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Tim’s Vermeer

You don’t have to be an artist to paint like a master — just a genius

Inventor Tim Jenison seeks to understand the painting techniques used by Dutch Master Johannes Vermeer. <<© High Delft Pictures>>

Many have tried to copy Johannes Vermeer’s detailed and fascinating works, but it took a CEO from San Antonio with no artistic training to do it. An electrician and amateur inventor, Tim Jenison is the CEO of the wildly successful video technology company NewTek. He is not, however, a painter.
    Jenison was fascinated with the works of the 17th century painter. Vermeer was an oddity of his time because he didn’t sketch his paintings, instead working oil on canvas to achieve realistic images of Dutch domesticity. No documents survive to reveal Vermeer’s techniques; his process and the formulas for his paints are a mystery lost to the ages.
    To Jenison’s eye, Vermeer’s style resembled a compressed video image: reflecting true light values, showing single point focus and capturing amazing detail. Jenison theorized that Vermeer used a lens and camera obscura setup to get such realism. Using a small mirror and a technique he invented for matching shades, the untrained Jenison was able to create stunningly realistic paintings.
    So it was possible to paint using optics and mirrors. But did Vermeer do it that way?
    To test his theory, Jenison used his optics setup to recreate Vermeer’s The Music Lesson. This wasn’t simply a case of repainting a masterpiece; Jenison was out to prove that Vermeer could have used optics to achieve his results. Jenison visited Vermeer’s home, took measurements of his studio space and got to work.
    He recreated Vermeer’s studio, hiring experts to rebuild every stick of furniture, recreate the light that would have streamed through the windows and sew exact replicas of the clothing of the models. Jenison made his own lens, using techniques that would have been available in the 17th century, hand-polished the optics and learned how to hand-mix oil paints. With all the elements in place, it was time to test his hypothesis.
    A documentary that argues art and technology should be united instead of viewed as separate studies, Tim’s Vermeer is a tribute to inventive minds and determination. Directed by Teller (of magical duo Penn and Teller), the film is a joyful look at the dedication, obsession and ultimate triumph of Jenison and Vermeer. Narrated by Teller’s partner Penn Jillette, the film explores what makes an artist but finds no single answer.
    Capturing Jenison’s tenacity while giving the audience a hefty art history lesson, Teller manages to keep the film light and entertaining. He interviews all the right art historians to make his argument that Jenison’s methods are not only possible but probable.
    The real proof of Jenison’s thesis is his recreation of The Music Lesson. Teller painstakingly documents every exacting step Jenison takes to reach his goal. The commitment is part technology, part madness and all art.
    You’ll need to go to Baltimore or D.C. to catch this documentary, but it’s well worth the trip. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself buying a small mirror and some oil paints after you see it.

Great Documentary • PG-13 • 80 mins.

I recommend this film to anybody. But please don't view it as some kind of art criticism as some people do. I see this film as more about the copying-machine itself and the process of figuring it out. This has nothing to do with art criticism.

Admittedly, the narrator says, "Tim painted a Vermeer!" and the title is "Tim's Vermeer" and I presume from this, some draw the wrong conclusion. That statement and that title is merely provocative showmanship. Don't let it get to you.

One of the very exciting things about it is that anybody can do this! I just took a pencil, a dental mirror and a great blob of plasticine (to correctly mount/position the mirror) to copy a line drawing. The mirro-only approach is one of two techniques shown in the movie. It is a simple but effective way for a untrained artist to copy a drawing accurately. A pencil copy isn't that exciting, of course. But it is gratifying to try the technique first hand and see it in action.

I have to admit, it is tricky to set up the mirror correctly, but it doesn't take more than 10 to 30 minutes to figure it out.

Try it!