Soft Focus

Can You Paint Like Johannes Vermeer, Too?

A brilliant documentary, directed by Teller of Penn & Teller fame, chronicles a 5-year quest to solve a 350-year-old mystery.

Tim Jenison/Sony Pictures Classics

What if you could paint like Johannes Vermeer? What if everyone could? How would that transform our beliefs about artistic genius?

Those are the questions at the heart of the brilliant new documentary Tim’s Vermeer, which was released Friday in New York and was just shortlisted for an Academy Award. (It opens in L.A. on Dec. 13 and nationwide on Jan. 31.) Directed by Teller, the silent half of the legendary Penn & Teller magic team, Tim’s Vermeer tells the story of a tech geek named Tim Jenison who embarks on a quixotic 5-year-long quest to solve the 350-year-old mystery of how Vermeer achieved the unparalleled light effects that made him one of the most revered and unfathomable painters of all time—and to try to achieve the same effects himself, even though he doesn’t really know how to paint.

Experts have long theorized that the 17th century Dutch master relied on some sort of optical technology—a camera obscura, perhaps—to create his enigmatic yet photorealistic scenes of middle-class life because the unaided human eye is unable to register the shifts in light that he so meticulously reproduced on his canvases. In fact, British painter David Hockney wrote an entire book, Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters, on the subject. But when Jenison, the founder of a groundbreaking visual imaging company called NewTek, began to tinker with the kind of devices Hockney describes in his book, he quickly discovered that they were relatively blunt instruments that could never help anyone capture the subtleties of color and tonality that define Vermeer’s work.

So Jenison invented a device that would. Part camera obscura, part shaving mirror, Jenison’s optical innovation was designed to allow him to sit at a table with oil paints and a canvas and laboriously match the precise colors of an projected image—a photograph, a tableau arranged on the other side of the room—one “pixel” at a time. After he managed on his first attempt at painting with the device—which was his first real attempt at painting, full stop—to produce a photorealistic image of his father-in-law’s high-school yearbook portrait, Jenison decided to attempt a grander experiment: recreating Vermeer’s hyperdetailed The Music Lesson in a warehouse in San Antonio, Texas.

Tim’s Vermeer is all about what came next: the trials, the tribulations, the months of (somehow thrilling) tedium. I won’t give away too much, but suffice it to say that painting a Vermeer is not a cakewalk. (For example: Jenison had to handcraft every single detail in Vermeer’s original image—the chair, the viola di gamba, the clothing, even the rafters—in order to position them, as Vermeer did, on the other side of his studio.)

To discuss whether Jenison succeeded—and to delve into the deeper questions about artistic genius that Tim’s Vermeer so skillfully raises—I dialed up Teller in Las Vegas. I was glad to find that, off-stage, he has no trouble speaking at all.

How did you discover and decide to make a film about Tim Jenison’s quest to paint a Vermeer?

Penn and I had been performing in Las Vegas for about 15 years. Penn had gotten married and had a couple of small children. One evening about five years ago, Penn said to himself, “You know what? When I lived in New York I had friends who I’d go out with and we’d talk ‘til 3 in the morning. Now all of sudden the only people I talk to are my wife, toddlers, and Teller. I’d love to have a really adult conversation. I really miss that.” He wrote that to Tim Jenison, an inventor and a tech geek whom we’d known since the 1980s, and said, “You couldn’t just come out here and talk to me, could you? You come from such a different world. I’d just like to talk to somebody about something other than show business.”

So Tim got on a plane and flew out. They went to one of those Brazilian steakhouses where they serve you mountains of meat. Penn said, “Tell me about something I don’t know anything about.” And Tim said, “Well, how much do you know about Vermeer?” So Tim began to tell Penn how his daughter had given him a copy of David Hockney’s book Secret Knowledge, and that had sort of chimed in with something Tim had suspected for a long time. Even in a high school class, when he would see a Vermeer, he would always say, “That doesn’t look like a painting. That looks like a photograph.” And that had been haunting him all those years.

The more expert he became at looking at video images, the more he became convinced that Vermeer must have had some sort of technique for doing that. Something beyond just the idea that some genius walks up to a canvas and waves a brush and things appear on the canvas. So they’re sitting there at this Brazilian steakhouse, and Tim, being a geeky guy, takes his video camera off his belt and shows Penn the footage of his first experiment making a very, very photographically accurate copy of his father-in-law’s high school graduation picture.

And that painting is in the movie.

That’s in the movie. So Penn says, “Wow, that’s amazing! What are you going to do with that?” And Tim says, “Well, I think I’m going to experiment with it. I’m going to see if I can paint a Vermeer. Maybe I’ll do something with it like make a YouTube video or write a paper. And Penn said, “Stop! Don’t do another thing! This is a film!” So Penn’s vain attempt to get away from show business for one evening came to an end, and this film began. It was Penn’s vision that this experiment might change art history, and might be one of the most intense visual things you could ever see in a movie theater.

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So what drew you into Tim’s experiment?

