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From Perception to Paint: the Practical Use of the Camera Obscura in the Time of Vermeer

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This is a report of a studio experiment to explore how images from the camera obscura could have been used directly by artists of Vermeer’s era. It has a pragmatic and practical approach, bringing a painter’s eye and experience to the problems of transferring images from the lens to a canvas, using the primitive technology and unrefined materials available then. It addresses how an artist could use the condensed, flattened images from camera obscura projections in his painting process, when the subject could appear reversed and inverted on the screen or on the wall. It considers how the limitations of the materials that make transfers possible might affect studio practice, and ultimately the stylistic qualities of the work produced. This paper outlines a simple printing method that would enable the seventeenth-century painter to transfer monochrome images, corrected in orientation, from the lens to a canvas with relative ease, for use as the painting progressed in the stages prescribed at the time. Prints made on the ground layer could form the basis of underpainting, while those on top layers could transfer highlights and optical effects, not seen with the naked eye. This technique would allow the painter to be in the light of his studio, facing his motif, when working in colour. Reference is made to art historical literature and contemporary workshop treatises, and all materials used are authentic. The results obtained using this process are consistent with the visual evidence of the way in which Vermeer applied his paint, and with recent scientific examination of his work. The findings suggest possible causes for some of the unusual qualities of Vermeer’s work, in particular the strong tonal polarity in the underpainting with no evidence of drawing, his choice of material in the ground layers, and the qualities of variable focus.

Affiliations: 1: Oxford, UK


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