Really, Tim? A Painter’s Point of View on Tim’s Vermeer

Vermeer: Woman in Blue Reading a Letter

I am proud to welcome again, Anne Belov, as guest blog writer. She writes on the new much talked about film: “Tim’s Vermeer” — Really, Tim?  A Painter’s Point of View on “Tim’s Vermeer”


I have to confess; I did not go into the local showing of Tim’s Vermeer with an open mind. It features the quest of inventor Tim Jenison to discover, explain, and duplicate how Johannes Vermeer could have created his exquisite paintings.

Most people with any familiarity of Dutch painting of the 16th century know who Vermeer was. He painted beautiful, quiet, light filled paintings of life in Holland in the mid 1500’s. I have seen over 20 of his paintings in real life, in three countries, in seven cities, stood with my nose practically setting off the museum alarms.  Some people have their lifetime birding lists, I have my lifetime Vermeer list. There are only about 36 paintings believed to be by Vermeer, still in existence. There are no sketches to be found.  There are no crayon drawings that Vermeer’s mother would have taped to the icebox.

There are only the 36 absolutely transcendent paintings, for all the world to wonder at and admire.

Tim Jenison wonders too. He wonders how Vermeer “did it.” Unlike many painters who work in the traditional realist genre, Mr. Jenison believes that Vermeer must have had a device or a “gimmick” to make these amazing paintings.

Over the years there has been speculation about the use of the camera obscura, an early forerunner of the camera and modern day photography. Vermeer may very well have used such a device.  But any artist who has ever used any projection system, knows that just because you can trace the lines onto a canvas from projecting a sketch or photograph, that this merely gives you a little short cut in the process of getting your sketch on the canvas.  Then the real work begins.

Tim Jenison did some pretty cool things in service to his quest.  He built a room with the same windows, floor tiles, and proportions as appeared in many of Vermeer’s paintings. (He had to make the windows from scratch, since they no longer existed in the world.) He also learned to grind his own pigments, make his own lenses, and recreate costumes that Vermeer’s models wore. I would love to have Vermeer’s room recreated in my studio. I mean, how cool would that be?

Jenison traveled the world to look at Vermeer’s paintings.  He talked to experts and painters, and art historians.

He hypothesizes that Vermeer needed something beyond the camera obscura to create his paintings.  His theory is that Vermeer used a system of lenses and mirrors to recreate the exact color and value he saw as he translated from subject to his painting.

But it all falls apart for me in his conclusions.  Jenison makes several assumptions that I believe are false.  The first is that “no one could be that good.”  I disagree heartily on that count.  I have seen many paintings by painters both contemporary and long dead who are “that good.”

There is another problem with the lens and mirror theory. As a painter works on a painting, they make decisions as they go. These choices have less to do with what is in front of them in real life, and more to do what is happening on the canvas.  Any painter that has tried to use the excuse in art school, “but that’s what it looks like,” will be soundly smacked upside the head by their professor.  In the end, reality is merely one step on the path one travels to get where the painting is going.

Anne Belov: Woman in a Blue Dress


When I do a painting, I start with an image in front of me, but by the time I am done, I have made countless decisions, corrections, and adjustments to the color, value, and even composition to make the painting appear more real than reality.  These are decisions that are born of experience, not replicated with a gimmick.

I also had quibbles with what appeared to be watercolor brushes that Jenison was using with oil paints, and that he was goobering paint onto the canvas.  He was only interested in matching the color and value of what he saw in his mirror/lens system.

He made statements about what the eye can see, as opposed to what a camera can see.  I think that he has it backwards. Most people are conditioned to see what they think they see, not the subtleties of what is really there. One of my graduate school professors used to say, “Belov, don’t paint a wall like you are painting a wall.” He meant that even if a wall is, in reality, a flat color, because of how the light hits it, it is going to change in color, value and intensity as your eye moves from one part of it to another.

In conclusion, I applaud Tim Jenison’s desire to examine how Vermeer might have created those exquisite paintings.  Any interest in painting is a good thing.  I hope painters (those that are still interested in painting and not just doodling on their ipads) will go and see Tim’s Vermeer and start their own conversations about painting’s past and future. Despite any reports to the contrary, painting is far from dead.

Anne Belov is a painter, printmaker, cartoonist and author/illustrator.  She has published four books of the collected cartoons of The Panda Chronicles from the blog of the same name. Her wordless picture book, Pandamorphosis, will be published this summer. Paintings can be seen at The Rob Schouten Gallery and on her painting blog Nothing Overlooked. She also writes regularly for Whidbey Life Magazine. She lives in the Pacific Northwest where, alas, there are no paintings by Vermeer. 

Featured image (top image): Woman in Blue Reading a Letter, Johannes Vermeer, about 1663–64. Oil on canvas, 18 5/16 x 15 3/8 in. (49.6 x 40.3 cm). Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Bottom image: Anne’s Vermeer: by Anne Belov, after Vermeer

3 thoughts on “Really, Tim? A Painter’s Point of View on Tim’s Vermeer

  1. I thought the movie was very interesting. Tim is only copying a Vermeer. As he repeatedly comments, he is not making artistic judgments. My 2 gripes are that 1, I cannot see the two paintings side by side, and 2, if that’s how Vermeer worked, how do we account for his view of Delft?

  2. Hi Anne, I’m an artist. I was curious about the movie, and I really liked your review.
    Your analysis of Tim Jenison’s process and results reminded me of a story that someone once told me. He was a competitive runner during both Track and Cross Country seasons in his high school and college. He was (and is) also not tall. One spring, a tall young man without running experience was on his team. He wasn’t a very fast runner, and he wasn’t getting better. Frustrated, he complained to my friend, “I don’t understand. I start out with you and I match every step that you take. But every time, I fall behind. It doesn’t make sense. I’m taller than you.”
    There’s no accounting for talent. I think that the movie Amadeus hit some of the same ground. If you don’t have it, or possess just pieces of it, it can be impossible to understand why the rest just isn’t there. I have a feeling that Jenison may have hit that wall, and thought that he could climb over it with technical skill. When that didn’t work, it became obvious (to him) that Vermeer was up to some kind of sorcery.

  3. There were several other aspects that Tim discovered that I found were interesting. For example, he inadvertently painted a curvature in the virginal the young lady is playing in the painting. Vermeer had a similar curvature. This very well could have been caused by a lens aberration. Also, there were examples of objects in other Vermeer paintings where objects were painted out of focus.

    I don’t seem to understand the affront some artists have to their art because an artist centuries ago used ‘technology’ to help them. I am not an artist, but I certainly appreciate art. Van Gogh used various devices to help him with perspective. I know artist that use color charts and photographs.

    Photographers for years have used techniques beyond the negative to improve the photograph.

    To wrap up my point. I believe Tim hadn’t painted anything other than a wall before his project. Anyone who watched the documentary saw the results. This very point should cause any critic serious pause.

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