There are several things in my background and character that made this the perfect thing for me. I grew up in a household where both my parents were artists. They went to art school. My father was a commercial artist. They both painted. There was always an art studio on the top floor of my house. So the challenges of painting with oils have been in my sights for a long time.

And then, of course, I’m a magician, and magicians love optical principles. One of the most essential optical principles is that of the 45-degree mirror. It’s called Mirror Masking, and very often if you see a cabinet trick on stage in which there’s a box, and you open doors on the front of the box and it looks empty, and then seconds later they close the box and open it again and now it’s full of assistants, those people were probably being hidden by carefully placed 45-degree-angle mirrors. It’s a principle that was developed in the 19th century, when large pieces of plate-glass mirror became available.

So the two essential things—painting and a 45-degree-angle mirror—are right in my blood.

At the risk of spoiling the end of the movie for readers, but the title is accurate—Tim paints a Vermeer. It looks incredible. In the film, Tim says he is 90 percent convinced that Vermeer used a device like his. Are you convinced?

I’m a little more convinced now, and I think Tim is as well. After the movie was completed … Tim had made friends with the people in the Queen’s collection. Tim made an offer to them. He said, “I will be happy to pay for a really detailed scan of the original painting if you’re willing to permit it.” After much hemming and hawing—because everything moves slowly in the palace—they said yes. We weren’t allowed to use the scan in the film, but Tim did get this very detailed scan, and he found more evidence in that scan of distortions that were likely caused by Vermeer using an optical device.

In the film, you show Tim discovering one of these distortions: the Seahorse Smile.

That’s a really powerful piece of evidence. The Vermeer painting is less perfect than it looks because of a distortion that seems to be exactly the same distortion that Tim almost fell victim to using his own device.

It’s a curvature on the horizontal lines of the harpsichord-like instrument at which the young woman—the pupil of The Music Lesson—is seated.

Right. Tim’s device ultimately uses a concave mirror—sort of a shaving mirror—as the projection surface, so to speak. And a concave mirror does produce some distortions, and that was the source of the potential distortion in Tim’s painting.

After we shot the film, Tim found repetitions of the Seahorse Smile elsewhere in the painting. The fact that there are several more of that kind of distortion in Vermeer’s painting suggests that, at least when Vermeer got to the level of matching the exact details, he must have been using, if not Tim’s device, then one awfully similar. So I think Tim is probably about 95 percent sure Vermeer was using a device like his—a device that relied on the same principle.

David Hockney appears in the film, and he seems pretty convinced that Vermeer used a device like Tim’s, too. Was Hockney hard to get—and were you surprised by his reaction?

I wasn’t surprised by his reaction, but he was hard to get. We pulled every string we could for nigh on a year and a half. We gradually pushed and shoved and pulled and pushed. Eventually Hockney invited us to his place in Bridlington, and Tim and Hockney set next to each other at lunch. They began to talk. And within ten minutes they recognized each other as brothers.

After lunch, Tim said, “Would you like to see my invention?” And Hockney said, “Oh yes, indeed.” He was jubilant. This is a vindication for him. Hockney and Philip Steadman, the English architecture professor, had taken the world so far as to say, “People like Vermeer were definitely using technology.” But neither Hockney nor Steadman had the final piece of the puzzle. The contraptions they knew about, what they would allow you to do is make outlines—nice outlines—of the sections of the painting. But they wouldn’t allow you to match the tones the way Tim’s device does. So Tim’s was the missing link. For Hockney to have the missing link presented to him there in his atelier was a real thrill for him.

Throughout the film, Tim keeps saying he has no artistic talent. Is that true?

Yes. Tim had no experience at all as a painter. So he was really using a paintbrush for the first time in his life.

Did you try Tim’s device? Could you do what he was doing?

Yeah, I did. It’s a weird experience. In the film, Steadman says. “It turns you into a machine.” And that’s exactly what it does. You get into this really brainless contemplative state where you’re staring at the edge of the mirror, then looking at the subject, then at the painting, then moving your head back and forth like a bird and testing the one color against the other color. You really drop off the face of the earth. It’s a strange, almost meditative state that you get into.

And the painting you produced had the same Vermeer quality to it?

It did. What I was copying was that same high school photograph of Tim’s father-in-law—just trying to do a copy of that. And I did just a portion of it and was amazed by the results.

Doesn’t that seem to suggest that Vermeer’s style was a product of technology, and that anyone who uses Tim’s technology will paint “like” Vermeer?

We don’t know what this method is going to do in the future. I think Tim is probably, eventually, going to put it out in kits for artists to work with. It might inspire all sorts of things. Tim said to me, “What if someone took a picture on their iPad and then used this method to turn iPad luminescence into oil paint?” This opens up a whole new world.

That said, there’s something I noticed when Tim was making his painting. Tim had arranged the hair of the guy who’s standing to the right of the harpsichord, and Tim didn’t do as good a job as Vermeer did. He’s not going to have the exquisite taste to lay the hair in an exact way that allows it to articulate against the back wall the way Vermeer did.

