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Reverse Engineering the Technical and Artistic Genius of Painter Jan Vermeer 70

Hugh Pickens DOT Com writes "Kurt Anderson has an interesting read at Vanity Fair about Dutch painter Jan Vermeer, best known for 'Girl with a Pearl Earring,' and the search for how he was able to achieve his photo-realistic effects in the 1600s. Considered almost as mysterious and unfathomable as Shakespeare in literature, Vermeer at age 21, with no recorded training as an apprentice, began painting masterful, singular, uncannily realistic pictures of light-filled rooms and ethereal young women. 'Despite occasional speculation over the years that an optical device somehow enabled Vermeer to paint his pictures, the art-history establishment has remained adamant in its romantic conviction: maybe he was inspired somehow by lens-projected images, but his only exceptional tool for making art was his astounding eye, his otherworldly genius,' says Anderson. To try to learn how Vermeer was able to achieve such highly realistic painting, American inventor and millionaire Tim Jenison spent five years learning how to make lenses himself using 17th-century techniques, mixed and painted only with pigments available in the late 1600s and even constructed a life-size reproduction of Vermeer's room with wooden beams, checkerboard floor, and plastered walls. The result has been a documentary movie, Tim's Vermeer, by magicians Penn & Teller that may have resolved the riddle and explains why it has remained a secret for so long. 'The photorealistic painters of our time, none of them share their techniques,' says Teller. 'The Spiderman people aren't talking to the Avatar people. When [David] Copperfield and I have lunch, we aren't giving away absolutely everything.'"
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Reverse Engineering the Technical and Artistic Genius of Painter Jan Vermeer

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  • Andersen (Score:5, Informative)

    by jamesl ( 106902 ) on Saturday November 30, 2013 @01:42PM (#45562407)

    Kurt Andersen. With an "e."

  • We are not alone, just saying.

  • I'm not an artist... (Score:5, Interesting)

    by thephydes ( 727739 ) on Saturday November 30, 2013 @02:33PM (#45562669)
    and don't pretend to be one, but I don't believe this "discovery" in any way belittles the talent of Vermeer. He was the artistic nerd of his time and his discovery is quite extraordinary - how many people today would think to do that?
    • by femtobyte ( 710429 ) on Saturday November 30, 2013 @02:47PM (#45562745)

      This "discovery" may not even be a "discovery" about how Vermeer actually worked. While the hypothesis has been around for a long time (this is far from a "new discovery") --- and sounds appealing to the technologically-minded --- there is also moderate counter-evidence to Vermeer having actually worked in such a fashion. While Andersen succeeded in re-creating a Vermeer-like style in this manner, this isn't a unique, unheard-of capability: any painter who goes through the traditional "classical" art education, learning techniques the old-fashioned way with lots of practice, will be able to re-create paintings in Vermeer's (or anyone else's) style. Learning to copy the "great masters" is a standard part of formal art education. Andersen was able to short-cut some of this process (of learning painting technique the "old-fashioned" way) by technological means potentially accessible in Vermeer's time, but that doesn't prove what actually happened.

      • by Darth Cider ( 320236 ) on Saturday November 30, 2013 @03:05PM (#45562881)
        Then too, there are savants like Alonzo Clemons, whose sculptures are strikingly realistic but made entirely without tools, just his two bare hands. We know this because we have film of him doing it. Was Vermeer a savant? He certainly could have been. Finding a way to fake the work of a master using mechanical means does not prove the master used the same techniques, even if he could have. Penn Jillette, ever the blowhard, is merely hyping the documentary he helped finance. Unless someone finds Vermeer's camera obscura in an old barn, nothing has been proven so far.
        • From the article:

          Much later, he did a computer analysis of a high-resolution scan of a Vermeer interior, and discovered “an exponential relationship in the light on the white wall.” The brightness of any surface becomes exponentially less bright the farther it is from a light source—but the unaided human eye doesn’t register that. According to Jenison, the painting he digitally deconstructed shows just such a diminution from light to dark.

          This suggests that his unaided eyes wouldn't have been physically capable of seeing this exponential dropoff, even if he was a savant.

          • by Jmc23 ( 2353706 ) on Saturday November 30, 2013 @09:09PM (#45564847) Journal
            No, it doesn't suggest that. There are ordinary people from which statistics are derived and which have no real information about our limits, and then there are people who learn how to use their senses properly or are fortunate enough to have been born that way.

