Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Tim's Vermeer

Another great movie. It's a few years old, so I'm a little late to this party, but I just watched it and loved every second. Definitely watch it if you haven't seen it.

Edit to add a lecture by Philip Steadman, author of 'Vermeer's Camera' and professor at the Bartlett School of Architecture and Graduate Studies. Steadman plays a pivotal role in the development of Tim Jenison's theory about Vermeer. This lecture is nice follow-on to the movie, as he explains his own discoveries about Vermeer's work and also goes over Jenison's technique in detail.


MrGoodson2 said...

That sounds fascinating. Camera obscura (?) we'd call it an art o graph today.

Surly Bird said...

Ellis, you will love this movie...it combines DIY-reverse-engineering, being highly inventive and unorthodox in one's thinking and potentially solving one of art's great mysteries all in one entertaining package.

MrGoodson2 said...

It is fascinating. But it's a little too Chariots of the Gods in terms of incredulity that someone using observation can paint "realistically" or at least paint with a fine note of light and shadow.
The old guy's lecture starts with something he acts like is discovering. A lost edge. Standard edge that a painter looks for and embraces. Hard edges (cast light) soft edges (light rolling over curves) and lost edges ( white going into white - black going into black- color into color) 3 edges to study to make yourself into a passable painter.

I think another thing not noted is that Vermeer's observation cannot be static. The light would always be changing. Forcing him into many color notes for application into his highly accurate transfer of the scene. But requiring him to blend color for lighting that was observed and studied but wouldn't sit still.

The old guy also discovers the 101 art school project that the figure ground relationship controls how we see color. Dark around a light color makes it lighter that the same color surrounded by a light color.

So, fascinating, fun forensics. But still in the camp of thinking we needed aliens to build the pyramids because engineers weren't gifted enough.

MrGoodson2 said...

Another thing I picked up on was claiming details were scrupulously transferred. The details on the instruments and other decorative bits were the work of a talented painter doing a very fastidious job of getting close, but still requiring him to 'thumbnail' what it was he was seeing. Lots of the decorative curves and ornament are omitted in what a painter might call diminishing returns. It Vermeer had been crazy enough to get in close, use a one hair brush and accurately produce a pattern in a small area, that level of detail would have to be found throughout. As crazy as the detail might seem already. it is not actually that 'high rez." There are generalizations on detail.

Surly Bird said...

Ellis, these are all great comments and observations. The final half of 'Tim's Vermeer' is all about the details, the work and fastidiousness that had to be done by Vermeer...working extremely hard to achieve his results. One painting was no small feet and required complete devotion, day-in-day out. There are, I think, 42 paintings in total attributed to Vermeer. That doesn't sound like a lot over the course of a life-time, but when you think about the work that went into a single painting, it is actually pretty staggering.

Steadman's lecture was something I watched after the documentary. He is very analytical about the geometric rules used to arrive at his conclusions. David Hockney, also referenced in the movie, is a bit more conspiratorial, and has hypotheses that are mostly un-verifiable (i.e. 'Chariots of the Gods').

The documentary does a lot to establish this this technique is one way that Vermeer might have done it and why there are compelling reasons he had to use some form of optical assistance to achieve his results. The non-static light changing issue is addressed and it is not as critical as you might think as you paint what you see that day and move on. Probably more important is the direction of the light has to be consistent (Vermeer mostly used North-facing lighting set-ups).

Probably the most compelling argument that Vermeer did use a technique similar to this is the issue of color constancy - something the human eye is physically incapable of maintaining. The film details how it is biologically impossible for people to keep light values fixed unless they use some type of a mechanical light-metering device. There is a great section in the movie where a physician who specializes in vision explains the neurological mechanics in our eyes and brains that pretty much eliminate any debate about Vermeer's need for an aid. Even if he was a genius (everyone freely admits he was), he couldn't escape his biology (maybe he was a mutant). People at that time had no comprehension of the phenomena...we aren't even aware of it today unless someone points it out with little optical illusion games. So, in a time before the invention of cameras, we have paintings that evidence the same light metering technique used before true cameras were invented. I've done a bad job of explaining it, but after re-watching the movie and reading up on this phenomenon, I get why it is one of the key arguments for the 'he needed a device' argument.

There are other weird elements in Vermeer's work, things like chromatic aberration...quite common with lenses and photographic techniques and present in Vermeer's paintings (but, I surmise, not in his contemporaries). While these don't prove anything in an absolute way, they are very very compelling. Tim Jenison concludes that the technique proves it was possible, yet says that it really was Vermeer's skill as a painter and his artistic compositions that made the works so amazing. His own 'Vermeer' is beautiful and impressive, but mechanical and a bit lifeless in comparison to the master - something he also admits.

MrGoodson2 said...

I'm sure he is using the obscura tool. I wouldn't dispute that at all. And probably like an animator , had the ability to toggle the image on and off. I'll find Tim's Vermeer and watch it.

This kind of art is also about personality in artists as well. I could never pay that much attention to a painting. I was awful at long studies in painting. I get bored even when it is obvious rendering can be improved.

My highly textured ( for me) spiders were painful to produce. But probably not much more than and hour and a half apiece. Usually had them done in the average podcast time.

