Ever stand in a museum looking at a painting and wonder how an artist even starts to do something like that?  Amazing.

I consider myself pretty crafty, but an artist? No.

In college, I took a drawing class. Not to brag, but I got an A. Okay, maybe I am bragging a little. I have also taken a watercolor painting class through community education. Alas, no great works of art has sprung from these hands. Well, I have to live knowing that isn’t one of my strengths and that’s okay. My pieces are simple and one-dimensional with no semblance of reality.

Vermeer Girl with Pearl Earring,

Johannes Vermeer, The Girl with a Pearl Earring

Pretty much the opposite can be said of Johannes Vermeer paintings. I have never taken an art history class before, so I am extremely naive about the artistic process and methods. Museum-wise, being the science-nerd that I am I have a fondness for planetariums and natural history. Art-wise, my viewing preference is for sculpture and photography, but I have the utmost respect for painting and the process.

Watching the movie, Tim’s Vermeer, I had an aha moment. By the way, this movie is excellent and I give it a strong recommendation. The movie investigates the process taken by painter, Johannes Vermeer, to create the The Music Lesson. The process gets quite technical which is one of the reasons I loved it so much.

I thought I would share my revelation, in the chance that you were right there with me in lacking knowledge of art and art history. The topic of this Exhibit article is Vermeer painting The Music Lesson.


Who is Vermeer?

The Astronomer

Johannes Vermeer, The Astronomer

Johannes Vermeer was born in Delft, Netherlands in 1632. He was born into a middle-class family. His father did several things including owning an inn, but he also did paint.

It was the Golden Age in the Netherlands where it is estimated that over 5 million paintings were created in the 17th century alone. It was a time of war and independence and change.

He married Catharina Bolnes who came from a wealthier family. The couple moved into the large house of his mother-in-law and had 14 children. Wow! During his life, he was a respected painter in Delft, but not known much further from his hometown. He died at the age of 43 after a very short illness leaving his wife and 11 surviving children in debt.

Vermeer’s style is regarded for use of light, composition, and color. The generous use of lapis lazuli to create his natural ultramarine was not common at the time due to the extreme expense. The realistic nature of his paintings is amazing. He used indoor domestic life as his subject, often portrayed in the same room of his home. This fact also fuels the speculation that he used camera obscura to aid in his process.

Vermeer wasn’t terribly prolific, but no one truly knows how many works he completed, perhaps as little as 40. The attribution process for Vermeer paintings is difficult because he wasn’t consistent with signing his work or dating it for that matter. The fact that his style evolved and he used different subject matter doesn’t help the attribution process either. There are pieces that are considered lost or missing based on a description from an auction catalog.

If you would like to learn more about Vermeer, I found 2 great resources. Essential Vermeer gives a staggering amount of nuanced information as it will make your head spin. *swoon* The Vermeer Foundation displays many paintings believed to be attributed to Vermeer in a very accessible manner.


What is camera obscura?

Camera obscura

Diagram 1. Camera obscur

Optics is the science of light. An optic lens can be used to manipulate light and are used in glasses, telescopes, binoculars, and more. Lenses were hot in the early 1600s as seen by the works of Kepler, Newton, and Galileo Galilei at the time. For aspiring optics geeks, here is a super quick and friendly video on optics.

An image of a simple camera obscura is shown in diagram 1. The latin translation being dark chamber.

In simplest cases, a camera obscura is a dark room or a dark box with a small hole in one side. Light passes through the hole and projects the outside image on the back wall inverted. A lens may be used to increase brightness and clarity.

To see a quick demonstration of camera obscura, check out this short video at National Geographic. It is pretty neat and is worth the 2 minutes. In 1568, Daniele Barbaro wrote La practica della perspettiva for artists and architects describing the use of a camera obscura.

Camera Lucida

Diagram 2. Camera lucida

Oftentimes when people discuss the use of camera obscura, I believe they are actually speaking of camera lucida.

The camera lucida, shown in diagram 2, is slightly different. It is translated as light chamber. It includes the use of a mirror(s). The mirror(s) transposes the image onto a surface. The image can then be traced or fully replicated onto the surface, paper, or canvas.

The benefit of the camera lucida is that it may be used in a light environment and is portable. Basically, it is much easier to use as a tool. Of course, there are many variations of both the camera obscura and camera lucida altering the lenses/mirrors in shape and size.


Controversy or common practice?

The use of camera obscura in famous artwork is the focus of the Hockney-Falco Theory. Discussions around the use of mirrors and lenses in artwork can be sensitive. Some may even consider it cheating. The use of a tool is just that. The use of a tool. Creators of any type use tools, techniques, and their own creative inspiration to produce their final products. This does not diminish the work. In the case of paintings, it only boosts my admiration for the ingenuity and process used. I am an engineer after all.

Every artist has their own secrets that makes their art unique. Obviously, we aren’t going to see a lot of documentation outlining how artists created their masterpieces. The secrecy around using mirrors and lenses may also have been heightened due to the environment at the time.

At the time of Vermeer, mirrors and lenses would have been very expensive. Few people had access to them. Their use in math and science was causing quite a stir as we can see with Galileo being tried for heresy. Although it was about a hundred years earlier, Leonardo da Vinci even wrote backwards with some speculating it was to keep his thoughts private or hide them from the church.

