Tim's Vermeer

Tim's Vermeer

Postby CAP » Thu Jul 10, 2014 12:39 pm

An 80 minute documentary about Tim Jenison, a noted American software and video inventor who has taken a special interest in the work of the Johannes Vermeer for its photographic qualities and demonstrates a possible technique for transferring a projected image onto canvas with paint. This doesn’t sound all that gripping as a feature, true, but for a site heavily weighted toward fine art, a review here was almost inevitable. And the film is not without its dramatic interest, although this is mainly unintended. Ultimately it reveals much more about Jenison and his sly hubris than Vermeer’s technique. I give it 4. I return to the psychological side later and deal firstly with the art history.

Tim’s starting point is the mystery that surrounds Vermeer’s technique. Although it is generally accepted that some sort of lens was used to project an image of the subject, how this projection is transferred to a canvas with paint is by no means clear. Plausibly, outlines from the projection might be traced onto paper placed upon the projecting surface, although the projected image will be upside down and back-to-front, or a ‘mirror image’, so that the sheet of paper must then be flipped over and rotated before the outlines can be transferred to a canvas in correct orientation. The transfer might be done by using a very thin 'tracing' paper, so that the outlines are visible from the other side of the paper and then the drawing side lightly coated with charcoal or soft pencil so that the reverse side may be traced onto the canvas, depositing a light carbon imprint. Alternatively, the transfer may be achieved by the traditional technique of ‘pouncing’, whereby the outlines are retraced with a small spiked wheel creating perforations in the paper through which the artist can then ‘pounce’ or press a quantity of chalk or charcoal dust from either side (if a reversal is needed), creating dotted lines on the pounced surface. Up until the widespread availability of overhead projectors, this was still the preferred technique in trade signage and its accompanying pictorials.

However, no such outlines have been detected beneath the painted surface of a Vermeer. Jenison concludes that Vermeer therefore painted the entire subject with tonal or volumetric modelling from the outset, dispensing with lines. And he supposes that this entails accurate colour at the same time. Yet it is impossible to trace the projected image directly onto the canvas with matching colour, because of the projecting light. All colours but white will be re-valued under the projecting light (necessarily stronger than the surrounding or ambient light). Plus, the image will still be reversed. This is the problem that Jenison sets out to solve. His suggestion is that a mirror is used to relay the projection in correct orientation and which, with a carefully angled arm may remain before the artist as he matches the colours and shapes seen in the mirror to a canvas below or behind the mirror. The artist treats the edge of the small, unframed mirror as a constant point of comparison, by simply shifting his head slightly to alter viewpoint and adding a matching brushstroke of colour to the area of the canvas directly behind the mirror. In this way the painter maintains shapes or edges in the painting by effectively sliding the mirror across the painted area to correct and match colour and edge. Needless to say the rate of painting is severely confined to the edges of the small mirror and constant trial and error of comparing sequentially rather than spatially, while content is reduced to almost pointillistic abstraction, seriously adding to the tedium. Jenison readily concedes that this all but reduces the task of the painter to a machine but is initially swept away by the ingenuity of his a solution.

He is however, only making a rod for his own back as he then attempts to recreate The Music Lesson as a compelling demonstration. But even before the rigours of execution, the vagaries of consistency to a nominal daylight and posed models over weeks, the light intensity or illumination needed from the projection (he substitutes a large convex mirror for a camera obscura halfway through to increase luminance and resolution) not to mention nagging practicalities of whether additive colour of pigment can always be truly matched to subtractive colour of light frequencies reflected by a mirror; the solution is intuitively wrong. Painters, while often devoted to detail, are unlikely to divide their practice into such monotonous and reductive formal phases. No subject is ever that remote or indifferent to their continued attentions. Even if it is possible to demonstrate that a Vermeer painting might be done according to Jenison’s process, it is unlikely that Vermeer or any 17th century painter would adopt such a perverse system. Jenison would have done better to consider the terms of the problem a little more carefully.