            Read DaVinci's work on light and optics. Once you get a field view, working out a palette is trivial.

            • by femtobyte ( 710429 ) on Sunday December 01, 2013 @12:00AM (#45565849)

              Furthermore, while it might be difficult to perfectly match light levels while standing behind the canvas, cutting-edge artists of the era (of which Vermeer was certainly an example) were quite focused on, and capable of, understanding the effects of light to the next level. Vermeer might well have walked over to the wall and closely compared brightness levels in cleverly quantitative ways in order to get the lighting right --- it's the kind of stuff cutting-edge people were really concerned with at the time, and the reason deeply insightful light and color relations appeared in the best artwork of the era. Such paintings were not slapdash works from untrained-eye impressions; Vermeer was known for painting slowly, giving plenty of time for meticulously studied naturalistic results.

            • The unaided eye does actually have limitations. No amount of skill or intelligence can overcome that. Also, one objection had been that no such method had ever been demonstrated. Now it has. It's not proof, but it does diminish the opposing arguments.
          • by Slayer ( 6656 )

            Doesn't light fall off from a point source follow an inverse square law? It's certainly not an expoential law unless you have a very lossy medium.

            Looks like Vermeer knew more than the editors of Vanity Fair ...

            • What you're saying is true. What the article is referring to is actually the nature of perception. When we see light, we perceive differences in brightness linearly when the actual energy difference is exponential. This is something that cameras take into account when converting from raw. With paintings and photographs you're taking a huge range of brightnesses and compressing it into a very small range that depends on the lighting at the time of viewing. I don't doubt that an optical aid would give you a m
      • by Impy the Impiuos Imp ( 442658 ) on Saturday November 30, 2013 @03:22PM (#45562979) Journal

        It's like the scientists who figure out practical ways the pyramids could have been built, or ancient stone flake knives chipped, or the gears of the ancient Antikythera Mechanism cut, I suppose. Reasonable techniques, but just a guess without more evidence.

  • by dynamator ( 964799 ) on Saturday November 30, 2013 @02:56PM (#45562823)
    I had a chance to hear David Stork present his counter arguments to the 'Secret Knowledge' theory expoused by David Hockney and Charles Falco. He was focusing on Van Dyke, who's work is not as objectively realistic as Vermeer. His two main pieces of evidence were:
    1. If you attempt to re-create the perspective in the a Van Dyke painting in the computer, it never quite lines up with spacial reality, even accounting for the distortions of the lenses or mirrors which might have been used to project the or image the scene.
    2. If you put a capable artist to the task, they can create a highly realist scene, with better geometric accuracy than the 15-16th century artists using no optical aids whatsoever.

    Vermeer is definitely a standout. I don't believe that any of his contemporaries were producing work remotely similar to what he was doing. So I almost believe he might have had something up his sleeve. It is know that he took a really long time to complete a painting. I wonder if he could have used optical techniques out in the open, and it would have been so unusual that others wouldn't have even understood what he was doing, and so not think it worth noting it down.

    Check Out the counter-arguments at : http://www.artrenewal.org/articles/2003/Hockney_Refuted/hockney1.php [artrenewal.org]
    (Warning: drawings of naked people done without optical aids)
    • They seem a bit too passionate to be taken that seriously.

      • by fluxmov ( 519552 )
        I'd encourage everyone to read the two letters by Thomas Hauge and Fred Ross and form your own opinion.
    • by khallow ( 566160 )

      It is know that he took a really long time to complete a painting.

      And that he specialized in painting interior scenes which would be more accessible to optical aid techniques.

      I have to say that given how precise his paintings were, it's not a surprise that they took so long, with or without optical aids.

    • by lgw ( 121541 ) on Saturday November 30, 2013 @04:21PM (#45563263) Journal

      I think the postulated optical aids are really a less interesting part of all this. What makes his paintings start out aren't that they have lots of accurate detail - they do, but that's not that rare - but that they have very accurate color. The rooms look realistic because the color values are right: they all have the same lighting temperature, to remarkable accuracy.

      Getting the color palette just right is what impresses me about paintings from Vermeer to modern artists in the same style, but the modern guys have a very mature science to work from and just need to make the colors match precisely to the calculated ideal.

      • by DrJimbo ( 594231 ) on Saturday November 30, 2013 @04:53PM (#45563435)


        I think the postulated optical aids are really a less interesting part of all this. What makes his paintings start out aren't that they have lots of accurate detail - they do, but that's not that rare - but that they have very accurate color. The rooms look realistic because the color values are right: they all have the same lighting temperature, to remarkable accuracy.


