8. Workshop matters, Painters’ Supplies, Palette, The fijnschilder style versus the loose style, fourteen Qualities listed by Philips Angel.


Part of an essay on Vermeer, brain channels, neural stimulus, visual perception and art appreciation

A 20,000-word essay on the interface between the fields of Vermeer, Art History and cognitive science, neuroscience and neuresthetics

written by Vermeer specialist, art historian Drs. Kees Kaldenbach, Amsterdam.


1) Foreword
2) Introduction and terminology. houding, perception of reality, realism, illusionism and trompe l’oeil
3) Understanding Vermeer’s Perception of Reality; a Discussion of Characteristics
4) Brain and colour
5) Form as registered by the brain
6) Facial recognition, depth, movement, fine vs broad
7) Using this knowledge in studying and appreciating Vermeer
8) Workshop matters, Painters’ Supplies, Palette, The fijnschilder style versus the loose style, fourteen Qualities listed by Philips Angel
9) Naturalness, enticing the viewers
10) Delft artists influencing Vermeer
11) Vermeers Early, Middle, Late period. Camera Obscura
12) Vermeer’s World of Interiors: a Reality or a Construction
13) Landmark Vermeer literature (in print on paper form)
14) Digital Art History Studies and Presentations on Questions - on Perception of Reality in Vermeer Paintings
15) External CD-Rom, DVD, film material on Vermeer
16) Selected Bibliography

Updated June 9, 2016. Updated 15 February 2017.

3.3.2. Workshop matters

Vermeer was not only a supreme painter in an aesthetic sense but also a fine craftsman, who worked within the time-honoured practices of masters of his guild and whose material legacy has come down more or less intact for some 340 years.
Workshop practices in the Dutch 17th century Republic were largely based on those of earlier Flemish art, safeguarding a high-level of craftsmanship and durability of both support and oil paints. Both the artists’ training and the high quality of the materials used and their proper application guaranteed the durability of the painting. Dutch painters worked almost exclusively for the open art market and paintings were bought both for pleasure and as an investment.[1]
After having received some 6 years of training in the master’s workshop a Dutch painter could bring his or her personal style and composition forward in applying paint with creativity. As a result the wide array of production of the Dutch school of painting was quite sophisticated both in the material and artistic sense.
Before attempting to discuss the formal and creative process, it seems worth wile to observe the actual daily practices and describe the set of artists’ material available to seventeenth century Dutch fine art painters. For the painter there was just a limited range of available pigments for creating the whole range of oil paint colours. Raw pigment materials could be normally bought locally but in a few larger towns there were also specialist traders in painters’ supplies.

3.3.3. Painters’ Supplies

Delft painters normally shopped for materials at their local pharmacy / apothecary / grocery[2] shop which normally could supply the basic paint shop goods. By chance we get a glimpse of a sixteenth century Delft paint shop run by Jan Lucas, visited by the painter Maarten van Heemskerck (1498-1574).[3]
In the seventeenth century a stock of specialized supplies was available some 10 miles to the south, in Rotterdam, just a short canal barge ride away, in a grocery shop run by Crijn Hendricksz. Volmarijn (circa 1601-1645) who was active in Rotterdam from 1628 onwards. The inventory of his shop is fully known to us by chance as the property register of the Rotterdam orphanage board contains a detailed description. His particular shop actually combined a regular grocery full of household goods ranging from soap, dried prunes to cheeses with an exceptionally wide array of fine art material and fine art paintings.
Master Volmarijn was a successful entrepreneur across Holland, for he also ran a shop in Dordrecht and in 1643 another shop was opened in Leiden in which he sold “prepared and unprepared colours, panels, canvas, and paintings utensils of all kinds.” [4] Upon the death of Volmarijn the Rotterdam inventory was taken, citing 306 panels, 181 frames and many paintbrushes.
In Rotterdam, master Volmarijn was succeeded by Abraham Lubbertsz van Bubbesson, a tradesman who may well have been the specialized purveyor of high quality artists materials to Vermeer.[5]

Pigments, mainly of mineral origin were sold in either powder or in crystal form. Large batches of minerals had been pre-milled on the large grindstones of a specialized paint-windmill.[6] Small batches of raw material could be ground up in a mortar either in the pharmacy shop or in the painters’ workshop. Further pigment refining was carried out either by sieving and washing in liquids or by grinding on a [porphyry?] slab and a hard grinding stone, the pigment being mixed with oils on the slab, finally scraped off and then used on the palette or kept overnight in small pouches made of animal bladders. A stone slab and a paint grinding stone are implements actually found in the attic in the Vermeer House during the inventory of 1676.

