CGI 60cm x 40cm

Time and Light in Vermeer's studio

Coming from a long term interest in the work of Vermeer and an ongoing pursuit of ‘realism’ in visualisation software I set out to further investigate the lighting methods used by Johannes Vermeer in his studio. This led to the idea of playing with notions of time and montage by introducing live (real) weather to a virtual space, a type of grey area between augmented reality and virtual reality, where the environment has a perceptible presence.

Vermeer’s mastery of the depiction of interior space continues to fascinate today on both technical and metaphysical levels. The consequences of creating spaces that were at once both startlingly real and puzzlingly ambiguous are hard to grasp and has fed many searches for hidden meaning. To some it seems that Vermeer had invented a new way of seeing (1). To architects there is the teasing question of whether the representation of interior spaces can communicate meaning or intention, even whether representation can be a proxy for the experience of architecture?

Vermeer’s studio no longer exists. It was a northerly single aspect room that spanned the width of the first floor of his house on Oude Langendijk in central Delft. Despite having a busy household of eleven children he managed to adapt his studio for use as a changeable painting set with a variety of carefully chosen props. The light itself is often cited as being one of the central subjects of Vermeer’s paintings and that through his depiction of light he achieves the mysterious silences and interiority of his compositions. It could also be argued that the paintings have a heightened interiority due to the absence of any recognisable weather, an ‘airless’(2) disconnect from the environment, an opposite to landscape art that allows us to recognise that the characters have an interior (thinking) life. In any case the fact that so little is known of his life other than his paintings and that his paintings were generally done without reward or commission puts his art in the territory of experiment.

Vermeer’s method

Like some artists of his time Vermeer would start blocking out of his paintings using grey tones to depict light and massing and this would be followed by colour. It seems clear that he used a camera obscura as assistance for many of his paintings(3). It is possible he used it as a compositional tool while moving around his furniture props and adjusting light and for perfecting certain qualities of light and highlights that seem to have the quality of a lens. Additionally some of the compositions have somewhat distorted perspective that would suggest the use of a shifted lens. A close acquaintance of his was a lens maker and pioneer in microscopy(4). It seems clear from Vermeer’s methods and even his subjects, The Art of Painting and The Astronomer for example that he saw a parallel between new advances in scientific ways of seeing and his own innovations in painting. While these innovations allowed the universe and microcosm to be seen more closely and with greater clarity it also distanced the observer, objects of investigation were less experienced and were now ‘seen through’ instruments, a new distance was created, a new enlightenment objectivity that placed the observer in an exacting position (5).

Along with his use of the camera obscura it seems he used his studio as an adjustable lighting tool. The many methods of controlling light through his three windows allowed him to control illumination depending on what part of his paintings he was working on, characters, furniture, walls etc. The three windows in his studio could be adjusted by using internal shutters at high or low level, net curtains or heavy drapes to give a rich variety of lighting types and combinations. The process of recreating his studio space and working through a wide variety of lighting conditions has led us to the tentative conclusion that his paintings are often the result of selective lighting and therefore become a type of montage of subtly different lighting effects, a montage also therefore of different periods of time. This was a common method of landscape artists of the same period. It is clear that the space and the light in each of his paintings is of foremost importance, their realism is central to the viewer’s perception of being peripheral to the space.

But what are the subjects of these quiet paintings? The characters’ circumstances? An event? Or is there a case to be made for his paintings to be simply sophisticated developments of the new genre of interior paintings that had surfaced in Holland within his own lifetime? This was a genre that delighted in atmosphere created by light and shadow and receding volumes, often of church interiors. At first they had incorporated allusions to allegorical scenes and local colour or views of the city, but as with many genres of the time they were being refined during the second half of the 17th Century to a pure form (6). Curiously though most of Vermeer’s paintings feature a window which is being used by characters for illumination, writing, reading, cooking, weighing etc. we never see through windows, they are sources of light rather than frames upon the world outside. This interiority echoes the introspection of the characters, in their minds they are somewhere else. It seems as though Vermeer’s rooms are spaces to imagine and in that we find another paradox that in finding new forms of objective vision they are used to interpret architectural form as subjective experience (7).

