I had the most extraordinary afternoon yesterday in the company of Melanie Gifford, an art research conservator in the scientific research department at The National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
Now this is THE rare person on the planet who is allowed to take paint fragments off a 17th Century Vermeer painting and study them under a microscope- along with other master artist paintings deemed necessary to go under her scientific gaze.
But yesterday it was all about the pearl ear-ring master from the Delft as Gifford was giving a talk to a packed room, including me, at the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena around it's current loan from Washington of Vermeer's painting "A Lady Writing". It is a gem. On view until Feb. 2, 2009 so don't miss it.
When the talk came to an end all too quickly, I had this desire to rush up to her and offer anything, to take here ANYWHERE for dinner, the most expensive restaurant in town if she chose, just so I could keep hearing her talk, in her soothing intelligent tone, about Vermeer. Instead I had to settle for buying yet another Vermeer book, just released, from the museum store. A poor second to the conversation I would like to have had with this very clever lady.
I wonder what happens if a person who has a job like this shows up to work in a bad mood after a lousy Starbuck's or row with the kids in the carpool, and then doesn't feel like working that day. Does she sling the Vermeer aside for the day and browse on Ebay instead? Or what happens if she had too much wine the night before and takes too big a chip off a Vermeer? How does one prevent that? And should we really be taking chips off Vermeer under any circumstances? I personally think not although Gifford did say the chip is taken from an area already chipping.
Why do we need to know how he did it to such a degree? The mystery of Vermeer is part of his magic. He was virtually unknown until the mid-1800's. Died in dire straights, almost penniless. Well, the packed room wanted to know every darn detail of how Vermeer did it down to that nerdy Vermeer groupie with unwashed hair in the room (Yes, me) who asked about the possible use of Venetian Turpentine in his medium just because if she knew, then she could paint just like him. As if it is all in the tools and mediums!
I have read a lot about Vermeer so had heard a lot of it before. Also, Gifford wasn't one to go off on wild tangent speculation being a scientist. And I so wanted her to. When she asked me what was my 'source" for him using Venetian Turpentine, I froze. She was being quite serious. There was no real discussion if I didn't have a source backed up endless research papers.
So for all you wannabes out there, here are a few Vermeer technique-y things from the talk:
Worked on a grey ground
Worked his underpainting up in transparent earth browns over the grey, building up the lights with white
Sometimes used a pinkish ground...hmmmm
Underpainted using coarsely textured paint in parts, especially the darks, for e.g. charcoal black then moving on to a more refined black
Used Linseed Oil. She doubted Venetian Turpentine.
Liked color harmonies, especially yellow/blue. Well, I knew that!
Used warm browns under his paintings of blue cloths for shadow area
Vermillion and green earth used in skin color added to lead white, other colors too
There is another painting underneath Girl in a Red Hat. That's my favorite painting ever (I share this with artist Chuck Close). Don't chip away to find it. Please. Please.
Used small round brushes ( squirrel hair-ish) with soft tips and they were called "pencils" in those days, not brushes
Stiff bristle brushes were a 19th Century invention.
It seems he took his artistic cues from the camera obscura but didn't necessarily slavishly use this optical device. This device was NOT found in his studio when he died. My info..not hers.
Liked small circular brush strokes in his painting of fabrics.
Composed his paintings from different images. Didn't have the whole image in front of him at one time while painting.
He was very clever and very good. He remains more clever and more good than most to this day. My words, not hers.
I have decide to channel Vermeer. It is the only way to get the darn answer on that turpentine issue.