The powdered pigment was mixed with either linseed oil (in order to obtain oil paint), or with clean water and gum Arabic (for watercolour paint). Because of the wide variety of natural ingredients their individual consistency, opacity and drying characteristics varied widely and these physical characteristics all had to be taken into account consciously when mixing different colours of paints on the palette and finally on the canvas or panel. In those days the wide variety of colours of standard consistency and mixable quality, which are now commercially available in tubes, simply did not exist.[7]
Although pigments were generally of high permanence and stability - as can be seen from studying seventeenth century paintings, some pigments derived from plants proved to be chemically unstable over time.

The support material for paintings came from two specialist shops for wood, linen etc.
Wooden panels were produced by joiners or cabinet-makers, who preferred using stocks of Dutch or Baltic oak. Some types of tropical woods reached to the Republic as crate material from Latin America, protecting the costly sugar loafs which were produced over there. A successful Delft picture frame maker was Anthonij van der Wiel (1620-1693). He was also active as an ebony merchant and his (ebony?) frames were considered to be high quality and thus sold as far as The Hague and Amsterdam. Anthonij van der Wiel became Johannes Vermeer's brother in law when he married Geertruy Vermeer (1620-1670). Anthony entered the Guild as konstverkoper (painting dealer) in 1657. His position in the Delft society was underscored when he became sergeant in the Delft militia.

Linen was the other ubiquitous support material for paintings. As there was no specially woven high-quality painter’s linen, one had to use general-purpose linen canvas, which always contained some knots and some uneven structure. In exceptional cases very thin and fine linen was available on the market.[8] The common material was sold rolled up by the yard for all kinds of uses in society, be it bed linen, table linen, wrapping material or linen for painters.
Art material shops sold this linen to painters either in the raw form or ready-mades, already stretched and attached to a frame with cords or nails, primed with layers of gesso. There was even a trade in long banners of canvas, pre-stretched and primed with gesso and afterwards cut to the desired lengths. This form of prepared canvas explains why some paintings do not show canvas stretch marks in all four directions.

Brushes with lengths from 20 to 50 cm. were also available ready-made by professional brush makers. Their tips consisted of the tail hairs of ermine, sable, weasel, skunk or pig. These hairs were tied and then fixed within in hollow flight feather from geese, swans or ducks, and these tubes were finally fixed either to high quality handles made of ivory, brazil wood, or ebony – or to low cost woods.[9] Brushes were cleaned in small tanks filled with oil. When this oil got dirty. Water was poured in, the liquids were shaken and the dirt sank to the bottom of the lower layer of water, which was later removed.

3.3.4. Palette

I have not been able to trace a mid-seventeenth-century discussion or visual explanation of the distribution of various paints on the palette. The archives in Alkmaar, North-Holland do however keep the manuscript ‘Notes on the art of painting’ - “Aantekeningen over Schilderkunst”, dating from 1700 and containing a fine visual explanation by the minor painter Simon Eikelenberg (1663-1738) .[10]
He sketches a palette with a particular distribution of dots of paint. Text lines on this manuscript, reading from the top are as follows. First I give my English translation, followed by the original text in Dutch, set in round (parentheses and italics) and finally my additional comments are added in straight [brackets].

“On the palette one puts the paint as follows –
(op't Pallet leijt men de veruw Aldus:)

- ox black (Osse swart) [made from charred ox bones?]
- lamp black (Lampswart) [made either from charred wood or bones or from soot collected in chimneys]
- coal black (Koolswart)
[from left to right the text continues:]
- Umber - Dicipili, brown, still browner, yet browner ; - (Omber); [this is a greenish brown earth which turned reddish brown by burning] (Dicipili ; bruind ; noch bruijnder ; noch bruijnder) [This group may contain brown coal, from the region of Cologne / Köln, a loose earth which was simply mixed with oil].
- brown ochre (Bruijnoker) [also named ‘bruin schijt’ or ‘schietgeel’, this fading yellow is an easily fading paint, made from the Rhamnus-berry and Reseda Luteola]
- Yellow ochre (Geeloker) - [either imported from Siena, Italy, or from England, Crete, Germany].
- white – (wit) [lead white was either made locally, or imported from England. Locally it was delivered in two forms: as a powder ready to use or as rolled up strips of very thin lead, called ‘schulpen’, the resulting paint called schulpwit. These rolls oxydized when seeped in urin while being kept in a warm place. The lead white could be mixed with cheaper fillers - powdered white marble or chalk.]
- vermillion red (fermiljoen) [also called cinnabar or sinober ]
- brown red (Bruijn root)
- blue lacker (Lake)
- Carmine / Lake (Carmozij) [made from a scale insect collected in America or Asia]
- Yet redder (Wat roder)
- Some browner (Wat bruijnder).

