Tim's Vermeer: Old Master Magic or Penn & Teller Sleight of Hand

Tim's Vermeer: Old Master Magic or Penn & Teller Sleight of Hand

SUMMARY: This article discusses the documentary "Tim's Vermeer" and the debate over whether the optical device used by Tim Jenison to recreate Johannes Vermeer's painting could have actually been used by the artist. The article suggests that while there is evidence that the Old Masters, including Vermeer, used optical devices in their work, there are questions about whether Jenison's device, which uses a mirror to reflect an image onto a canvas, could have replicated a Vermeer painting by mechanical means alone. The article examines the issue of parallax and how it may have affected Jenison's efforts to recreate a Vermeer using the device. The article ultimately suggests that there may be more Penn & Teller-style sleight of hand than actual Vermeer magic in Jenison's attempt to recreate the painting.


My interest in the tools and techniques of the Old Masters spans nearly two decades and includes reinventing the camera lucida with the LUCY Drawing Tool and hand building thousands of camera obscuras. My drawing devices are used by tens of thousands of artists in studios, schools, and museums all over the world. This experience has yielded both a scientific and practical knowledge of these devices that gives me a unique prospective on the Penn & Teller movie, Tim's Vermeer.

Tim's Vermeer, and the many books, articles, and films about the Old Masters, present a lot of very good and sound evidence that at least some of the Old Masters like Ingres, Van Eyck, Caravaggio and Vermeer used optical devices to one degree or another. I have no doubt that artists, including some of history’s greatest, have been using optics for centuries. But the question at hand is could the device shown in Tim's Vermeer actually have been the type used by Vermeer?

I would recommend watching the movie  to get the full background. The movie begins with Penn (of Penn & Teller fame) laying out why Vermeer's paintings are still so captivating after more than 300 years.  He explains how the intricate details of Vermeer's paintings seemed to pop with super accurate tones and color, and they didn't even have the usual artist sketches underneath the finished painting—as if Vermeer “could walk up to a canvas and magically paint with light.” 

This film does a great job of presenting some of the evidence in the debate over Vermeer's techniques, but as far as Tim Jenison's attempt to recreate a “Vermeer” by purely mechanical means, I think there may be a bit more Penn & Teller style sleight of hand than actual Vermeer magic.

Jenison's first experiment was to use a mirror to reflect an image of a black and white photo of his father-in-law over a piece of Masonite to be compared and copied. This seems like it would work well enough. The mirror creates a virtual imagea reflected image. This means the image is not actually there on the mirror but is being reflected off the photo placed in front of it.  The potential problem with a virtual image being used this way is parallax. As you move your head back and forth to compare the edge of the mirror with the paint, the image could move in relation to your canvas, making it difficult to paint without distortions and causing you to lose your place.

In the film when Jenison is demonstrating his mirror device to David Hockney (author of Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters), Hockney is very interested in the problem of parallax:

Jenison: “So you notice there is no parallax when you move your head. There is no shift.” Hockney: “That's it no. Why is that? How is that?”

Jenison's answer to the question about parallax is cut off abruptly and the problem is never explained in the film. I was very disappointed because that was the same question I had, and I went to see the film hoping to learn the answer. I think the answer was cut out because while it would explain why parallax was not a problem while copying the photo, the answer would have revealed why the device Jenison ended up using could not have replicated a Vermeer by mechanical means alone.

The only answer I figure Jenison could have given Hockney in regard to the issue of parallax is (in substance) that the effects of parallax are negated when the object (the photo) and drawing surface are about the same distance away from the mirror.  Because he was reflecting an image of a photo that was about a foot away from the mirror onto a canvas that was also about a foot away from the mirror, there was no displacement in the apparent position of the photo in relation to the canvas: both being equally spaced from the mirror and effectively in the same line of sight. This solves the problem for copying a photo. Like Jenison said there would be “no shift” as you paint, but what about painting an entire room?

Jenison's original idea was to project an image of the recreated music lesson room with a camera obscura, and then reflect that image onto his canvas with the small mirror he used on the photo of his father-in-law—his comparator mirror. The image goes through the camera obscura's lens and is projected as an actual or real image onto the back wall of a large camera obscura, the image created by the camera obscura is then reflected by the comparator mirror as a virtual image over the canvas to be compared and copied, just like he did with the photo. He had everything figured out, and I believe it would have worked because the image created by a camera obscura is a real image; it is fixed onto the projection surface. If he then set up the mirror about equal distance from the canvas and the camera obscura's projected image, there would be no parallax problem.

Jenison was able to demonstrate this concept while copying the vase with Philip Steadman (author of Vermeer's Camera: Uncovering the Truth behind the Masterpieces) because they used powerful flood lights to create a bright projection, and the subject was just a simple white vase.  It was only when this setup was tried in the recreated music lesson room with only natural light (Vermeer wouldn't of had any flood lights) that Jenison found out that he could not get the camera obscura to project an image bright enough to recreate the color and detail of a Vermeer. This “was a deal killer. I had visions of a failed experiment”, Jenison lamented. This is where there seems to have been a Penn & Teller style sleight of hand switch, and the idea of making a Vermeer by mechanical means was ditched.