For example, he notes that Vermeer’s apprenticeship went unrecorded and supposes that Vermeer was to some extent a maverick, not unlike himself, significantly, who might well be tempted to experiment with novel or unorthodox means. But this is to ignore Vermeer’s induction into the Guild of St Luke as a master painter in Delft in 1653. It is inconceivable that this qualification would be conferred upon anyone who had not served a suitable apprenticeship. Moreover his association with many of his distinguished contemporaries, such as Dou and ter Borch assure us that he was hardly an outsider or dilettante (see Bailey 1996). It therefore follows that whatever lens-based technology Vermeer may be attracted to, builds upon his training and practice as a painter. First among these is a reliance upon stages of composition and execution that resist at every turn the kind of one coat method proposed by Jenison. A Netherlandish painter would never start from ‘fat’ or thick paint; never look for a final colour in an opaque or single layer, would never model every tone or colour transition wet-on-wet. It is not surprising then that x-rays of Vermeer’s paintings reveal a number of stages, commencing with quite cursory, tonal summaries of a composition. Jenison is right in concluding that Vermeer skipped outline and preferred a tonal rendering, but this does not initially involve colour, nor necessarily opacity (as would follow from colour matching a mirror image) nor all available detail. These facts are not fatal to his solution, but they raise uncomfortable questions.

Could Jenison’s method be used in successive stages? It is hard to think why it might be. The fact that under-layers to a Vermeer are quite rough or sketchy begs the question of why a close correspondence with some detail captured in a small mirror would be needed, or what in a small mirror might be captured on such generous terms? To put it another way, even if the artist initially works in just black and white, it is hard to see why working from a small mirror would result in such broad treatment. Or, if a small mirror is only to be used in final stages, then how are preceding stages achieved and what is it that they prepare, since Jenison’s method is essentially a wet-on-wet one coat solution? Unfortunately Jenison does not frame the problem of Vermeer’s technique accurately and his solution is wayward as a result. A more convincing solution is proposed by Jane Jelley, a painter in Oxford, published last year on the Printedlight site. She suggests Vermeer projects the composition onto a specially prepared oiled sheet of paper, which is then painted with a thin, black paint, roughly recording main shapes and some tonal modelling. The sheet is then pressed directly upon a canvas reversing the image as in off-set printing. The canvas or paper need only be rotated to achieve correct orientation.

Jelley is able to convincingly demonstrate that such technique is consistent with 17th century Dutch practice and that such transfers are consistent in facture with the under-layers to a Vermeer. Implicitly, colour is judged by direct observation and applied in glazes, building the hue intensity. The same paper tracing may be placed under a projection successively, to add further details such as highlights and retransferred to the canvas. In both cases registration marks ensure precise coincidence. However, her example, Girl with a Pearl Earring lacks the stunning detail of The Music Lesson. I asked her in an email if she thought her method would be delicate enough to catch such detail and she was confident that with due care, even the intricate patterning to the front of the harpsichord in The Music Lesson (something Jenison obsesses over) could be transferred adequately through her ‘off-set’ method. Similar enquiries and encouragement from optical expert Colin Blakemore and eminent art historian Martin Kemp have led her to prepare another, more detailed demonstration, but just preparing her canvas and paper in an historically accurate manner takes around three months for suitable drying. So the results will not be available for a while.

Jenison’s version of The Music Lesson demonstrates that the method can render the full colour image in impressive accuracy and detail although it does not look like a Vermeer and it is extremely unlikely that it is the way Vermeer transferred a projected image to canvas. Surprisingly Jenison’s result is not exactly photographic either, because focus or sharpness to objects is too severe and uniform. Nor does it seem to have occurred to him to make a colour photograph the same size for helpful comparison with both his and Vermeer’s version.The decisions based upon a small mirror ultimately have been too pedantic once the picture is seen as a whole. Even though Vermeer’s famous fuzziness to edges is one of the things Jenison initially seizes upon as intrinsically photographic or lens-based, it is not something his little mirror seems to have disclosed, at least not to the eye of a novice painter. Atmosphere, perhaps needs a broader view; a more discerning eye. A comparison with the original finds Jenison (on the left) much crisper, more laboured, stiffer, less suggestive or dramatic. The crucial interaction between man and woman in such a dry, detached atmosphere has simply evaporated. Jenison has not understood Vermeer, painting or music lessons. Is this the fault of the tool or the artist?

