Art Historian
Issue: Volume 37 Issue 5: (Sep/Oct 2014)

Art Historian

Tim Jenison is many things, but a painter he is not.

While Jenison is well versed in computer graphics, his art experience is limited to a class he took in high school. Yet recently, he was able to paint a masterpiece - in a manner of speaking. He was putting a theory to the test, that Johannes Vermeer did in fact use some kind of instrumentation when painting such works as The Milkmaid, The Astronomer, and The Music Lesson. And it appears that Jenison just may have solved one of the art world's greatest mysteries, using LightWave 3D in his processes that led to that conclusion.

Vermeer was a painter like no other in the 1600s. Even today, art critics and observers alike marvel and speculate at the Dutch master's ability to capture his subjects in photo­realistic detail, creating a world on canvas that was more perfect than the naked eye can see.

Did vermeer use a special optical system to paint the music lesson (inset)? Tim jenison believes so, and used such a device to replicate the famous work, shown here.

Some believe Vermeer used a camera obscura (a darkened enclosure with a lens mounted on the side) to paint his subjects, which would explain why many of his paintings were set within the same two rooms of his home. However, no proof of this has ever been uncovered. A book on the subject piqued the interest of NewTek's founder, an inventor/entrepreneur/engineer, who decided to look at this debate through a different type of lens, literally. After testing his theory, with LightWave 3D at the heart of his experimentation, Jenison just may have solved this centuries-old puzzle.

Jenison's theory and processes were documented as they played out live and later became the subject matter for the 2013 feature documentary Tim's Vermeer, which is now available on DVD and Blu-ray.

Forming a Hypothesis

Vermeer's work focused on domestic middle-class Dutch life and often featured a woman performing everyday activities from a small room in his house in Delft, with many of the same objects and decorations present in various arrangements in each painting. A large window is situated on the left side of the room, with a large back wall usually behind the subjects, who are positioned near the window in each tableau.

Jenison is particularly familiar with television lighting, and from experience knows that the human eye is very poor at accurately discerning varying gradients on a large, white/beige flat area, like the back wall in Vermeer's paintings. "It's like video compression. The retina squeezes a lot of information down the optic nerve, so you lose a sense of absolute brightness from the compression," he explains. Thus, we can determine variations of light and dark on a white wall, but we cannot see them accurately. But, Vermeer painted them accurately. "He nailed it every single time he painted one of these walls, and none of his contemporaries did,"  he adds. That is why Jenison believed Vermeer may have used some type of instrumentation to aid in his painting.

"I was immediately drawn to the gradient on the wall, which ranges from very bright against the windows to very dark against the far corner," Jenison recalls after visiting the Rijks­museum in Amsterdam and viewing some of Vermeer's work on display there. But, the variations were more apparent in a small reproduction he saw in a book, attributing his background in graphics as the reason he noticed this. "Vermeer painted the wall accurately and no one else really painted like that because no one else could see it like that. Vermeer's paintings look like photographs. It seemed he had figured out a way to paint on top of a projection, at least that was my hunch."

Jenison tests his theory by painting a photograph using mirrors before tackling the vermeer.

For more than a century people have commented on the photographic quality of Vermeer's paintings, created approximately 200 years prior to the invention of photography. Indeed, there was a great deal of speculation about the use of a camera obscura, yet there seemed to be a missing step.

"I was in the bathtub one day and this idea came to me out of the blue, that you can paint on top of a projection, in a manner of speaking, if you used a mirror [aside from the camera obscura]," Jenison says. "With the extra mirror, you can trace colors onto shapes - you are basically making a photograph."

Jenison devised a crude setup in his kitchen and tested his hypothesis. "It worked amazingly well," he says. "It was the first time I ever oil-painted, and it came out looking like a photograph." Intrigued, Jenison searched the Internet for similar test results but came up empty-­handed.

