Movie Review - Tim's Vermeer

Welcome to Les Couleurs Boueuses Cinéma.  In this installment, I am going to review Tim's Vermeer.

Tim's Vermeer stars inventor Tim Jenison who you may not have heard of, but I bet some of you have used Lightwave 3D or Video Toaster.  Tim founded Newtek earning him the money and time to invent lots of crazy things and invest time in whatever obsession he might have.  Penn Jillette, the famous magician and long time friend of Tim, is also featured in the film and was a producer, along with his ever taciturn partner Teller.

I think that rather than having you read all the way through this review to see what I thought about it, I will just tell you right now.  I loved it.  I highly recommend it.  Don't take that to mean that I agree with everything expressed in the film.  You have to read the review to find that out!

The gist of the movie is that Tim became interested in the idea that Vermeer used an optical device to assist him in painting and set out to try and recreate not just a Vermeer, but the room he painted in: the floor, the furniture, the costumes, the light... everything.  And to prove that Vermeer did indeed use an optical device to help him paint.

He was intrigued after reading David Hockney's book Secret Knowledge, given to him by his daughter.  In that book, which was surrounded by some controversy when it was released, Hockney argues that when art took off from the flat, stylized forms of the middle ages to the highly realistic and accurate renderings of the last few centuries, it was because of optical aids, like the camera obscura.  The problem with the camera obscura as Hockney described it, is that it could really only be used for drawing, tracing the projected image.  You can't paint under a projection because the light being projected affects the color and value of the paint being applied.  It is only accurate over a white surface.

Camera Obscura schematic

When Tim looked at a Vermeer, in his words, he felt that it looked like it "came out of a video camera." Tim's first idea was to set a small mirror at 45 degrees and set the subject in front of you (or a projection if his thoughts on Vermeer are correct).  You can see your painting and the subject at the same time by shifting your head back and forth over the top of the mirror and your painting.

Tim doing his first oil painting using the mirror device
Tim had never painted before, but finished a nice little oil copy of a black and white photograph in a few hours using this tool.  He would mix the paint until the edge of the mirror, reflecting the subject, disappeared against the paint, meaning it matched values.

You can see the reflected image of the photo over the painting in the mirror device

His initial theory was that Vermeer used a small camera obscura that projected the image onto a piece of ground glass that could be seen in daylight instead of inside a dark room.  He could then place the small mirror device to aid the painting process in front of the glass plate on the back of the camera obscura.  This would allow him to not just draw, as with Hockney's setup, but paint and match colors and values.

Polishing a lens

Once he decided he knew how Vermeer went about it, he set out to learn how to grind glass to make the lenses the quality appropriate to Vermeer's time (modern lenses are too good and would corrupt the experiment), grind pigments to make paint, recreate the vase, light, musical instruments, dresses and all the elements needed to reproduce Vermeer's studio.

Tim learning to grind pigments into linseed oil

He travelled to Delft, studied various Vermeers and then returned home and rented out a warehouse in San Antonio where he could create the north light studio of Vermeer.

He consulted a man named Philip Steadman, who wrote a book called Vermeer's Camera.  For me, it offers the most compelling evidence so far that he used an optical device, though I say that not having read the book, but just heard the synopsis offered in the movie.  Steadman takes 6 of Vermeer's paintings and uses them to create a map of his studio.  Using geometry, he identifies where in the room the camera obscura would have to have been for each painting in relation to the back wall of Vermeer's studio where the camera obscura may have been projecting to.  The geometry apparently lines up exactly in all six paintings.  Interesting.

Tim decided to try and reproduce Vermeer's The Music Lesson.  He doesn't copy the original, but uses it to recreate the room and all of the elements in it to paint.  He felt that it would be a good subject to start with because there were many elements in it that could be recreated objectively.  Using lathes and CNC routers and a whole incredible shop full of wonderful tools he starts making the elements of the room.

Tim has a strong obsessive streak that I have to admit I admire and as artists, we can all probably relate to a little.  I love his determination and inquisitiveness.  Whether or not you agree with the conclusions of the film, I found myself caught up in his efforts and his "whatever it takes" attitude to assuage his curiosities.

