Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675) was a Baroque painter who lived and worked in Delft, the Netherlands. While he was locally respected as a painter during his lifetime, after his death he faded into obscurity until the 19th century when he was ‘re-discovered’ as one of the great masters of Northern European painting. While Girl with a Pearl Earring is considered to be his masterpiece, most of his works are paintings of everyday life, especially figures in a domestic interior with particular attention to the effects of light and texture. This article focuses on three paintings by Vermeer, the historical pigments he used to make them, and constructs modern palettes around them inspired by their colour-relationships.
Johannes Vermeer’s Colour Palette, and His Use of Natural Ultramarine Blue
At first glance, Johannes Vermeer’s colour palette is like many painters of his time. He used pigments like Lead Tin Yellow, Vermillion Red, Ivory Black, Green Earth, Red Lakes (transparent red pigments derived from organic dyes), Lead White, Yellow and Brown Earth pigments. Such pigments are also found in the palette of Rembrandt van Rijn, one of Vermeer’s contemporaries. What is unusual about Vermeer, however, is his use of natural Ultramarine Blue.
Natural Ultramarine Blue was laboriously extracted from the stone lapis lazuli. During Vermeer’s time, and for centuries beforehand, it was by far the most expensive blue pigment used by artists. As a result, it was used very selectively- usually for the central figures in a composition and, most famously, for the robes of the Virgin Mary as an expression of devotion and as a symbol of her divinity. In 17th century Northern-Europe, cheaper blue pigments like Smalt and Azurite were preferred and, as Vermeer and his contemporaries had largely turned away from religious subjects in favour of scenes of everyday life, the supernatural power associated with natural Ultramarine Blue was less important. However, pigment analysis of Vermeer’s paintings shows that natural Ultramarine was his blue of choice. He used it entirely differently from his forebears: to paint shadows, window frames, walls, and furnishings, often mixed with other pigments so that it is sometimes imperceptable. To use natural Ultramarine Blue in such a quiet and subtle way was highly unusual (and expensive). When he died at only 43 years old he was heavily in debt, and many historians point to his use of natural Ultramarine Blue as a possible contributing factor.
Colour Palette One:
A Lady at the Virginal with a Gentleman (c. 1664)
A Lady at the Virginal with a Gentleman (c. 1664)
Vermeer’s extraordinary use of natural Ultramarine Blue takes centre stage in this first palette, which is inspired by A Lady at the Virginal with a Gentleman. It is a quiet and intimate painting- at the back of a room, a man watches a woman play at a virginal (a type of harpsichord). In the reflection in the mirror, we can see the woman’s concentrated expression, immersed in her playing. This painting contains the following identified pigments; Umber (a brown earth pigment), Ivory Black, Lead White, Red Ochre, Madder Lake, Vermillion, and natural Ultramarine Blue. It looks like it might also contain Yellow Ochre and Lead Tin Yellow, for the warm and cool yellow hues.
In this painting, Vermeer mixed natural Ultramarine Blue with different pigments in many places, which creates the overall coolness of the atmosphere. He mixed it with Ivory Black for the grey floor tiles, with Lead White in the shadowy parts of the wall, and with Madder Lake and Red Ochre in the brown beams in the ceiling. With this in mind, Palette One is led by Ultramarine Blue. While Natural Ultramarine is no longer widely used, it has been replaced by synthetic Ultramarine Blue which is chemically identical to the historical colour (but more vibrant because of its small and uniform pigment particles).
In the above palette, Lead White has been substituted for Warm White, which is made up of white pigments with a touch of yellow. It feels more suitable than Titanium or Zinc White, which are much brighter and cooler than historical white pigments. Mixing Ultramarine Blue with the brown, black, and red earth pigments produces a range of cool, shadowy hues, like those found in the Vermeer painting. The overall coolness of the palette enhances the warmth of Cadmium Red Light, which here is standing in for the Vermillion used in the painting. Adding a yellow, like Yellow Ochre, to this palette would balance it out and make more versatile, but the Raw Sienna adds a hint of yellow that stops it from feeling too one-sided.
