror is placed above the flat canvas. The projection is visible in the mirror, and the canvas below it. The artist applies paint to the canvas, mixing and blending until the color on the canvas exactly matches the color in the mirror, at which point the edge of the mirror disappears. The process of recording the image is almost mechanical on the artist’s part. It barely even requires all that much skill, as mistakes can be blended away until the color is right again.
Tim starts by replicating a black-and-white picture in a few hours, and it looks fairly good for someone with about half an hour of previous experience with an oil brush. But could Vermeer really have used this technique? Is Tim being unwittingly helped by modern lighting and materials?
In order to test his theory like an art-historical Thor Heyerdahl, Tim decides to replicate Vermeer’s The Music Lesson, starting by replicating the room it depicts. He finds a studio with the same northern exposure as Vermeer’s studio in Delft. He turns and polishes his own lenses and mirrors using period techniques. He knocks out a wall, replacing it with the windows from Vermeer’s picture, and lays the same tile on the floor. He builds a blue chair, a viola da gamba, a harpsichord, and everything else in the scene, teaching himself any number of skills along the way. It takes over two hundred days, and this is all before he even picks up a brush again to see if this can actually work.
Tim Jenison has always been a tinkerer, which led to his popular line of graphics software and tools in the first place. Now that they’ve led him to basically unlimited time and resources, it’s great to see his curiosity and obsession with detail continuing unabated. It’s even better to see someone apply their gobs and gobs of money to something more interesting and edifying than just buying a lot of stuff. Watching this process should be fascinating for both fans of art history and for those of us who tinker on our own projects.
Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: if it applies to documentaries, fail.