To prove that his theory indeed had merit, Jenison had to paint under the same conditions that Vermeer did, and that meant precisely re-creating the studio room the master artist used while painting. And, that room was laid out in Vermeer's artwork. The dimensions. The lighting. The objects in the room. But, how does one measure a room that no longer exists, let alone determine how light spilled across it? And, where does a person find a 350-year-old harpsichord and other 17th century furnishings?

Making a Prediction

To determine if Vermeer painted the wall a little too realistically in his works, Jenison modeled a few of the paintings using his company's LightWave 3D software. Although involved in the software's development from day one, he had never done any ambitious modeling or animation with the program, so the project gave him an opportunity to learn a good deal about LightWave and its tool set.

The CG rendering of the music lesson 3d model containing real-world measurements.

"I had a cram session on LightWave, and I learned the nooks and crannies of LightWave that no one ever sees," he says. Then he began to notice that the same people seemed to appear in the artist's work, a theory he verified in LightWave since he now had a complete 3D model of the objects and subjects. "I had an accurate model of this woman, and I could turn her head to a different angle to see if it matched the person in another painting, and found out, yeah, it did," Jenison says. "And it was the same woman in several of the pictures."

In LightWave, Jenison added a painting to the background in Layout, and then worked in the software by overlaying the 3D objects on the background image. He repeated this process for several paintings until all the sizes and shapes in 3D meshed with those Vermeer painted. Then he tried to light the images, to see how well the LightWave version matched the painting as far as shading was concerned.

According to Jenison, the point of this exercise was to take a closer look at the shading on the back wall, but LightWave -like most other 3D modeling packages not tuned specifically for architectural use - optimizes its lighting model and simplifies the way shading works. Simply put, LightWave is not used to simulate reality, but Jenison wanted to see if he could get the lighting to match the painting, which simulated ultra-reality.

Simulating lighting properly requires full-on raytracing with lots of rays and bounces - and lots of time. "LightWave did not want to do this. I would turn up the number of rays and bounces to get an accurate rendering," he says. So, Jenison began building his own supercomputer with a server motherboard containing 24 cores, "and LightWave just pumped along." A renderfarm of 50 discarded NewTek TriCasters made the process even faster.

"I needed to know how bright the [back] wall was at every single point," says Jenison.

After nearly eight months, Jenison was able to get enough rays and bounces to reach a scientific-level image that accurately represented Vermeer's famed room. Facilitating this effort was the LightWave team, which he had at his disposal - in particular, Mark Granger, former co-founder of Electric Image. Another, Jarno van der Linden, even wrote software that simulated 17th century lenses for his 3D re-creation. Within LightWave, he was able to set up the sky and angle of the sun as it came through Vermeer's northwest-facing window - in effect, replicating the Delft light. Vermeer's room had three large windows, and Jenison discovered that if he used area lights within LightWave, he was able to match the Vermeer lighting - leading him to conclude that the painter likely had cloth or oil paper over his windows.

Jenison paints his vermeer room using an optical setup. 

"I proved I was on the right track and that Vermeer's walls [in the paintings] were consistent with the laws of physics, but not consistent with the normal behavior of our eyeballs," Jenison says.

Jenison's preliminary LightWave findings encouraged him to continue his quest. "Everything pointed in the right direction and I had the smoking gun [showing] that Vermeer was painting physically accurate rooms and his contemporaries were not, so he must have had a way to trace the colors," he explains. While a few other artists were employing a similar technique, it seems that none had the same setup as Vermeer - and the secret died with Vermeer, as there was no documentation hinting to the use of a device.

This is about the time when this experiment got real, or as real as it possibly could. In early 2009 over dinner with his friend Las Vegas Magician Penn Jillette, Jenison relayed his interest in Vermeer's technique. Jillette also found the topic interesting, and together they decided to make a movie about Jenison's quest to solve this 350-year-old mystery. "With this turn, I had to really do it right. Copying Vermeer's picture would prove nothing. I had to build the Vermeer room and make it look just like it did in 1650, and then I would set up my machine and try to paint," says Jenison.