Colour Palette Two:
Girl With the Red Hat (1669)
Girl With the Red Hat is Vermeer’s smallest surviving work. It seems extraordinarily modern in character: the cropped composition, loose brushwork, and the sitter’s faintly surprised expression give a sense of a captured fleeting moment. It’s ‘unstaged’ feel is perhaps more comparable with the work of the French Impressionists than with most 17th century Dutch portraiture.
The pigments identified in the painting are; Vermillion, Madder Lake, Terre Verte, Yellow Ochre, Ivory Black, Lead White, Umber, and Natural Ultramarine Blue. While natural Ultramarine dominated A Lady at the Virginal with a Gentleman, in this painting it is Vermillion Red and Yellow Ochre that take precedent. The coolness of Terre Verte, which is used in the shadow of the woman’s face under the hat, serves to compliment and enhance the warmth of the red. Again, in this palette Lead White has been substitued with Warm White, and natural Ultramarine Blue has been replaced with synthetic Ultramarine Blue. Instead of replacing Vermillion with Cadmium Red Light, this palette uses Cadmium Red Deep, which is more earthy.
The addition of Alizarin Crimson, which plays the role of Vermeer’s Madder Lake pigment, adds a transparent cherry-redness that the dense Cadmium Red Deep doesn’t provide. Mixed with Green Earth it makes some de-saturated brown shades that are reminiscent of the shadows under the woman’s hat.
Colour Palette Three:
Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window (c. 1657–1659)
This painting has an enigmatic history. It was attributed to Rembrandt van Rijn or Pieter de Hooch until 1880, when it was identified as a Vermeer. During World War II it was hidden in a tunnel in Saxony, where it was recovered by the Red Army and held by the Soviets until it was returned to Germany in 1955. For 300 years there was no painting on the wall behind the girl. In 2017, X-ray examination showed that the wall had been overpainted (possibly in the 18th century) and it was decided the overpainting should be removed, revealing the painting of Cupid.
Pigments identified in this painting are; Lead Tin Yellow, Vermillion, Terre Verte, Brown Umber, Charcoal Black, Lead White, Madder Lake, and Ultramarine Blue. Lead Tin Yellow was an opaque, lead-based lemon yellow discovered in the 13th century and used up until the 18th century. In Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window it is used to particularly glowing effect mixed with white and Brown Umber in the windowsill, with blue for the green of the curtain, and most prominently in the yellow dress of the girl. Nickel Titanate Yellow is probably the closest modern alternative to the historical pigment, although it isn’t a perfect match because it is ever so slighty too warm. A touch of Terre Verte helps cool the Nickel Titanate Yellow even further (row four on the chart below).
Perhaps the most Vermeer-esque mixture in this palette is Nickel Titanate Yellow and Ivory Black, which makes muted olive greens reminiscent of those in the curtain in Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window. This palette, with its inclusion of three vibrant primary colours, feels the most balanced of all three.
The Final Palette
These three palettes have been relatively limited, each using only seven pigments. Vermeer and his contemporaries would have used more than this in one painting, so I wanted to bring all of the pigments used together into one final palette. It is also worth considering that direct mixing, in which two or more colour are mixed together on the palette, is only one way in which the Old Masters mixed their colours. They also used optical mixing, when glazes of transparent colour were layered on top of each other. In the following mixing chart, the pure colours are arranged diagonally (highlighted in black). Above the diagonal line, two colours are mixed where their row and column intersects. Below the diagonal line, the same mixture has been glazed in a thin layer on top of Natural Ultramarine Blue, made with lapis lazuli.
In some ways this is replicating the same idea as Palette One- using Ultramarine Blue to lend coolness to mixtures, but glazing the mixtures on top of the blue gives a sense of depth that isn’t possible with direct colour mixing.
Johannes Vermeer’s colour palette is thrilling. It is full of nuance and subtlty, but it is also opulent thanks to his insistence on using Natural Ultramarine Blue, despite his financial difficulties. Modern artists are extremely fortunate to have the inexpensive synthetic version of this historical colour so readily available. What marks Vermeer out as a masterful colourist is his skillful negotiation of warm and cool colours, from the shot of hot Vermillion in the otherwise cool atmosphere of A Lady at the Virginal with a Gentleman, to the cool Green Earth in the skin of the sitter in Girl With the Red Hat. Taking the time to examine how historical painters construct the colour relationships in their images can be hugely inspiring for modern artists.