Sunday, February 3, 2019

Vermeer Device



Wolfgang Beltracchi created and tested this optical device to explore whether it might have worked for Vermeer.  (Link to YouTube)

Image courtesy Mundus, photo A. Lukas, ZOTT Artspace
Beltracchi's system appears to use glass and mirrors to superimpose a virtual image of the room over the drawing. It seems to work well as long as you hold your head still and in the right position. These systems can help in the drawing stage, but they're not much use when you get to the paint.


There are much simpler methods that work even better. And there's no evidence Vermeer used any such system. The blobby highlights and lens-like focal artifacts in some of Vermeer's paintings could merely be an lens effect he observed and then wanted to replicate in his paintings.
----
See also a video clip from Tim's Vermeer and the book Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters
Thanks, Max Rebo

9 comments:

Bruno Gadenne said...

Hi there from Paris. Have you seen the wonderful documentary "Tim's Vermeer", exploring a quite similar approch ? The documentary is fascinating in itself, wether Vermeer used the same devices or not :)

Alan Postings said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Alan Postings said...

I love that documentary 'Tim's Vermeer'...and the one by David Hockney in the early 90's. I'm a 3D/CG Artist and traditional Artist and I am fascinated by the boundary between art/technology and what is considered 'cheating' in art. Whether that's devices potentially used by Vermeer or the film Tron and the artists who made it being denied/disqualified for the Academy Award (Oscar) for Special Effects because using a computer was considered cheating in 1982. Its a great debate.

GJ said...

I have an attachment on my low-power dissecting microscope that works just like this—I'd call it a camera lucida. The fact that one is looking through the eyepiece of the 'scope means one eyes are held steady. gj

D.K. Vosburgh said...

Many of the claims in Hockney's book were discredited on technical grounds in an article in the December, 2004 issue of Scientific American, written by David Stork from the Stanford Center for Image System Enginerring. Everyone should Google it and read it, it would eliminate a lot of the "canera lucida" debate. Also, Stapleton Kearns had a wonderful blog post about the current attitude of "well, I can't draw like that, so those Old Master guys couldn't have been able to either..."

D.K. Vosburgh said...

Many of the claims in Hockney's book were discredited on technical grounds in an article in the December, 2004 issue of Scientific American, written by David Stork from the Stanford Center for Image System Enginerring. Everyone should Google it and read it, it would eliminate a lot of the "camera lucida" debate. Also, Stapleton Kearns had a wonderful blog post about the current attitude of "well, I can't draw like that, so those Old Master guys couldn't have been able to either..."

James Gurney said...

DK Vosburgh, Yes, there was also something in Science News showing that the chandelier in the Arnolfini portrait of Van Eyck could not have been done with an optical device, because the parts of it were not in exact perspective, and its structure would not have been possible. My main objection to hypotheses like this one and the one in Tim's Vermeer is that they're unnecessarily cumbersome and difficult to use. And in any event they weren't of much use at the painting stage. There are much simpler optical aids and lensless systems that work far better and more efficiently.

Eugene Arenhaus said...

So he's created a low quality camera lucida. So what. There is zero connection to Vermeer there.

This Hockney nonsense should die down already. How long can one man's case of sour grapes carry on, futilely? Any kind of optics are all but unusable for painting. For drawing, somewhat, but in Vermeer's particular case it is proven that he had used a mechanical perspective aid to plot the perspective in his canvases - something he would not need to do (indeed, something very difficult to do due to lens distortion) if he had used optics.

(Incidentally, concerning the "blobby" point reflections in later Vermeer's work, there is a very simple explanation that does not involve any optical devices: his sight was becoming poorer with age, and he was obstinately keen on painting by sight as exactly as he could. I am myopic, and I see those blobs - even larger ones - whenever I look at a light source without my glasses.)

Maximilian Redlefs said...

I don't think that Beltracci was hellbent on proving Vermeers use of optical devices in this experiment. He clearly states that it couldn't have been a huge help in the actual painting stage and that he was rather dissapointed by how cumbersome the device felt to use. It could in theory be useful to quickly draw highly complex perspective-heavy interior scenes though. I think we oftentimes forget that people experimenting with devices for a video or over the timespan of writing a book are in now way comparable to experienced painters who might have build and perfected their optical methods over decades. At that point it would make a lot of sense to speed up the drawing process using a device like this. I also believe that a guy like Vermeer would have had no problem drawing the scene without any aid. It would just take longer. And I'd also think it could get annoying once you've done it a few hundred times. Regarding the lightblobs the theory of failing eyesight seems plausible. However one could also argue that Vermeer might have been influenced by looking through optical systems and playing with the optical effects he observed to give character to his painting style. All in all this is pretty fascinating to me. I initially recommended to video to Mr. Gurney because it's a very recent experiment that felt underappreciated, probably due to the initial language barrier. Fun to see it get turned into a post with a nice discussion!