Movie shows how Vermeer used engineering to paint perfection

Girl with a Pearl Earring. All 35 Vermeers known to exist are painted in this level of detail.Recently at Cleveland Museum of Art, I bumped into an old Penton Media colleague, Juan Quirarte.  Sidenote here: If you ever visit Cleveland, prioritize a trip to the city's art museum over the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. It's free but world-class, and even folks that don't like fine art will love the armor-and-weapons collection.

Anyway, Juan had just left the museum's theater, showing Tim's Vermeer — a movie he told us engineers might like.  He's right: I loved it and you will, too.

The movie is by inventor Tim Jenison and his friend Penn Jillette (the Vegas magician) who directs. It shows how Jenison works more than eight years to accurately recreate the art of 17th-Century Dutch Johannes Vermeer, the painter of such highly realistic Masters as Girl with a Pearl Earring and The Concert. Not only that, but Jenison uses all the tech-based techniques Vermeer used — with heavy reliance on a camera obscura.

Cameras obscura are totally enclosed thin-walled boxes with holes on opposing walls. Light travels in straight lines from the scene being painted through a small hole, cross, and project through the opposing hole as an upside-down image on any surface put in front of it.

With this device, Vermeer captured scenes with the shimmer and accuracy of a snapshot ... 150 years before photography.

In fact, other researchers agree that Vermeer probably used optics during painting. In 2001, architect Philip Steadman published Vermeer’s Camera, detailing the evidence that the artist's work relied on images through a camera obscura. Steadman argues that Vermeer also used a technique called reverse perspective, a permutation on this type of painting.

True to the typical artist's fate, Vermeer and his engineering-based work only became famous 200 years after his death.

Tim's Vermeer is in arthouse theaters now, or can be streamed from several online services.

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Elisabeth Eitel

Elisabeth is Senior Editor of Machine Design magazine. She has a B.S. in Mechanical Engineering from Fenn College at Cleveland State University. Over the last decade, Elisabeth has worked as a...
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