Assignment 1 - Jan Vermeer

It's been a while since I posted, more than a month! My children had Christmas Break and it's always almost impossible to get something done, or at least to sit down and write. Much to my frustration! But onwards I go, full of inspiration and motivation to improve my photography and ways of expressing my thoughts about photography and art. Happy 2014 everybody!

Besides having done a few excercises about which I will blog later on, I have worked on an other portrait for my assignment, this time inspired by the paintings of Jan Vermeer.

Jan Vermeer (1660),  The Milk Maid  [oil on canvas] [online image]. Amsterdam: Rijksmuseum. Available from: (Accessed 6 January 2013)

Jan Vermeer (1660), The Milk Maid [oil on canvas] [online image]. Amsterdam: Rijksmuseum. Available from: (Accessed 6 January 2013)

There's nothing particularly special about liking Vermeer's paintings. I think one could say they're some of the most popular paintings in the history of art. But what speaks to me personally is that in Vermeer's paintings the colours and light, the natural expressions in the faces of the subjects and the daily things they are doing seem so unstaged and natural that I feel I'm standing in the same room as the artist. I sense some of the concentration and peace that one can find at home in every day tasks and moments. Vermeer doesn't shy away from giving a true depiction of the room, holes in the wall, rubbish on the floor included. Being Dutch myself, I recognize a lot of the props and furniture.

Jan Vermeer (1663),  Woman Reading a Letter  [oil on canvas][online image], Amsterdam: Rijksmuseum. Available from: Accessed on 6 January 2014

Jan Vermeer (1663), Woman Reading a Letter [oil on canvas][online image], Amsterdam: Rijksmuseum. Available from: Accessed on 6 January 2014

Vermeer was a master in looking at light and depicting the colour of light. As you can see in the image above, he adds a blue tint to the shadows of the chair and greyish look on the womans skin, which is the effect of the cool light through the windows. The colour palet in both paintings are what I experienced so often on a rainy day in The Netherlands. Cool, blueish and grey.

Vermeer portrays the beauty of subtle expressions in people's faces. the anticipation of the woman reading a letter, with her mouth slightly opened and her eyes gazed on the letter. With her pregnant belly one can just imagine what she's reading and how much she has been waiting for that news. It shows that he had a good eye for positioning the subject in such a way that the facial expressions are portrayed to the max, as seen in the image below, the way people sit or stand all have a function in portraying the concentration of activity that is taking place, even though the scene itself breaths tranquility.

Jan Vermeer (1658),  The Little Street  [oil on canvas] [online image]. Amsterdam: Rijksmuseum. Available from: (Accessed on 6 January 2014)

Jan Vermeer (1658), The Little Street [oil on canvas] [online image]. Amsterdam: Rijksmuseum. Available from: (Accessed on 6 January 2014)

There are a lot of horizontal and vertical lines in the images, giving them a good balance. On the other hand there are enough diagonals and curves to keep the images dynamic. The same counts for different layers in the images, like in 'The Little Street', where one stops at the front of the houses and from there on is lead in the small alley, the inside of the big house and all the way to the houses in the back. The same can be seen in a lot of the interior shots where scenes are placed behind an open curtain or in an other room that the viewer is led into.

So how about my own photos? When setting up the scene I wanted to first of all bring across the concentration on a person's face while at work and the effect of incoming natural light. I ended up in my friend's kitchen with an old sewing machine. The first set of images were taken on a cloudy day, even though in Dakar, weatherwise it couldn't have been more like a Dutch grey day.

When looking at the sequence, you'll see a change of scenery, colour and lighting. This is because I had put the last image of the upper row up on Flickr and received the following feedback from fellow students and a tutor:

  1. Some interesting vibrant results here.

    For me a common failing on this assignment is that students don't mix it up enough. I always tell them to shoot the person at work, rest and play and in a range of styles from conventional studio portrait to paparazzi when they're not expecting it or even security camera style. I rarely get that range. The idea is a rounded portrait, we see different aspects of the person, a portrait is more than a picture of a person.

    The above is pointed at other readers about to under take the assignment. You are in the process of making something more interesting and progressive from it.

    The overall composition here feels unbalanced for several reasons. The floor is too bright which pulls the eye down and left away from the subject and then there's the crack of light up the edge which is obviously meant to be cropped out. The figure and the machine are centred on the left hand half of the composition thus half the image area has nothing of any visual interest, it might as well be cropped to a portrait shape just using the left hand half.

    There's potential for a still life on the counter to the back and right to justify all that space but at the moment although there are some attractive specular highlights it's too murky to satisfy and the arrangement desultory.

    However with those fixes in place it provides a good counterpoint to the street images.

    Cross posted with Pete

  2. Lovely lighting on the figure, good points made by Clive. Did you take a shot just centred on the figure and sewing machine?

  3. This is why I so like this site. Looking at Clive's comments I can see the point about toning down the brightest area as it pulls the eye, but for me I would keep the window in frame as the light in the window and the light at the front provide a depth (two points) to the image whereas Richard's suggested crop would make it very flat. Just thoughts :)

  4. Vermeer often seemed to have a map on the top right hand quarter of his paintings - on the wall behind the subject drawing attention to the wider world as a sort of counterpoint to the image of domestic harmony, I think it was a political comment about something, but I can't remember what! Anyway, for me there is definitely a visual gap where that's missing!
    Otherwise its great ... its so nice to see something different with portraits


  5. That's why I suggested making more of the still life Pete. The window does add that extra interest but it's not enough on its own to balance out everything else being on the left hand half. It needs a little bit more going on than what looks like a bottle, one more element, and I do think overall there should be a bit more detail in the shadows anyway.

    Here's a photographer to look at for shooting in the style of painters

    Google on his name too. I used to have a link to his earlier work which was simpler in concept but I can't find it any more.


  6. Well he's one for my new learning log :)

  7. I originally saw his work in Zoom magazine back in the mid-70s. Some of it was shot for a margarine campaign I think, I've still got the magazine somewhere. In terms of being painterly I'd never seen anything that came anywhere near it, superbly done, lit with fantastic sensitivity and skill. Some of his contemporary work is very different though.

  8. Ah here are some more

So I added a still life in the scene to balance it out better and add some interest in the back. I have been working on the colour palet a bit more with twin toning in LR. I'm still not sure about the final look though, who knows I'll change that before sending it in. So here's the final image!