Up until this point Jenison let others use his mirror/photo (comparator mirror) and mirror/artificially lighted camera obscura setups. Others are filmed using and verifying that these optical devices work. Then there was an unnoted sleight of hand when Jenison replaced the camera obscura's real projected image with a concave mirror’s virtual reflection—it was now a completely different optical system that had not been tested nor verified by anyone other than Jenison. And because this new optical system had no fixed real image, the unanswered problem of parallax is back bigger than ever.

With no fixed real image projected from a camera obscura, Jenison is now just bouncing around a virtual image from across the room. And I see no way that the lens and concave mirror would negate the resulting parallax, which would make lining up the image on the mirror coming from across the room with the canvas difficult to the point that I do not believe painting the room accurately would be possible by only mechanical means—a lot more artistic skill would be needed. This method could aid an artist in matching tones and colors and capturing some elements, but the image would just be too unsteady to mechanically copy the entire room as was done with the photo and comparator mirror.

When the subject (whether it be a photo or a real image projected by a camera obscura) is about the same distance from the mirror as the mirror is from the canvas, the shifting effect of parallax is neutralized.  But the farther the subject gets from the mirror—like when trying to paint a whole room—the greater the shifting effect of parallax will become. Maybe Jenison found a way to get around this, but an explanation and even mention of the problem are conspicuously missing from the film.

Evidence for the importance of this device switch can also be seen in the painting styles shown in the movie. When using the original comparator mirror to copy the photo and the vase, Jenison says he is just a “piece of human photographic film” pushing the paint around until it matches what he sees in the mirror. This involved going back and forth between light and dark, mixing and remixing in white and black paint. The process looked like a blob of tones that slowly got more defined and sharpened until the finished image emerged out of the chaos, as these shots from the film show:

Tim's Vermeer LUCY Drawing Tool

But when Jenison uses the new optical system with the lens and concave mirror together with the comparator mirror, the process looks very different than the one with the black and white images. Now instead of blobs of paint that are slowly defined into the reflected object, we see a more traditional style of painting where lines are marked out with a ruler and elements are painted in one complete piece at a time, as shown in these film clips:

comparator mirror LUCY Drawing Tool

Now this does not necessarily mean that the whole experiment is a sham, but at the very least, it shows that they spent their time demonstrating and having others verify that one device worked, only to switch it out for a completely different and unvetted device. So don't let someone who copied a photo with a mirror tell you they tested the device used in Tim's Vermeer.  And Tim Jenison seems like a very sincere person, but I need to see proof—not just passion. And the fact remains that the device that Jenison ended up using was not shown being used by anyone else, and the complete process Jenison used to create his painting is not well documented at all—the film never shows him doing more than a few brush strokes at a time. We almost get more insight on how the furniture in the room is made, then the painting.  And so much doubt could have been dispelled by having one camera capture a time-lapse of the process. Or at least address the pencil marks on the canvas and how they were made. So much lavish detail on a device that wasn't used, and on the building of furniture that was beside the point, while leaving so many unanswered questions, could be more misdirection than story telling.

And quickly why we are on the subject of misdirection. Why all the detail and attention on hand polishing a seventeenth-century lens, because Jenison insisted on only using the kind of optics Vermeer would have had, only to grab a modern concave mirror and first-surface mirror right off the shelf for the rest of the optical system?  To really test this system, one would need to see how sharp an image would be seen through the compounding imperfections of a seventeenth-century lens and two seventeenth-century hand-polished mirrors.

But in the end, I remain unconvinced that Vermeer used the sort of device Jenison created, and there are still other unanswered questions.  I believe that the preponderance of evidence is that Vermeer used a camera obscura of one sort or another to one extent or another, and that coupled with his talent and skill, is where Vermeer's genius lies. It is easy to be right when one says very little—but this is all we really know. Now, theoretically, something like Jenison's device could have been one step in Vermeer's multi-step painting process—to match colors and tones. But the idea that Vermeer walked up to a canvas and magically painted his masterpieces in one bold layer is an oversimplification.  There is a lot more to a Vermeer and the depth of the painting process and artistic skill, apart from any device he may have used.

Jenison seems genuine, and to put that much time into an experiment like this, he obviously has a lot of passion about the subject. But it seems that a lot was edited out of this experiment, and to say the least—Penn & Teller are known for a little sleight of hand now and again. My best guess is that the experiment for the most part played out about as it was shown in the film, but after finding out that the originally planned process was not going to work, they (either in production or editing) took a few liberties and cut some corners to make it work and get the film done.

I think that one other factor might be that Jenison is just a better painter than he gives himself credit for being. Even the best tool, still needs a competent user. Maybe he wasn't so good when he started the process years ago but working with these kinds of devices can help a person become a better artist. They force a person to draw objects as they are seen and help them become better over time. I've seen this with people using my LUCY Drawing Tool and know that drawing and painting with these kinds of optical devices does improve artistic skill over time. Plus, my guess is that while Jenison's finished painting may look impressive on the screen, I would still bet that it would not stand up in a close in person side-by-side comparison with Vermeer's original masterpiece.

