Painting Details after Vermeer
How to paint a fabulous detail after Vermeer
There is absolutely no denying that the Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer is my favourite artist … ever … in the entire world. I cannot really explain why – or if I try I will not stop rambling on for several hours. I was already a huge fan of Vermeer when I was a teenager, so there are decades of love to talk about …
There are only 36 paintings by Vermeer left in the world today, and I cannot stop studying and loving some of them. In this project I am fixated by Woman Holding a Balance, a painting you will find in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. I did not want to work on the entirety of the painting. I was interested only in the middle section of the painting, so I chose to single out this area.
Johannes Vermeer (Delft 1632–Delft 1675) was a Dutch painter and one of the most famous artists in art history. There are only 36 of his paintings left, all of which are incredible masterpieces. He is most well known for his scenes of daily life in interior settings.
For today’s project, I used:
a white pencil
black paper (I used 160 g/m2/98 lb)
When I paint with gouache, I almost always use the same brushes. I have lots of other brushes, but I always come back to these two or three:
My go-to brush is a soft round brush (size 18 in France).
Sometimes I add one or two flat bristle brushes.
Step 1 – Sketching the scene with white pencil
In my first step, I did not innovate but employed my usual method of analysing my reference picture as an arrangement of abstract shapes. It is very much a trial and error process, in three steps:
I look intently at a small part of the reference photo, as if it were some abstract shape.
I try to reproduce it on paper, looking back and forth a lot between the photo and the drawing. Do the shapes look the same? Yes: keep it. No: erase and repeat.
Then I look at my drawing again, not as geometrical shapes but as a portrait. Does it look like the person in my reference picture? Yes: keep it. No: erase and repeat.
In the short video above, this runs from 00:00 to 00:50. It actually took me 36 minutes.
Step 2 – Painting key areas with gouache
Then I went on to paint large areas with gouache.
Gouache is a very interesting medium, whose visual qualities change when it dries. The colours change a little, and the paint goes from shiny to entirely matt (which I love, but that is not the point here). Gouache is also a medium where you can play with layering and transparency to change the overall effect. I find that these qualities of gouache are magnified when painting on dark paper. The effects of the layers are even more dramatic, and changes in the colours can sometimes be surprising.
So I took quite a long time (more than 1 hour) to add layer upon layer to achieve the exact effects I wanted. I wanted deep dark blues, bright lighter blues and a white that really popped for the woman’s clothes.
I also took the liberty of not painting everything. I wanted to not paint everything and to leave areas of black paper. (In the next section I also focused on a limited range of colours: grey, black, blue and white for large areas, and golden hues for details.)
In the short video above, this runs from 00:50 to 02:27. It actually took me 1 hour and 10 minutes.
Step 3 – Creating details with gouache
I told you before that my go-to brush is a soft round brush (size 18 in France). I love using is as much for painting big areas as for creating tiny little details, when I use just the fine tip of the brush.
The details of the jewels on the table are very small, but I still used the same technique of adding layer upon layer to achieve the right effect and the right reflections. It took quite a while, again (well, 40 minutes is not that much, but still …), and I loved every minute of it.
In the short video above, this runs from 02:27 to 04:06. It actually took me 40 minutes.
And voilà! This longer project took almost 2½ hours. It was time well spent, as I found it to be a very calming project. Now I can keep it in my sketchbook, or frame it and add it to my home. You could also put it near your favourite jewels!
I hope you have enjoyed this post. As always, I do not pretend to be a teacher, a seasoned artist or an expert in anything. I am just a very motivated learner who finds a deep joy in regular art practice.
If you liked this post, you will almost certainly like some of these other projects on black paper. Enjoy!