Preparing for the Test

Again, LightWave proved invaluable when it came time to physically building an accurate re-creation of the Vermeer room depicted in The Music Lesson, selected because it would be the easiest to replicate and had a large expanse of the back wall visible. The process was not as difficult as it seems. Thanks to Vermeer's numerous paintings, there are many known factors about the structure of the room and the objects inside. So, it was just a matter of duplicating the room and then using an optics machine to paint a picture - and see how close it comes to the real Vermeer piece.

The room was subsequently built over a year's time in a corner of a NewTek warehouse, with some demolition and construction required until it was indeed a replica of the Vermeer room.

Jenison replicated the vermeer room, often using cnc milling to build reproductions.

Next, Jenison began searching for the 17th century objects, reproducing many of them via 21st century methods: modeling replicas in LightWave and reproducing them with computer-­controlled machine tools. (In this regard, he has experience from making prototypes of NewTek products over the years.) For instance, the Vermeer harpsichord was made by a Flemish company, and Scottish harpsichord expert Grant O'Brien provided Jenison with the plans; he even reproduced the ornate block-patterned paper on the top of the instrument. The paper on the lower part of the keyboard was unique, but O'Brien had seen it before on a harpsichord in Paris and made a reproduction of that, as well. The viola da gamba came from China. Jenison located a similar blue chair in a museum in Delft and modeled it in 3D based on photos he took, and then made them on his CNC milling machine and lathe, which he modified to cut wood instead of metal.

Jenison obtained accurate dimensions from the LightWave scene models to use in the machine shop for milling the objects. He could determine the size of the room and other objects based on the size of the known items, such as the harpsichord. He then transferred the LightWave files to BobCAD, a CAM program, where he tweaked the files so they could be read by the milling machine. 

With the room now ready, Jenison had to build the projection device, for which he crafted 17th century lenses (that were less perfect than they are today). Then, it was time to put his theory to the test.

Testing Phase

Jenison quickly points out that he is not a painter, never was, but has learned how to operate a paintbrush. "I wouldn't have been able to paint without the machine, even if my life depended on it," he says with a laugh. Nevertheless, the device did not make the process any less complicated.

"I naively thought the machine would pretty much make the process automatic, and I would just sit down and paint," Jenison says. "It was more complicated than that. There was a lot of problem-solving just to figure out how Vermeer did it."

Jenison started out with a camera obscura. As he explains, many assumed that some artists, like Vermeer, went into a dark room and could see a picture projected on the back wall from a lens installed on another wall, but everything outside the box was projected upside down and backward. Again, the projected image could be traced but not painted because it was so dark inside.

Jenison replicated the vermeer room, often using cnc milling and a lathe to build reproductions.

In frustration, Jenison started playing around and held up another mirror on the back wall -

and saw this bright version of the room. That breakthrough came halfway through the film. "I never saw that one coming," he adds. "I had tried to paint in the dark room, but it wasn't working. That was sort of the low point of this project - I had built the room and had this great idea of how Vermeer painted, but when I got in there, I could not see the harpsichord, those little decorations on it. You could tell they were there, but they were really fuzzy."

In addition to the mirror on the back wall, another small mirror Jenison calls a "comparator mirror" was the key to the painting process.

Jenison explains how it works. "You are now in full daylight leaning over the canvas, which is flat on a table. Right in front of you is this little mirror on a stick, and in the mirror you can see the room out there, and you just have to match the colors and shapes in the mirror. At the edge of the mirror is where you do your color matching, since that is where you can see both [the projection and your painting] together and can compare the painting colors to the colors you are trying to replicate. You are not going pixel by pixel, but rather painting broad shapes and refining them so they look the same, more like a real artist would do. If you have it perfect, you cannot really see the edge of the mirror; it becomes invisible. But if one of them [the original or yours] suddenly becomes too light or too dark, you can see the edge of the mirror." There is no subjectivity; it either matches or it doesn't and the artist has to do more work.