It’s pretty obvious that Vermeer set up these scenes and then spent forever composing them so that the final effect, when translated to paint, would be as astounding as they are. When you stand in front of the best Vermeers, the effect is just jaw-dropping, and the effect is jaw-dropping not just because the representation of light is accurate, but because the idea—the image that’s being put into your brain—is stunning.

Let’s assume Vermeer did use a device like Tim’s. Some people would say the fact that he had to rely on optical technology to achieve these realistic effects in his paintings diminishes him an artist.

I think the only people who are inclined to argue that way are academics and old hippies. Because old hippies undoubtedly dislike the idea that someone would be really smart and work hard to get an effect, and academics don’t have to earn a living doing painting. If you’re somebody who just pontificates about the art of the past, you don’t have to think about practical matters. You don’t have to think about how you produce this painting with such a level of accuracy that it’s going to sell for a very high price and feed your family. If you’re an academic you have lots of time to think about woofty things like, “This would be cheating!”

Oh come now! Talk to any artist and they will say, “I use whatever means I need to get the effect that I want, because the idea is to put what’s in my head and my heart into the head and heart of the person who’s viewing this painting. Whatever I have to do to accomplish that is perfectly fine.”

We’re not talking about football or soccer where part of the fun of it is that there are rules restricting how you get from one step to the next. There are no such rules in art. Can you imagine if Steven Spielberg and George Lucas had photograph real aliens? It’s crazy.

This brings up a fascinating point, which is what I think the movie is all about: the nature of artistic genius. Penn has that great quote in the film about how Vermeer was an unfathomable genius before, and now he’s a fathomable genius. But I wonder: if Vermeer couldn’t actually paint the way he painted without the aid of an optical device, what is the nature of his genius? Is it the compositions? The concepts? Because the execution seems to just be a matter of persistence and technology.

You have to put the whole package together, and when you do, it’s staggering. Think about thinking about the kind of effect that Vermeer created—just that leap is enormous. Remember, Vermeer didn’t have photographs to look at. Vermeer couldn’t sit around and page through Irving Penn’s portraits.

But Vermeer did have the camera obscura to refer to. And the idea of looking at that saying, “I wonder if I can create a painting as accurate as that—that gives that kind of view of the world—that’s a huge leap.

Now, he’s not the only photorealistic painter of his day. But he’s vastly the best. And that’s the next step. Now that you’ve got in your head the idea of doing a painting that looks like a photograph when you’ve never seen a photograph, you have to think about what kind of picture you’re going to create that will move us—that will stick in our heads for hundreds of years, as they have. The whole thing is enormous.

Another part of Vermeer’s genius, then—assuming he used a device like Tim’s—was seizing on technology to achieve that vision. Finding a way to actually make his vision a reality. That required some ingenuity.

There are umpteen steps to getting this technique right. This is not a technique that you could just pull out of the box and say, “Oh, I’ll just paint a perfect Vermeer right now.” It’s a lot of fucking work. And it’s a lot of fucking intelligent ingenuity.

You see in the film that it’s not a walk in the park. It’s isn’t a big timesaver. Rembrandt turned out thousands of paintings. Vermeer turned out a handful, so far as we know. Thirty-some. So it’s an incredibly labor intensive process.

Again, assuming that Vermeer did use a device like Tim’s, how does this change our idea of Vermeer? Who was he before? Who is he now?

I’m not a believer in supernatural forces, and I’m a great lover of human achievement. And Vermeer had for many centuries a reputation of being some kind of god-like figure who could somehow do what no other human being has ever done, which is to get that absolute convincing accuracy in his depiction of brightness and darkness—in light.

There was a whole school of academics, and there are still a few who maintain this point of view, who say that Vermeer was just an inexplicable genius. They’re substituting the word genius for god, right? The word genius is what you say when you don’t have any other word that can possibly describe how good something is. And the idea that Tim might be discovering that Vermeer was a human being—a human being with a fabulous compositional eye… and I mean really fabulous, as in incomparable—who either worked out for himself, or refined, or utilized this very difficult optical technique—that really appealed to me. It really appealed to me that maybe Vermeer was not some supernatural being, but rather an intelligent, hardworking person with a great set of ideas. That’s a transformation that profoundly interests me.


It makes Vermeer someone I can admire, and somebody who can inspire. Nobody is inspired by a god.

Because what a god does is by definition impossible for a human being to do.

Right. A god is an enviable creature who is more than you could ever be. But a great human being—a human being who has used every resource at his disposal to do something extraordinary—that is inspiring.

Do you think Vermeer was someone like Tim? Do you think they’re kindred spirits?

[Laughs] I think in some regards they are. There are certain character traits that Vermeer would have had to have in order to do paintings of this level of detail and accuracy. One of those is an obsessive persistence—and that’s something Tim certainly has. If Vermeer invented this device—and that’s certainly possible—then he was very much like Tim.

You look at Rembrandts and you see brushstrokes. You look at Van Goghs and you see brushstrokes. You look at Vermeers and you never seen brushstrokes. Because what he cares about is that image. He cares about getting that image exactly right.