Tim visiting David Hockney's studio
Tim decides to travel to England to consult Hockney and show him his discovery of the small mirror device.  Hockney is very pleased, I am sure seeing it as additional validation of his theory that all the great artists used optical aids.  Hockney offers a quote that I thought was good.
"The idea that the Italians didn't use this (the device) because it would have been cheating... is childish."  
I agree with the idea that using a tool, or whatever, as some kind of a 'cheat' is stilly, but I do not agree with Hockney.  He has to contrive that no artist revealed or recorded his working methods, which is why we don't have a record of any of the artists he identifies having made widespread use of a camera obscura or optical aid.  Unlikely.  It also discounts fully documented efforts by artists in the 19th and 20th century drawing from life and producing the kind of work Hockney insists comes only with drawing aids.

When Tim returned back to San Antonio, he was ready to get started, but quickly ran into a problem.  The image being projected was too fuzzy and dim for him to be able to capture all the detail.  He tried many different setups, but eventual came upon the idea of projecting the image onto a concave mirror rather than a flat surface, which collects more light, creating a brighter, clearer image.  This allowed Tim to project an image in a brightly lit room.  Bright enough for him to use the mirror device to start copying.

You can see the day ticker in the bottom right corner
Time to start painting.  He went about the painting in a very mechanical, practical, almost robotic nature.  After a few weeks of painting, he stated, "Wow, I am not trying to make this look like a Vermeer, but it really looks like a Vermeer."  I can't agree though.  It does look like it in the sense that he recreated so many of the elements that you see in a Vermeer.  However, the paint doesn't have any kind of elegance, or interaction with the brushwork that Vermeer's work does.

Part of that comes from the very slow progress of the painting, but also in the way that Tim paints.  He paints with very small brushes, dabbing the color in, until it matches what he is seeing through the lens and mirror.  Rather than smooth passages of paint accented with the punctuated light and strokes you find in a Vermeer, this painting is more pointillistic. It is a series of discrete elements that gives a sense of the original,  but ultimately falls short of the beautiful surfaces of the original.

At this point, he has a little mishap, wherein the lens gets bumped and the chair he is working on is off perspective without him realizing it.

The chair that was off due to a bumped lens
He states that when he looks at the chair, he has a "sense of revulsion" upon seeing it.  I thought this was interesting because I have often expressed to my wife, that when something is off in my work, it makes me feel a little sick until I fix it.  Is this a common reaction for you?  Let me know in the comments.

The detailed painting of the wool rug
Tim's attention to detail is impressive, from the beautifully intricate inlay on the virginal, or the merciless and never ending weave of the rug in the foreground.  He works on the rug for weeks on end.  Tenacious and meticulous, seeing Tim progress is very compelling viewing to me.  I don't know what that says about me...

130 days after starting just the painting itself (the whole effort took 5 years!) he was finished and ready to varnish.

Penn Jillette closes the film stating that, "my friend Tim painted a Vermeer, in a warehouse... in San Antonio...  he painted a Vermeer."  It is a good line, but it isn't true.  It would be like saying you could break down a Mozart into all it's components and generate some objective means to churn out a "Mozart."  Tim acknowledges that he is standing on Vermeer's shoulders and the merits of his piece are owed to Vermeer.  To Tim's credit, he states that this doesn't prove that Vermeer used these tools, but he is 99% convinced.

As I said before, Tim's painting doesn't have the elegance of the original.  It feels mechanical and lacks the exquisite execution you would see in a Vermeer.

Tim standing in front of his "Vermeer"
I have read a few other reviews of this film, and they are fairly loud in their critique of the idea that one could "paint a Vermeer" as if it is a series of objective steps.  I share that, but am not dismissive of the whole and I also see a lot of wonderful aspects to this effort.  I think that there are some real possibilities to the conclusions that Tim makes.  I also think that if he is right, rather than diminish Vermeer, it shows how masterful he was, especially when comparing the two painting side by side.  Tim's Vermeer is on the left.  Click the images to enlarge.

Well done Tim.  You didn't paint a Vermeer, but you did open up some new possibilities and insights as to how the real Vermeer may have approached his work.  Along the way you made a fascinating film with great passion, persistence and hard work.  Who wants to do this with Alma-Tadema's Spring?

Howard Lyon

All images in this post copyright © 2013 - Sony Pictures Classics, except for the image of the actual Vermeer painting.