Significantly, the completion of the painting finds Jenison breaking down before the camera, weeping uncontrollably as he attempts to sum up his achievement. The audience cannot help but be moved, whether to mirth or sorrow is less certain. For the entire project has steadily shaped as a massive vanity, a folly in which a software engineer professes deep attachment to the work of a painter but at the same time boasts he has never picked up a paintbrush, is convinced Vermeer is amongst the ‘greatest of painters’ but seemingly on the strength of the work’s photographic qualities, devises a solution of transferring a lens projection to painting, but remains blithely indifferent to painting technique or history, indeed even to the benefits of a mahl stick. What exactly is going on here? Why the extraordinary lengths at replicating the exact room and contents of Vermeer’s The Music Lesson, if only to demonstrate an additional mirror to lens projection for painting? The fact is, Tim manifestly does not paint a ‘Vermeer’ even when he takes much the same subject and point of view because his little mirror does not render the interpretation of its surface as objective, automatic, or even photographic and if it did, then clearly Vermeer was not using it. He cannot have it both ways. He is wrong about the mirror if he is right about Vermeer, or he is right about the mirror if he is wrong about Vermeer.

What we end up with is really a portrait of Tim, disguised as Vermeer. The friction between them is initially intriguing but steadily grows embarrassing. As noted, Jenison sees Vermeer as a maverick inventor, like himself, based in the provinces, finding ways of using devices to unexpected and effective ends. But at the same time Vermeer is ‘one of the greatest painters’, while Jenison is recognised only within the confines of 3-D modelling and video post-production software. One is an artist, the other is an engineer. The equation conceals more than a hint of envy. And as Jenison grows more convinced by early trials of his mediating mirror, we sense just how much of an achievement he considers it. It is to be where engineering effectively trumps art, with a supreme trophy. A close replica of the room for The Music Lesson is painstakingly recreated in a warehouse in Texas, using Lightwave (Jenison’s 3-D modelling and animation software) to derive specifications for everything from the harpsichord to window frames and tiling, and in some cases as raw data for digital fabrication. Each object is carefully researched, sourced or replicated. The planning and building take many months, entail trips to Delft to study the original location as well as meetings with art experts in Los Angeles and London. Then there are all the historically accurate paints to be ground, presumably lenses and mirrors as well. No expense is spared. The entire research period stretches over eight years. The attendant video crew over the last three years reinforce the sense of a massive financial and professional commitment on Jenison’s part. Little wonder at one point he tersely declares “This better fucking work!”

But what exactly can we expect from a more elaborate demonstration? Will it replicate Vermeer’s version exactly? Jenison’s demonstration provides virtually the same scene and angle as the Vermeer painting and he insists his method of simply matching colour to a mirror is objective or automatic, all but rendering the painter a machine (or allowing even an indifferently skilled painter equal efficiency), so the results ought to replicate the Vermeer painting exactly, if Vermeer was using his method. Plainly they do not. To what do we attribute differences? Expertise or sensibility? As an erstwhile engineer or scientist, Jenison is in way over his head. He is keen to declare himself a novice as a painter, which only makes his enthusiasm for painting all the more puzzling. If he were sincerely interested in painting surely he would have tried one or two things at some stage, at least as an experiment? Especially since imagery is adjacent to his immensely successful area of graphics. At one stage he boasts to a professional painter that he has “learned to drive a paintbrush in thirty minutes” and the jarring use of a mechanical skill such as ‘driving’ to describe painting is deliberate. Not only does he wish to stand well back from the profession, but implicitly he regards it as a rote mechanical task. It is just doing what a photograph does, only manually. This alone deserves open derision. While envy registers at one level of public recognition, passive-aggressive aversion registers at another. It is part of the tacit levelling. This is a man who has the time and money to monster the issue and insists on remaining at centre stage. It is to be not just his idea, but his lack of skill in applying it that will astonish us. Actually, it never gets beyond his fanatical patience as he finds more and more detail to delineate under that little mirror and can only end in tears. The actual painting takes him about three months but he is unlikely to have learned very much more about painting, so long as that little mirror kept getting in the way.

:ugeek:
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Re: Tim's Vermeer

Postby CAP » Thu Jul 17, 2014 1:30 pm

The movie was also noted on WWR here.
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