PAGE 2: Painting a Copy of Jan Vermeer's "Girl with a Pearl Earring"

Using Oil Glazing Technique and a Grisaille (Monochromatic Gray) Underpainting

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Whenever I begin an oil portrait I always start with the eyes. They are what give the face an immediate sense of life. It is very hard to work on the other facial features first, and imbue them with lifelike qualities when the eyes are not already conveying this from the start.


At this stage a loosely applied, almost dry-brushed application of gray paint is being used to begin the modelling of the form of the girl's head. It is not clear that Vermeer's technique involved the use of a black and white underpainting (grisaille) like this one, but he more than likely used a monochromatic underpainting technique of some kind, perhaps done in a warm brown tone, as was common with the Northern European school of painting at that time.

When doing an oil painting copy that is colored using glazes, it tends to make it easier to be accurate if a fairly well finished and detailed underpainting is done beforehand, to well define the major light and dark areas. Care must be taken to not allow the light areas of the underpainting to be painted in too dark a value of gray. The light and highlighted areas should be kept quite high key in the underpainting, so that these bright white areas help to illuminate the semi-tranparent layers of glazed oil paint that are applied over them. Throughout the painting process I am using soft synthetic sable type brushes made for oil and acrylic painting, rather than stiff hog bristle oil painting brushes. I am also painting on a finely woven linen artist's canvas, as Vermeer and other Dutch painters from that period would also have done.

Once the grisaille underpainting has been suitably completed, it should be allowed to dry fully, since any glazing medium that is applied to the underpainting would tend to loosen and dissolve any undried oil paint layers. To speed up this process, it is possible to use alkyd based artist's paints to execute the underpainting, allowing the painting to dry fully in as little as a day (so long as the alkyd paint layers are not too thick).

A comparison with the original "Girl with a Pearl Earring" shows the elusively subtle, ethereal nature of Vermeer's brushwork. Some scholars believe that it was Vermeer's use of Venetian Turpentine, a slow drying, resinous oil painting medium ingredient, that would cause his glazes to melt into one another, and also caused the edges of the painted areas to bleed slightly into their surroundings, creating soft edges. However, in this instance I unfortunately failed to experiment with the use of Venetian Turpentine, and used a more conventional oil painting medium recipe.
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Copyright 2008 Thomas Penrose