How to Paint Like Vermeer, as Explained by a Techie

Tim Jenison (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Tim Jenison (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

TORONTO — Tim Jenison is an imaging software engineer who talks like Oracle founder Larry Ellison but looks like artist Chuck Close. He works secretly, almost stealthily, and in this way Jenison, with his thick white whiskers and middle-aged, bearish build, perfectly captures the confidential experiment unfolding since February 2009 in an industrial park warehouse in his hometown of San Antonio. He’s a scientist, the founder of the software company NewTek. He’s also an emerging artist of sorts, which may be the driving point of his covert project: Jenison wants art and technology to be thought of together.

Now, Jenison has pulled back the curtain on his four-year experiment with the feature-length documentary Tim’s Vermeer, made with his longtime friends, the celebrity magicians Penn & Teller. Jenison believes he has solved one of the greatest mysteries in art: how did 17th-century Dutch Master Johannes Vermeer paint so photo-realistically 150 years before the invention of photography?

“It’s such a simple, elegant solution that we didn’t want it to get out,” Jenison told Hyperallergic, as we searched the hotel headquarters of last month’s Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) for a quiet place to talk. “So it’s really been a secret since three weeks ago. Nobody has known about this, and we don’t know how people are going to react.”

In the 2003 movie The Girl with the Pearl Earring, viewers see a glimpse of the peephole of a camera obscura, an optical device that projects a surrounding image onto a surface. It’s a cinematic hint at how Vermeer worked. But the debate Jenison has picked up on goes back centuries, usually including Sir David Brewster, who in 1816 invented the kaleidoscope. More recently, the artist David Hockney has weighed in with his book Secret Knowledge, as has architect and professor Philip Steadman, who wrote Vermeer’s Camera. Both appear in Tim’s Vermeer discussing their theories.

Tim Jenison painting, in a film still from "Tim's Vermeer" (courtesy Sony Pictures Classics) (click to enlarge)
Tim Jenison painting, in a film still from “Tim’s Vermeer” (courtesy Sony Pictures Classics) (click to enlarge)

Jenison looks to prove the technique behind the “virtual reality” of Vermeer’s paintings and, in the process, erase the longstanding separation of artist and technologist. More importantly, he’s convinced he has the answer that has eluded so many others.

“It’s a device that has been around for a long time called a comparator, but a comparator has not been applied to oil painting,” Jenison said, sitting at a table in the middle of the TIFF industry lounge with Tim’s Vermeer producer Farley Zeigler.

“As far as I know it’s been forgotten since Vermeer’s time. A comparator is basically a mirror, and when you look at the mirror you see your subject reflected across the room. Just off the edge of the mirror, you see your canvas where you’re painting. You apply some paint on the canvas right at the edge of the mirror, and you can compare that paint color to the subject that you’re tying to paint. Since they’re right there on that edge, your eye is very good at detecting differences in close proximity.

“If you get the right color, the edge of the mirror actually disappears. So I came up with a way of setting this mirror up so you can basically do this A and B comparison between the light from the subject and the paint that you’re painting. So it’s a way of directly converting light color to paint color very accurately.”

Jenison describes his Vermeer experiment as a “simple project” that quickly turned into an “obsession” involving 3D models, a detailed reconstruction of the room for Vermeer’s 1662 painting “The Music Lesson” inside a San Antonio warehouse, and meticulous re-creations of the paints the Dutch Master would have used.

“Once the room was built and looked exactly like Vermeer’s studio, I set up my machine and started to paint,” Jenison said. “It is not an easy or quick process. This is not a time saver, but it is extremely accurate.  Vermeer painted very slowly. He painted a picture about every six months, and it took me seven months to paint this picture.”

Penn Jillette, who serves as the film’s co-producer and narrator, and Teller, the director of the movie, both capitalized on their expertise in trickery and stage magic to make Tim’s Vermeer. But the film is free of their trademark gags: it’s straight documentary moviemaking, with footage of Jenison’s globe-trotting investigations and a string of interviews with Hockney, Steadman, and comic-turned-artist Martin Mull commenting on Jenison’s self-taught work. There are detailed histories of Vermeer and the camera obscura, but the film settles firmly on Jenison’s gargantuan project and his commitment to total secrecy.

“After lot of permutations we got back to the core inspiration of the movie when Penn told me, ‘my friend Tim is going to try and paint a Vermeer,’” Teller said after a screening of the movie. “The biggest challenge was to stop out-clevering ourselves and just look at the material.”

There’s a larger question for Jenison that led to his art project of equally large proportions: when did the separation of art and science take place?

For him, Vermeer is about convergence and the embodiment of the artist and the technologist in one. He’s not criticizing the Master for using optics to paint; he’s celebrating his status as a true Renaissance man making use of art and science.

“I just wanted to demonstrate that a comparator could explain a lot about Renaissance art,” Jenison added. “I think I have succeeded — not a hundred percent, but the likelihood is quite good that Vermeer did something like this.”

Johannes Vermeer, "A lady at the virginals with a gentleman (The Music Lesson)" (c 1662–65),oil on canvas, 28.9 x 25.4 in
Johannes Vermeer, “A lady at the virginals with a gentleman (The Music Lesson)” (c 1662–65), oil on canvas, 28.9 x 25.4 in (via Wikipedia)

Now that his secret is out, with the documentary making festival appearances before opening in theaters in early 2014, Jenison hopes that the movie will inspire future artists to realize that, with the right technique, they can paint at a level similar to Vermeer. After all, Jenison does it in the movie, recreating “The Music Lesson” so well that it draws raves from Hockney.

“I remember the first time I heard Art Tatum play the piano,” Jenison continued. “I wanted to give up jazz piano forever. I’m really anxious to see people try this and see what they can do with it. Will it help you learn art? Will it make people more interested in learning art? I really hope so.”

What’s more, Jenison wonders if perhaps the film will lead someone to discover documentation to back up his claims.

“Maybe in Holland or Belgium or Rome someone will find some written evidence of this technique that will finally prove that Vermeer did in fact use a mirror to make paintings in the Renaissance.”

Then, Jenison would be able to look back on his four-year secret project and know that he solved one of the art world’s greatest mysteries. Until then, his story continues.

Tim’s Vermeer premiered at the 2013 Telluride and Toronto International Film Festivals. It screens at the New York Film Festival on Wednesday, October 9, at 9 pm.

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