Movie review: Tim’s Vermeer (2013)

Tech geek with money embarks on multi-year-long project involving a personal obsession. And we go along for the ride.

Tim’s Vermeer in a fascinating look into how Vermeer, the 17th century Dutch painter, was able to produce paintings that looked like photographs. The movie is a Penn and Teller production (yes, that Penn and Teller). Penn is a long-time friend of the inventor/self-proclaimed tinkerer Tim Jenison and appears as the narrator and a character in this movie.

For years, Tim has been intrigued about how Vermeer did what he did. The idea that someone could paint from memory scenes with such detail seemed impossible. Was technology involved in the production of his paintings? That seems the most probable explanation.

Typically, written records exist about an artist’s training. With Vermeer, there are no such records of training. Typically, paintings have sketches underneath that guide the artist where to place objects in the painting. With Vermeer’s paintings, there are no such sketches underneath.

Did Vermeer paint without any training but with technology to guide him?

What technology was available to Vermeer? People of the 17th century were familiar with the use of lenses and mirrors in telescopes…and the camera obscura. Tim’s Vermeer walks us through Tim’s investigation of the use of lenses, mirrors, and camera obscura in an attempt to replicate the technology that Vermeer could have painted with. He explores the ways that the camera obscura could and could not have been used.

Tim ends up discovering that if you tilt the camera obscura box, the image that the camera is looking at is upside down. Then add a canvas underneath and a mirror to reflect the image, and viola! You have the image appearing right side up in the mirror and you can paint to match the exact color and tones in your image.

Tim, not a painter, demonstrates the technique by painting from a photograph of his father. And he proceeds to produce an incredibly realistic painting. The painting looked like the photograph.

So Tim has a theory of how Vermeer painted, but no proof. He turns to others, a long-time painter and two authors about Vermeer, to discuss his theory. He calls in Martin Mull (yes, that Martin Mull), who has painted for decades, to run his theory by him. All seems promising.

He then shows the process to Philip Steadman, who argues in his works that Vermeer used lenses to create his masterpieces. Tim and Philip take turns painting a vase in one of Vermeer’s works using Tim’s technique. The output is as impressive as Tim’s initial painting from a photograph of his father.

Next Tim discusses the technique and his discoveries with David Hockney, another author who argues that artists used lenses. A sticking point is that there are no historical records to back up Tim’s theory about the use of technology. David reminds him that paintings are written documents that can reveal things. (And they do later on in Tim’s investigation.)

The meeting goes well and Tim proceeds to the next step in his project: painting a Vermeer himself. (Remember, this is the guy with no painting experience.) He decides to paint The Music Lesson. To do so, he needs to replicate the conditions under which Vermeer painted. This means recreating Vermeer’s tools (i.e., pigments) and the physical space that Vermeer painted in.

Many of Vermeer’s paintings were produced in a north facing room in his house. So Tim builds the room. (Yeah, tech geek with money embarks on multi-year-long project involving a personal obsession.) He builds the room in a warehouse, builds the furniture in the painting, and grinds (literally) the lens needed. All new to him but he is undaunted.

219 days. It took 219 days to build the room.

And then he painstakingly starts to paint The Music Lesson but quickly discovers that the lighting and detail that could (or could not) be seen in the camera obscura wasn’t correct. Vermeer couldn’t have been using a camera obscura.

But all is not lost. Tim realizes that Vermeer was using a lens to paint out in the open instead of in the enclosed box of the camera obscura. He was using a concave lens. The concave lens gave him the brightness and detail that he needed.

And then Tim starts to paint. His progress is painfully slow. Painting photograph-like detail, such as the individual knots in a rug, is unsurprisingly tedious. And at some points, Tim seems ready to lose it. But after 130 days of painting, he ends up with a Vermeer look-a-like. Seriously, it is an amazing reproduction of a Vermeer by a self-professed non-painter.

Remember David Hockney describing paintings as written documents? While painting his Vermeer, Tim discovered other things that suggested that Vermeer used this technique or one similar to it. The type of lighting coming in through the windows was absolute brightness, which cannot be seen by the naked eye. Objects in Vermeer’s paintings sometimes seem out of focus, which is what happens in photographs; lenses provide a certain depth of field, casting some items in focus and others out of focus. And finally, when Tim started to paint the intricate seahorse pattern on the virginal (harpsichord), he noticed that the pattern was slightly curved in Vermeer’s painting. The curvature is what you would see with a lens. Vermeer was painting exactly what the lens showed him.

Although none of this or Tim successfully painting a Vermeer proves that Vermeer used the technique that Tim did, Tim’s project provides more evidence that Vermeer, with no written record of training, used technology to paint photograph-like masterpieces. (And interesting, with the same technique, you, with no artistic training, can paint your own masterpiece.)

Tim’s Vermeer is a fascinating look at one man’s deep dive into understanding how Vermeer painted. Whereas it took Tim 1,825 days from 2008 to 2013, you can watch it all unfold in a matter of hours. As I watched, I felt as though the secrets of Vermeer were revealed and that the dichotomy between art and technology was collapsed in a way that made sense of the 17th century world. Art and technology are not enemies but go hand in hand.

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