The only blue paint present on this palette is blue lacker ; the palette shows neither the expensive colour ultramarine, which is made from ground up lapis lazuli obtained in Afghanistan, nor azurite obtained from Hungary which was actually dark blue when lightly grounded and light blue when finely grounded. Smalt, also blue in colour was also missing.

This array listed above by Eikelenberg may well have been the standard studio set for the 17th century. It took the wizardry of a trained painter to turn this group of limited natural pigments, each with its own physical properties and chemical character, into the wide array of optical effects presented on the painter’s canvas or panel.
The process of painting consists of starting with either a sketch or an under paint and combining and juxtaposing colours in the painting, adding glazes and _____________

3.4. The fijnschilder style versus the loose style

The Leiden based school of fijnschilders (smooth-style fine-art painters) in which both Gerard Dou and his pupil Frans van Mieris excelled, successfully rendered the material world in the medium of oil paint, representing all possible surface and texture qualities, capturing the texture, sheen and other light properties not only of natural materials such as stone, ceramics and wood, but also of man-made metals (brass, silver, gold) and textile objects such as woolens, linens and silks.[11] Natural tones of human skin were also depicted well – including the effect of light entering the skin and bouncing internally several times before reappearing at the surface.
In Gerard Dou’s style of painting the ultra-fine individual brush strokes have been smoothed over to create a fused continuous layer of paint in which the brush strokes have disappeared before the human naked eye. When human hair or animal fur is depicted – the individual small brush strokes are so dense and manifold that their outward appearance is utterly convincing. This technical brilliance may create a sense of awe for the sheer perfection of the art of representation of natural phenomenon.

The opposite of the first is a style celebrating loose brushwork. This style is best shown by the works of the two artists Frans Hals (1581-1666) and Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669), the latter notably in his late works like the Jewish Bride (Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam). In this rougher painterly style the paint thickness or impasto may be appreciable and sometimes even the artistic handwriting of the artist, including brush incisions in the wet paint layers may be visible. This painterly manner emphasizes the manual, creative nature of the art of painting, leaving visible traces of how the painter progressed in time, slowly constructing the work of art. For the viewer, seeing these virtuoso effects may be exhilarating rather than daunting as could be the case with the products of fijnschilder paintings. Loosely painted works may even form an enticing invitation to take up the paint brush oneself and try to copy some spectacular effects.
The loose style has an added neurological bonus. The human brain is wired for pattern recognition and seeks constancy in perception.[12] As looking at loose style paintings involves an active perception and a creative mental activity within the viewer, the translation of rough patches into a meaningful perception becomes rewarding in itself. Ernst Gombrich calls this effect the “beholders’ share” – seeing pigment turn into what it represents.[13] When one becomes used to this translation and appreciates this manner, it almost blocks a return to valuing a more ‘simple’ purely representational smooth style.
Later on we shall see how Vermeer’s work may be positioned with regards to fine versus the loose brushwork discussed here.

In print, seventeenth century Dutch painters have been tacit on the nature and quality of their own work, and preciously little of their writing has come down to our time. In 1641 however, in his hometown of Leiden, the painter Phlips Angel, also known in literature as Philips Angel, delivered a speech, which appeared in print the next year, in 1642. His mission was to advocate the foundation of a local St Luke’s Guild, the already famous Leiden school of fijnschilders being still without a central organization up to that point.[14]

With regards to the two opposed manners – that of fine painting and loose painting he expressed as his private artistic opinion that for those painters who could not reach the exquisite level of fijnschilder excellence of Gerard Dou, adopting the alternative loose style was preferable.[15] He exhorts painters not to follow a master’s example but to take the guidance of nature, advocating painting in a style-neutral way:
“But [if] he manages to imitate life in such a way that people judge that it approaches real life without being able to detect in it the manner of the master who made it, such a spirit deserves praise and honor and shall be ranked above others.”[16]

On the subject of natural imitation he writes:
“Let us […] choose that which brings the most praise, seeking nature, which is so abundant in its diversity that if one imitates it naturally it will be impossible to say who made the work.”[17]

3.5. Fourteen Qualities listed by Philips Angel

Philips Angel’s treatise is quite useful as it gives both a contemporary art theory and paragraphs on art practice. He lists a good number of craftsmanship requirements for a fine art painter. According to Angel, the painter, should possess the following fourteen qualities in order to overcome the gravest professional errors:[18]