So, while no one was shouting from their rooftops that they were using these tools in their artwork, there is still evidence in the art itself. Some artists use camera obscura/lucida for composition and proportion, others may use it more extensively for gradation and coloring. Unless artists are willing to share their secrets, it is hard to tell the extent of their use.

From what I gather, here are types of evidence one can use to determine if camera obscura was used in some manner. If you are knowledgeable about art, bear with me as I try to explain in layman terms.

  1. No to little use of underdrawings. It is extremely difficult to make representations of something lifelike without some type of initial guide. Most can not work without many little, or not-so-little, adjustments or refinements.
  2. Changing point of view throughout the piece. Lenses can only display items from a level perspective. Moving the lens to capture different aspects of the composition is not the way things look to the normal eye. For example, if you look at someone’s nose from below you will see their nostrils, if you are looking from above you won’t. Some paintings can show a straight-on face with a straight-on body with straight-on feet. This is odd because looking straight at the face, they should be looking slightly down at the body and down quite a bit at the feet. Make sense?
  3. Focus changes. Because lenses have shortcomings of only being able to focus on a small area at one time, it needs to be moved around to focus on other areas. If you use a camera, you are familiar with some items in the frame being in focus while others are out of focus. This is caused by a lens. or bad eyesight!
  4. Strong light and deep shadows. In order for a camera obscura to work, you need to have strong lighting which results in light lights and very dark darks.
  5. Scale enlargement in the forefront. Items that are closer to the artist in the composition seem disproportionately large. This is the way a lens sees things, but not the natural eye. The brain helps us put things in context.
  6. Changing horizon or vanishing field. This is caused by moving the lens or artwork relative to the lens. It will be slightly uneasy to look at and not make sense. It is easier to pick up with straight lines or geometric shapes.
  7. Distortion. The lens will cause straight lines to bend on the outer edge of the projection. Straight lines becomes slight arcs.
  8. Bokeh dots or circles of highlight. These are highlights represented as circles because they are out of focus and not how things are seen with the natural eye.
  9. Elements the human eye/brain don’t see. Aberration from a lens can cause fringing because the colors are focused at different positions. Also, extremely subtle light gradation is hard from the human eye/brain to see, let alone replicate.

Some of these hints have been used to raise discussion as to whether an artist used camera obscura or not. Artists may or may not have corrected for these tricks of the lens or only used them in a very minor way. As stated previously, the lens does not make any physical marks on the canvas. The artist himself needs to create what he is seeing and feeling. To do that in a skilled manner and create something more is an art.

In Hockney’s book Secret knowledge : rediscovering the lost techniques of the old mastersVermeer is not the only artist that has been associated with allegations of using a camera obscura. He is in the company of many talented artists allegedly having used a camera obscura in some manner: Caravaggio, Hals, Leyster, Velázquez, van Honthorst, Cagnacci, Lotto, Fantin-Latour, van Eyck, and others. So here is the question…is it a controversy or common practice? I am not expert and this is all new to me, so I don’t know. Besides some visual clues here and there, there are no witnesses or testimony from the artist’s themselves. We can’t be 100% sure. What in life is 100% sure?

I am floored. Does this surprise anyone else? Why wasn’t I ever told about this! Is this one of those nuggets of knowledge in life that no one talks about, like becoming a parent for the first time? Wow is all I have to say. I feel like running out right now to an art museum and looking at some paintings with a fresh set of eyes. They mystery of it all is so compelling.


 What are your thoughts?

Did you know about this theory? Has your opinion changed? Let me know your thoughts in the poll and comments. Also, watch Tim’s Vermeer, it is great!




Barbaro, Daniele. La Pratica della Perspettiva. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Daniele_Barbaro>. Web. 12 Mar. 2015.

Falco, Charles M. “Art-Optics.” Art-Optics. Charles M. Falco. <http://fp.optics.arizona.edu/SSD/art-optics/index.html>. Web. 15 Mar. 2015.

Hockney, David. Secret knowledge : rediscovering the lost techniques of the old masters. New and expanded ed. London : Thames & Hudson, 2006.

Janson, Jonathan. Essential Vermeer. Jonathan Janson, <http://www.essentialvermeer.com/>. Web. 11 Mar. 2015.

Tim’s Vermeer. Dir. Teller. By Penn Jillette and Teller. Perf. Tim Jenison. High Delft Pictures/Sony Pictures Classics, 2013.

Vermeer Foundation. Jan Vermeer Van Delft – The Complete Works. <http://www.vermeer-foundation.org/>. Web. 12 Mar. 2015.

Vermeer, Johannes. The Astronomer. c.1668. Louvre Museum, Paris, France.  <http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AJan_Vermeer_-_The_Astronomer.JPG> . Web. 10 Mar. 2015.

Vermeer, Johannes. The Girl with a Pearl Earring. c.1665. Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis, The Hague, Netherlands. <http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AJohannes_Vermeer_(1632-1675)_-_The_Girl_With_The_Pearl_Earring_(1665).jpg.> Web. 11 Mar. 2015.

Vermeer, Johannes. The Music Lesson. c.1662-1665. Royal Collection, United Kingdom. <http://www.royalcollection.org.uk/collection/405346/a-lady-at-the-virginal-with-a-gentleman-the-music-lesson>. Web. 10 Mar. 2015.