        [Tim Jenison] was in no rush. His R&D period lasted five years. He went to the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. "Looking at their Vermeers," he says, "I had an epiphany" -- the first of several. "The photographic tone is what jumped out at me. Why was Vermeer so realistic? Because he got the values right," meaning the color values.

        The point of using an optical aid was to get the colors right.

        • by lgw ( 121541 )

          Yes, but a skilled artist doesn't need an optical aid for that. Matching color on canvas accurately to the color you see is a skill all it's own, especially when you're making your own paints from raw materials. Today there are tools and Pantone color #s and so on, but having a good eye for color was just one part of the skill required back then.

          • by Anonymous Coward

            Without directly contradicting you, it's not as if artists work randomly over the canvas. First you start with a sketch, then a value study, then build up layers of color, leaving the fine gradients for last. More to the point, I don't know what tools you're referring to, but paint still comes in tubes, which generally do not have pantone colors on them. Pantone colors are only used for checking spot colors, like when you're screen printing a logo and need to make sure all the fills are the exact right shad

            • Actually, getting tone right requires an awful lot... people need theory and practice. The fact is, we perceive color relative to surrounding color. The light in the local area will affect the actual color value, but affect our perception of that color much less. Getting actual tone rather than a good relative tone is probably impossible for the unaided artist.
        • It took 5 years, including an epiphany while looking at their Vermeers in Amsterdam, to come up with that. And lgw (121541) came up with it within 3 hours of the story posting.

          We're going to need help reverse engineering the tech that lgw used to post that comment.

    • by Anonymous Coward

      I'm not an art expert, but I look at two significant aspects of Vermeer's career:
      1) his work was ignored for several centuries until rediscovered in the mid-1800s
      2) only 34 paintings are acknowledged to be Vermeer's.

      Now does it seem logical that if he had an imaging tool his output would be so sparse? Wouldn't such a tool enable him to generate more art more quickly?
      And it seems that Vermeer's use of an imaging tool is picking on Vermeer by later-day critics. Why?

    • by femtobyte ( 710429 ) on Saturday November 30, 2013 @04:57PM (#45563447)

      One of the points that severely diminishes the credibility of "Secret knowledge" optical theories, in my eyes, is that they are simultaneously presented as being so secret as to never be recorded and transmitted to the present day, and as being in such wide-spread use that there is evidence to be found in major works over many centuries and continents. As a closely-guarded guild secret for one small, local, and ephemeral school of painters, which died off before being transmitted to the present day, perhaps the hypothesis is plausible. However, the sheer weight and volume of "evidence" presented by Hockney et al., in which optical techniques are a ubiquitous foundation for every vaguely photo-realistic painting since the early 15th century, is impossible to reconcile with those techniques being absent from historical commentary and received tradition.

      • by Jmc23 ( 2353706 )
        But we have to believe that people in the past were less inteligent, less talented, less human, or else what's the point?
    • by mikael ( 484 )

      The greatest advancement in the art world was during the Renaissance period, when they finally understood how perspective worked. Before then, it was a mystery how objects became smaller the further away they became. Until they had algebra, it wasn't possible to really formulate how inverse distance laws or explain concepts like perspective lines. Then all sorts of new techniques became possible. Some methods included pinhole cameras projecting onto tracing paper screens.

  • After reading the article I still don't quite get how this technique works.

    From the article: âoewhen the color is the same, the mirror edge disappears."

    Come again? One of the accompanying photos shows Mr. Jenison with a mirror near his eye and a paintbrush in his hand.

    But I still don't understand what's happening here.

    • The mirror splits his field of view, so he can see the canvas where he is painting and the subject being painted at the same time. Instead of having to move his eyes between them and "remember" the correct color (hard to do with extreme accuracy), the mirror allows a direct side-by-side comparison of the paint and subject. "The mirror edge disappears" when the paint color matches the subject (seen in the mirror) color at the edge between.

    • by mikael ( 484 )

      The human retina actually does some pre-processing before the pixel data (input from rods and cones) goes further along the visual circuits. One of the most basic tasks is edge enhancement and based on red-green, blue-yellow and intensity values based on a large sample of input data:
      http://www.webexhibits.org/colorart/ganglion.html [webexhibits.org]

      In image processing speak, these are called edge detection and contrast detection. If there is an intensity difference between two areas, then one is darker than the other, and vi

  • The Spiderman people aren't talking to the Avatar people

    Bullshit. Clearly someone knows nothing of the VFX industry and has never heard of SIGGRAPH.