1) a healthy judgment of one’s personal design - for the sake of our art he should only borrow a style from another master if that particular style fits in with his own [recht oordeel – ten dienste van onse Konst].
2) a confident and steady drawing hand [seeckeren en ghewisse Teyken hant].
3) a fluent mind, able to combine and compose naturally [een vloeyende ende eyghentlijcke by een voeghende gheest].
4) the talent to imagine decorative riches and embellishments [aerdigh-verçierende Rijckelijckheydt] so that paintings may be coveted by the enthused eyes of the art lover [soo datse met een wensch-begheerte, het oogh der Lief-hebberen tot haer dinghen verrucken].
5) good design of light and shadow, arranged in groups at the right places – to give such magic power [wel schicken van dagen en schaduwen – gheven sulcken tooverachtige kracht].
6) good observation of actual natural phenomena - such as a fast moving wagon wheels or spinning wheels in which no single spokes can be seen. [Three full pages of text are devoted to this particular point].
7) a well-practiced understanding of perspective, also choosing correct horizon lines.
8) knowledge of histories from the bible and antiquity, noticing their correct physical setting by close reading of the original text in order to avoid sloppy carelessness [slordige nalaticheyt].

(The actual numbering of points is discontinued here by Angel, but the following major items are mentioned in his remaining text)

9) Knowledge of mathematics, especially in portraying the sight lines [radien des ghesichts].[19]
10) Thorough knowledge of anatomy including musculature and proportion in men, women and children.[20]
11) Seeking to imitate nature rather than the works of other masters (this actually covers point number 1).[21]
12) Combining colours in paint, especially that of skin, in a natural manner.[22]
13) Distinguishing between representing silk, satin, velvet, wool and linen fabrics and the effects of their sheen, being draped and folded.[23]
14) All of this requiring a lively brush, with neatness such as that of Gerard Dou, and if that is unattainable, with looseness. Painters should attempt to get a free, alive, sweet-flowing brush, rather than to get smothered in a stiff neat manner.[24]

After this final text Angel finishes off his arguments by citing the great honour reaped by painters from antiquity.

The full Angel book has been published by Kaldenbach - jpg images in Dutch on the Web, see google.




[1] Michelangelo had his thoughts on the early Northern art market, Flemish art in his mind being mainly fit for woman, girls and nuns. Words by Michelangelo as reported by Francisco de Hollanda, see Alpers 1989: xxiii and 223.
[2] In Dutch: kruydenierij.
[3] Houbraken 1753, book 2: 33.
[4] Hale 1937: 56.
[5] Henny 1995: 48.
[6] A working windmill for grinding paint material is at Zaanse Schans open air museum, at Zaanstad / Zaandam, The Netherlands.
[7] Henny 1994: 43-44.
[8] Houbraken1753, book 2:37-38.
[9] Henny 1994: 44.
[10] Regionaal Archief Alkmaar, North Holland, acquisitions collection nrs. 390-394. For an article on the Simon Eikelenbergs palette - see _____________ by Margriet van Eikema Hommes in: Hartwig [_________title/year?] page 96.
Wetering, v.d. YEAR?: 132ff.
Also note Pey YEAR?.
[11] Hecht 1989: 76 discusses the influence of Van Mieris on Vermeer.
[12] Zeki 1999.
[13] Gaskell 2000:100.
[14] Angel 1642: 227-258.
[15] Angel 1642: 56.
[16] Angel, 1642: 53-16 ; english translation from Simiolus 24 (1996), 248.
[17] Angel, 1642: 54; english translation from Simiolus 24 (1996), 248.
[18] Sluyter in Franits 1997, note 29 citing Philip Angel Lof der Schilder-konst, Leiden 1642. I have consulted both the facsimile and the complete English translation is in Simiolus 24 (1996), 227-258.
[19] Angel 1642: 51.
[20] Angel 1642: 52.
[21] Angel 1642: 54.
[22] Angel 1642: 54.
[23] Angel 1642: 55.
[24] Angel 1642: 56.


1) Foreword
2) Introduction and terminology. houding, perception of reality, realism, illusionism and trompe l’oeil
3) Understanding Vermeer’s Perception of Reality; a Discussion of Characteristics
4) Brain and colour
5) Form as registered by the brain
6) Facial recognition, depth, movement, fine vs broad
7) Using this knowledge in studying and appreciating Vermeer
8) Workshop matters, Painters’ Supplies, Palette, The fijnschilder style versus the loose style, fourteen Qualities listed by Philips Angel
9) Naturalness, enticing the viewers
10) Delft artists influencing Vermeer
11) Vermeers Early, Middle, Late period. Camera Obscura
12) Vermeer’s World of Interiors: a Reality or a Construction
13) Landmark Vermeer literature (in print on paper form)
14) Digital Art History Studies and Presentations on Questions - on Perception of Reality in Vermeer Paintings
15) External CD-Rom, DVD, film material on Vermeer
16) Selected Bibliography

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Written 2002-2003. Published online, July 17, 2011. Updated July 17, 2011.


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