The Weather in the Dutch imagination

The Dutch provinces were uniquely dependant on their weather for their continued existence. Their wealth depended on sea trade and their geography upon carefully balanced drainage. Meteorology had originally been seen as a branch of astrology but through weather diaries (8) and almanacs during this period the weather became more scientifically observed. In the 17th Century the endeavours of recording the weather passed from clerics to doctors who were keen to link weather conditions to the transmission of disease (9). Generally there was still scientific doubt if weather had any reason and was considered a category of chaos. Since ancient times turbulent weather was seen as an impulse to the creative mind (10). Disruption to seasonal weather was a constant Dutch anxiety that is reflected in the art of the time (11). The drama of the changeable weather systems rolling in off the North sea over flat almost maritime landscapes with toiling windmills further emphasised this over bearing presence of the weather. 17th Century Holland experienced somewhat different weather to today due to the ‘Little Ice Age’ as it is now known, winters were harsher and would have led to more seasonal activity.

As the Dutch landscape was made to accommodate and harness the weather, this can also be said for the architecture. Dutch buildings of the seventeenth century go to the technical limits of their materials to maximise and control light within a dense urban fabric. Windows are as large as brick openings can be made and as close to internal walls to spread light deep into the plans. The timber casements are pushed to the outer face of facades and it was usual for outer shutters, inner half shutters, net curtains and drapes be used in various combinations to control light and ventilation. Interiors and furnishings changed due to this new habitability. This well tempered and well lit domestic environment became a place of pride and spectacle as never before.

As Dutch weather was a shaper of architecture and the imagination in the 17th Century there is now a new contemporary awareness and sensibility to the weather as a creative element in our own society (12). Writers such as Iain Sinclair and W.G Sebald have made cases for the connection between weather and the imagination. Architects Diller and Scofidio have experimented with the behavioural aspects of artificial weather while artist James Turrell has created installations that refine the elemental connection between weather and place.

The Proposal

The aim of this project and these researches is to animate a recreation of Vermeer’s Lady Writing a Letter with her Maid (13) using live weather data from Delft, introducing the unpredictable element of weather and its associated lighting. High dynamic range luminance maps of the sky that are created, adjusted and calibrated (14) are streamed to real time rendering software (15) that recreates Vermeer’s studio through a virtual camera. This virtual space is proportioned according to the latest research on the probable dimensions of Vermeer’s studio. The materials are recreated to reflect and filter light as accurately as possible, all elements are interconnected: time, light, intensity, colour temperature, material absorbtion. It is envisaged that the ‘real time’ animated projection would be at a similar size to the actual painting and presented in an empty darkened room. It is hoped that the there would be a connection made between a variety of points in time and space, Dublin, Delft, 2013, 1670. Also it is hoped that this new montage can question the idea that time can change spectacle to surveillance (16), that temporal vision can undermine the certainties of ‘natural vision’.

1 Bryan Jay Wolf, Vermeer and the Invention of Seeing (The University of Chigago press 2001).
2 Walter Liedtke, A view of Delft; Vermeer and his contemporaries (Waanders 2000) p.257
3 Philip Steadman Vermeer’s Camera (Oxford University press 2001)
4 The scientist Antonie Philips van Leeuwenhoek, Philip Steadman Vermeer’s Camera (Oxford University press 2001), p.44
5 Crary Jonathan, Techniques of the Observer; On Vision and Modernity in the 19th Century (October Books 1992)
6 Walter Liedtke, A view of Delft; Vermeer and his contemporaries (Waanders 2000) p.47
7 Walter Liedtke, A view of Delft; Vermeer and his contemporaries (Waanders 2000) p.127
8 Jonathan Hill, Weather Architecture (Routledge 2012) p.66
9 Ibid
10 Ibid
11Franz Ossing, Haarlem’s Crown of Clouds; Meteorology in the paintings of Jacob van Ruisdael. Presented at the convention ‘Air’ Bonn, Germany 24 – 26.10.2002
12 Dean Hawkes, Architecture and Climate (Routledge 2012)
13 Johannes Vermeer, Lady Writing a Letter with Her Maid, 1670. Oil on canvas, 72.2cm x 59.7cm. National Gallery of Ireland.
14 Dr Paul Kenny UCD
15 Octane Render by Otoy, GPU unbiased physically based render engine.
16 Crary Jonathan, Techniques of the Observer; On Vision and Modernity in the 19th Century (October Books 1992), p.19

Exhibited at RHA 2014