I was born to doodle and sketch. Maybe tell a story or two.

MrGoodson2 said...

I put it in my netflix queue. I'll watch it after I watch the last disc of the Sopranos.

Davis Chino said...

ELLZ! I am absolutely in love with your fabulous appraisal of this movie--I haven't seen it yet (I spent a while trying to coordinate a group screening for some non-art friends before making a journey to see a visiting Vermeer), but I have seen a bit of excerpts and read some reviews and you have made specific my vague unease about what I might be in for if I sat down to this. That, "I've just discovered the way color works!!" as if painters haven't been using this for-evah is highly annoying. To reduce Verm's talent to tracing is provocative but incomplete and ultimatley a disservice to his genius. Those paintings are truly fabuloso, and as we all know, fabuloso is not a given when you're essentially "tracing."

Really fun to read all this. Esp'ly "My highly textured spiders were painful to produce...."

I'll bet!

Also: YES, you were born to sketch and doodle and definitely tell a story...or fifty.

Davis Chino said...

Ronnie, I love yr thoughts about the "light metering" issue...but remember, LOTS of painters construct a system to deal with this problem--they set out a palette and stick to it thru their painting.

This is not to say he isn't building all this with a camera obscura. But remember too, the fact that we find evidence of the camrea obscura intermediation in his process (the "chromatic abberations" he records in his paintings), doesn't mean he's enslaved by them--in the same way someone making an etching might fall in love with the ragged fall-off that can happen at the edge of the plate, Verms may well be seeing these aberrations and falling in love with them and maintaining them by choice.

On a side note, there is an odd, super-low-key indie movie done in the 90's called "All The Vermeers in New York" that is one of my fave movies from that decade. None of you will like it, but at the time it really moved me and altho' it ain't much about Verms, it's a great meditation on the way we move in isolation thru much of life.

But no sex scenes :(

MrGoodson2 said...

I started watching something called The Madness of Vermeer on youtube. Just saw the first couplem of minutes. Sounded like he was surrounded by a volatile family life. I may watch the rest of that and give a report.

Marty, I think we're pretty close in attitude on this semi-takedown on what a Vermeer talent is capable of doing without prosthetic help.

Davis Chino said...


But on the movie's plus side (and one of the reasons I want to see it no matter what) is that the director of the movie is none other than Teller of magician/comedy duo Penn & Teller. He let's the doc do his talking!

Surly Bird said...

Marty, definitely appreciate your thoughts on the matter and the skills, perspective and experience you bring to the discussion. You and Ellis really will love the movie. It's that good.

I think Jenison makes a very compelling case, but we'll never know for sure. The physical impossibility of the human eye to hold absolute light values is pretty...well..it's pretty irrefutable from a scientific argument. And Vermeer captured this phenomena as a camera does...not as the human eye records it. But what does that prove? Nothing really. Does it mean Vermeer just 'traced' the image? I don't think so. I think there was more to his work than slavish copying...but the argument of a device used to assist his work is hard for me to ignore.

Personally, I don't think the movie is so much the take-down of a legend as it is a very well-crafted documentary that is supremely watchable for all the right reasons. When you do watch the movie, you will see the absolute awe and appreciation Jenison has for Vermeer...which only increases after he tries to reproduce the same results. There is one scene in particular, shot immediately after Jenison is given an audience to see the original "The Music Lesson" in Buckingham palace where he is almost trembling from the experience. I believe him when he says the reproductions do no justice at all.

MrGoodson2 said...

One thing anyone learns that ever uses paint, is that a compromise has to occur. So Vermeer is mixing paint that amounts to a compromise with light anyway. He can only record what paint can mock as light and shadow.

I've got my last Sporano disc now. I can rotate Vermeer to the top now.

MrGoodson2 said...

You were right Ronnie. I enjoyed it. I think they probably edited Hckney, Steadman and Martin Mull down to what they wanted to hear for the central premise. The painters could have filled a lot of screen time talking methodology. But I was imoressed by the simplicity of how Tim gets to where he gets. Just raw endurance by the time he gets the right tool for the right job. My nephew Ryan hand grinds telescope lens. So it was interesting to see all the mold making and forming that he does to get the room.

I like the story about carbon monoxide (or dioxide?) poisoning.

And I liked the smoke on the water song. It's in the credits. And Dylan's last song for the credit roll is perfect. Great little doc.

The guy who invented the video toaster!

Surly Bird said...

I'm glad you liked it, Ellis. I would have liked more from Mull, Steadman and Hockney, too. In interviews after the movie came out, Teller said they had something like 2,000 hours of footage because they filmed everything. Most of it was just Jenison slowly painting, but I am curious what didn't make the final cut.

MrGoodson2 said...

Especially any talks with Martin Mull probably would have veered into some of Mull's feelings that painters are well equipped to record what they see. Especially with good transfer tools. Look up Martin Mull's work. Photo real, pretty much . So for his main comment to be "Took me 40 years" (to get handy with a brush)- seems light.

But I bet there are people that see that and run with it. Make their own transfer-lens- mirror. I wonder if Vermeer had mannakin stand ins as well.