For months, Jenison trekked to his Vermeer room and painted, tackling a different object each day, though some, like the rug draped over a table in the foreground, took weeks (about 35 percent of the painting time) because of its intricate pattern. Moreover, only a small part of the room was visible in the little mirror, requiring it to be repositioned constantly - a skill in and of itself, since a half inch in one direction makes the difference whether something can be seen or not.

Even the paint Jenison used was made to the same specifications as Vermeer's, thanks to chemical analysis. Jenison's background in television and graphics made the color mixing during the painting process more intuitive than it would have been for the average person. "You can spend a lot of time getting the colors perfect. But, you have to decide when it is good enough and then move on. I regret moving on in certain parts [of the painting] because I left them in sort of shabby shape. But I had already turned this into a huge project and was sick of painting," he says. "It was drudgery halfway through, especially when I got to the rug. But as the rug started to ma­terialize on the canvas, I could tell it was pretty spectacular. Up to that point, no one knew if this was going to work."

The Analysis

Jenison followed his rule that he would paint exactly what he saw in the machine as accurately as possible. So, does Jenison's work, aided by the device, look like Vermeer's? "It does look like the Vermeer -from a distance," he says, acknowledging that he lacked the artistic skill that Vermeer had. (Perhaps it can be compared to a 3D artist using the computer to create art - the machine aids the process, but the end result is a reflection of a person's artistic ability.) Yet, Jenison believes his painting is more detailed and photographic than the master's. "Vermeer would not have been as obsessive as I was. He would have painted more economically," he points out. For instance, whereas Jenison painted every stitch on the rug, Vermeer painted a few, leaving the impression of cloth. "In that way he was an artist and I was not."

The painting process spanned several months, and during that time, Jenison had the chance to see The Music Lesson original, which is owned by the Queen of England and is not usually on public display. "I was blown away. I had been looking at prints, and there is far more detail in the painting than I had thought," Jenison says. Another revelation: The original is more blue-ish and less colorful than the reproductions, "and that was encouraging, because it looked a lot more like I had expected," he adds.

Making a Conclusion

So, after years of research and experimentation, what conclusion did Jenison reach concerning the artist? The experiment did prove that Vermeer could have painted this way. "Without any actual proof, it comes down to, what percentage am I convinced? I am about 90 percent convinced that he used a setup like mine to paint. There isn't a note from Vermeer saying he used a mirror and matched the colors with the mirror," says Jenison. But then again, artists of that period, as now, are mum when it comes to trade secrets.

In the time since the film was completed, the queen agreed to have a high-resolution scan made of her painting so Jenison can continue his research. "There is more evidence of the use of optics in the original picture than I had seen in the reproductions," he says.

Jenison channels vermeer, playing the viola da gamba used in the painting tableau. Works by vermeer line the back wall.

Could this experiment have been done without the use of LightWave? "It was necessary for me. This could not have happened differently. I needed to use LightWave for the research and to make the [real] furniture," says Jenison. "By using LightWave, it all fell into place."

Jenison also has since uncovered an artist, Italian Painter

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, who preceded Vermeer by roughly a century and may have used a mirror to match colors. "His style was totally different than the artists of the time and set the art world on its ear with very accurate lighting on the faces of his subjects. When he died, he had a lot of mirrors in his possession, which is unusual, and would never let people see him paint," Jenison explains.

Some of the information Jenison found is in other languages, and he is having the documents translated. And, he is hoping his film will lead to others who may have some information to share about Vermeer that could shed further light on the subject. In fact, his research garnered nearly 2,400 hours of material, which was condensed into an 80-minute film. So, Jenison is considering writing a book, a trip through history possibly, that would contain new information about the use of such a device by painters.

"I think Caravaggio used a very simple setup, and for my own curiosity, I might try to paint a Caravaggio [in much the same way as the Vermeer]," Jenison says, noting this time he would not make a movie out of it - "It's too much work" -but would probably turn on a camera in case "something interesting happens."

Karen Moltenbrey is the chief editor of CGW.