    • by narcc ( 412956 )

      Well, they are magicians. Cut 'em some slack.

      Just look at this:

      Tim’s device is Vermeer’s device! I have no doubt. Tim can give you all the doubt you want, but I have none.

      It's pretty clear that we're not dealing with rational people here. Which is fine, as they're entertainers, selling to an audience composed of irrational people.

      This bit is particularly telling:

      The idea of an amateur coming in and understanding things experts can’t see—that’s a very American kind of plotline.

      The amateur, outsider, the autodidact -- if they're only smart and clever enough -- can outwit or otherwise make a major contribution to a field they're interested in. It's their very standing as an uneducated amateur that imbibes them with insight far

    • You're right to mock that, although in the late 1990's I worked at a London post production agency. We developed a human hair / fur system for Softimage and Mental Ray, which was quite advanced for the time. So we took it to Siggraph and showed it around different stands, trying to drum up some interest. However when we came to a company that had developed a similar product, initially they refused to talk to us. They saw our badges, literally cried out "Aaah, The Enemy!", and retreated back into the rear of

  • by reboot246 ( 623534 ) on Saturday November 30, 2013 @05:17PM (#45563525) Homepage
    Vermeer makes some damned fine heavy equipment - the digging Dutchman!

    Just kidding - I know the difference.
  • by Ralph Spoilsport ( 673134 ) on Saturday November 30, 2013 @05:29PM (#45563571) Journal
    And it's pretty cheap. Go here: http://neolucida.com/ [neolucida.com]
  • Because Adobe can release Vermeer Photoshop plugins that make boobs and LOLcats look photorealistic. That's why.

  • """ ... and discovered â€oean exponential relationship in the light on the white wall.†The brightness of any surface becomes exponentially less bright the farther it is from a light sourceâ€"but the unaided human eye doesnâ€(TM)t register that.

    False, and false. The eye compensates for the *inverse square law*, which is different from not registering it. Were it not to be followed, the eye would certainly notice something is wro
    • No, they're referring to the way we perceive exponential differences in light linearly. An example of this is the way digital cameras adjust for this behavior when concerting from raw.
  • I am Appalled at the lack of art knowledge at Slashdot! Certainly camera obscura has been know for centuries but many artists can do as well without it. In second grade, I had a friend with who could copy any picture by hand from memory. He had a game where he would see how long it would take for someone to figure out which picture it was while he drew the lines randomly. He had a photographic memory and the ability to freehand a straight line or circle. . . . Now he's a dentist.
  • Vermeer was a bit of an enigma, even to his contemporaries. Most of the information we have on him is largely speculative but it's very clear Johannes Vermeer did make an impact on the art community of his time.

  • The end result should prove that Vermeer didn't use something like this. This persons end result looks like a flat 2d photograph. Vermeers paintings have depth because they are painted from a person accurately viewing the 3d scene. The reason that non-focus elements are fuzzy is not because he was looking through a lens but because our brain does EXACTLY the same thing if you pay attention. Most people probably don't notice that saccades involve changes in depth as well, because our brain is meant to hi
    • by swb ( 14022 )

      One the arguments postulated against the proposed "Vermeer technique" by art historians is that Vermeer's paintings had architectural features that were largely unknown (eg, Italian tile in Dutch buildings) and structures which were architecturally or structurally difficult to build at the time.

      They use this to claim that the scenes he painted weren't renderings of actual places, so the "technique" couldn't have been used as described or was only a partial inspiration that was used as a sort of foundation f

    • Blurring from saccades is uniform in angular degrees. Blurring from lens effects isn't. The difference is measurable. In a picture it'd translate to less blurring near the center of the painting as opposed to the closest to the painter.
  • This is a ridiculous article.

    The whole point of training as an artist is to acquire the art of "seeing" the subject.

    To a normal person the action of the eye (focus, colour balance, brightness compensation) is invisible and transparent.
    But a trained artist learns to incorporate the effect of the eye's processing into his painting.
    Some do it instinctively, some use photographic aids.

    Many early artists used a camera obscura and/or mirrors to help them "see" the subject when creating the first draft of a painti

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