Issue: Volume: 25 Issue: 5 (May 2002)

Art appreciation

By Karen Moltenbrey

Images courtesy Interface Media Group.

The works of Johannes Vermeer, a seventeenth-century Dutch painter, have captivated and intrigued viewers with their masterful depictions of everyday life-a woman reading a letter, a maiden pouring milk, a woman playing a musical instrument. Yet, unlike their themes, the creations are complex and calculated to the finest detail. To illustrate the techniques that make Vermeer's paintings so special, digital artists recently used twenty-first century computer-generated imagery, bringing the master painter's works to life for the PBS documentary Vermeer: Master of Light.

While working within a high-resolution, digital palette, the team at Interface Media Group (Washington, DC) helped shed new light on Vermeer's paintings and techniques. "On the computer, we could zoom in close and see things that were not visible before," says Jeff Weingarten, vice president of creative services at Interface.

Interface provided a range of effects for the one-hour special that enabled viewers not only to see the paintings, but to "experience" them from Vermeer's perspective. "The works in our collection became a primary window through which we embarked on a visual pilgrimage in search of what makes a Vermeer a Vermeer," says director Joseph Krakora, executive officer at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. "The digital tools enabled us to take that journey."
Digital artists at Interface Media Group used computer-generated imaging and magnification to virtually re-create Vermeer's The Music Lesson (above) for a documentary that examines the painter's unique techniques. The animators used wireframe imag

People's fascination with Vermeer's paintings lies in the ways the artist mixed light, color, proportion, and scale to enhance the mood of the subjects that appear on the canvases. His compositions were mathematically precise, and the characters and objects were bathed in cool, pearlescent light, usually from a window on the left side of the scene. While at first glance the pieces appear realistic in their representation, a closer look shows that Vermeer did not paint exactly what he saw. Rather, he contrived the scenes to intensify the psychological power of the works.

"The control that Vermeer exercised in his work was not always obvious when viewing a painting, but became apparent in the digital models, which were parallel versions of the originals," says Weingarten.

Vermeer's manipulation of light, perspective, and placement is most evident in The Music Lesson, which features a young woman seated facing forward at a virginal (a type of spinet), with a man standing beside the instrument watching her play. So that Vermeer's painterly style could be better explained in the film, animator Carol Hilliard re-created a 3D version of the work in painstaking detail. To preserve the integrity of the masterpiece, the gallery used a Howtech D400 drum scanner to generate a high-resolution scan, which Hilliard imported into Alias|Wavefront's Maya running on an Intergraph TDZ workstation. She used the imagery as a guideline for placing and scaling virtual replicas of the objects in the scene-from the windows, floor, table and chairs, to the virginal and mirror. For added realism, Hilliard copied the colors and textures from the 160mb scan using Adobe Systems' Photoshop, and applied them to the Maya models.
Digital artists replicated The Music Lesson in 3D (left), then re-created the scene as Vermeer had originally painted it (right), using infrared scans of the painting as guides. The figures were originally positioned so that the woman's face was rotat

Once Hilliard had replicated the room from The Music Lesson, she then re-created the scene as Vermeer originally painted it, which is different from the final masterpiece that now hangs in the Queen's Collection in Windsor Castle. Previous infrared scans by the gallery reveal that Vermeer had originally painted the figures so that the man was leaning closer to the woman. A clue to this original setup can be seen in the mirror hanging directly above the virginal in the painting, which shows the woman's head turned to the side as she gazes at the man. Curiously, Vermeer never repainted the mirror to reflect the position changes of the characters in this portion of the painting.

For the documentary, Hilliard animated the character models by moving them between the two different poses. "This brought the painting to life, and made it easier for the audience to see how the new positioning affected the overall look of the work," she explains.
The team used high-resolution scans of the painting as guidelines for building and placing identical 3D objects while replicating each scene. The artists copied textures from the scans and applied them to the models.

When raytracing the scene in Maya, Hilliard made an intriguing discovery-the mirror never reflected the woman's face, as it does in the painting. "The mirror was actually reflecting the ceiling," she says. "I had to keep tilting it downward until it was at 35 degrees, which would have been a ridiculous angle to hang a mirror." Hilliard retested the reflections to ensure that the virtual setup was correct. "You wouldn't have necessarily noticed this by looking at the painting, but it became clear inside the virtual environment."

Hilliard also used the virtual environment to illustrate how Vermeer manipulated the light and distorted the shadows in his paintings, particularly in The Music Lesson, to produce a more dramatic effect. This was accomplished by setting up extensive lighting controls in Maya, then rendering the entire scene to show how natural sunlight from the window on the left side of the painting would have bathed the room and cast shadows. "At times Vermeer eliminated or added shadows and light to intensify the scene," she adds.

Also, computer-generated perspective lines were animated on top of the objects in the paintings to show Vermeer's creative use of vanishing points. Using the high-resolution scan of The Music Lesson, the artists zoomed in to show Vermeer's pinprick in the canvas from where the vanishing point originated within the painting. "The orthogonals all lead back to the woman, and the vanishing point is on her sleeve," explains Hilliard. "We showed how, if you follow all the edges of all the objects in the room, they recede back to the woman, who is the main focus of the composition. Even the tiles on the floor recede to her."

Tony Black, editor and senior consultant, collaborated with Weingarten on creating extreme close-up explorations of Vermeer's work. By importing the high-resolution scans of Vermeer's paintings into Discreet's Inferno and creating camera moves inside the compositing software, the team could zoom in on tiny details in the paintings that otherwise could not be seen. "The detail in the scans was amazing, and we could see things very clearly, even when they were magnified 1000 times," adds Weingarten. "We had a view of each painting that you could never get in a museum. Even the sand particles that Vermeer added in the paint texture he used for rooftops in View of Delft were now visible."
By using lighting controls in Maya, the animators lit their virtual scene to illustrate how Vermeer manipulated light and shadows in his works to intensify the overall appearance of his paintings.

Adds Black: "To see the softness of Vermeer's edges, his melody of color and light, and his delicate layer of glazes was extraordinary."

Once the animations were complete, the team edited and composited them into the live-action footage using Discreet's Inferno and Fire running on an SGI Onyx 2 workstation. Rough-cuts of the segments were previewed in Adobe's After Effects. Last, the group color-corrected the segment using da vinci's Color Correction software after they viewed trial screenings at the National Gallery's theater to ensure that the quality of the paintings were retained.

Pleased with the results of the Vermeer documentary, the National Gallery is again teaming up with Interface for an interactive multimedia film project, Empire of the Eye, that will use digital technology to take an in-depth look at the visual revolution of the Renaissance.

"Today's technology is an exceptional tool for looking at extraordinary works of art in new ways and for helping us see things we've never seen before," says Krakora.

Karen Moltenbrey is a senior associate editor for Computer Graphics World.