I and millions of others will continue to be fascinated by the Old Masters and their secretive techniques, and I am grateful to Tim Jenison and Penn & Teller for contributing in an important way to this conversation. I love experimentation and invention, so it was hard for me to write this—I don't want to come off as attacking anyone's hard work. Maybe that’s why it took me a decade to decide to post this article. But I do love a good debate, and I believe an honest back and forth will get us closer to the truth. This movie has made me think a lot about how my devices could tie into some of what Jenison has done like: using the LUCY Drawing Tool to draw out a sketch for a painting, then using something like the Jenison's comparator mirror to help match the colors and tones. I know that Vermeer like detail may not be possible, but it could be interesting.  And so, the tinkering continues, even if Vermeer's secret will ever elude us.

Les Cookson

Inventor of the LUCY Drawing Tool

8 commentaires 8

6dust6 sur

Saw the movie in 2013. The number of optical aids developed for drawing are innumerable.
Most seem to be clumsy, limited and difficult to master but of some value. But didn’t the entire movie project take something like 5 years. Accounting the time for building the room and then judging the gobs of time necessary to complete the painting using these optical devices, I figure Vermeer must have worked for 100 years.

RP sur

Mike: “If so, what does it say about the exorbitant prices of his paintings? […] the wealthy owners, as well as the professionals they employ to set prices, might not be too pleased. They might have a vested interest […]”

The wealthy do have a vested interest. Expensive fine art is a store of wealth and a way for them to evade taxes that would be assessed if they stored their wealth as currency, stocks, bonds, private property, etc. An original piece of art work that has been authenticated is difficult to forge. Once that concept of authenticity is agreed upon, then it is merely a matter of the community of the wealthy to decide on a price for it. Certainly high quality, old pieces of art are more rare, so there is potential for extra value there.

But much of the “value” of art is really just what wealthy people and the professionals who evaluate the work agree upon. Plenty of modern abstract art, especially the very simple stuff, could pretty easily replicated and emulated by unknown artists of modest skill. But because of the art trade, some works are selected to be “valuable” while others are not. Not all art can be valuable in this way, because there are not enough buyers willing to collude on such exorbitant prices. So artistic skill really is only one small factor in determining the price. Search up “most recent sale price of Malevich’s Black Square” as an example.

Many, perhaps even the vast majority, of high priced art is priced that way long after the artist sold the piece, perhaps even after they died. Very few artists became wealthy from directly selling their work. But the fine art sellers and their wealthy customers, one might even say employers, make and store extraordinary amounts of wealth in these authenticated tokens. And the storage of said wealth is largely tax free, even while the assets continue to appreciate.

I don’t believe that even the presentation of concrete proof that Vermeer was a skilled copyist. Like, if verified journals of his techniques and the tools (or construction drawings of the tools) were to appear, it probably wouldn’t matter. The high end art community has already affixed massive value to the works through the chain of sales and authentications.

Don’t take any of this as saying that art isn’t valuable. It is. But there are countless very good works by very skilled artists that are worth very little, or even worth nothing, because no one is willing to pay for them. Look around on Etsy for prints and originals, and you’ll often see that the difference in the price is not very great at all even for very good work. The sale price of the original would likely only cover the materials and a very paltry hourly wage. If those artists were to become very skilled at promoting, marketing, and monetizing their work, and/or catch the attention of the right gallery, that would have a far larger impact on price than even massively improving their skill.

Erica Phelps sur

If he used a mirror, my question is how did he paint outside, with moving objects? People walking, boats in the harbor? It’s so fascinating I watch this movie over and over!

Mike sur

According to the film, there are no records of Vermer’s development as an artist, no drawings or journals and no record of an apprenticeship. There is no mention of his having painted outdoors, en plein air, which for many artists is fundamental to maturing as an artist . Could it be that Vermeer never did the hard work of becoming a mature artist? Maybe there are no drawings because he didn’t or couldn’t draw. Perhaps he was merely a copyist through the use of optics. If so, what does it say about the exorbitant prices of his paintings? Do they deserve that value if they are merely sophisticated copies of life? The deflated prices for lesser known high quality artwork may be inhibiting the appreciation of lesser known artists of superior skill/ability, whom may someday become greats. The less money artists make, the less likely we are to find and support high quality artists. If the art world embraced that Vermeer was merely copying life, would his paintings decrease in value? If so, the wealthy owners, as well as the professionals they employ to set prices, might not be too pleased. They might have a vested interest in ignoring the science, books, articles (including this thoughtful article and responses), as well as Tim’s film, all of which encourage the scientific search for truth and that further these debates. Money may well be a significant part of the issue at hand. Thank for the article and responses. All the best!

Linda sur

I think what Sandra [Sandra on February 18, 2023] meant to say was "No tool COULD (instead of “should”) ever replace the development of one’s artistic skills." Should one choose to use Lucy is to exercise one’s freedom of expression, which, happily, could result in finding one’s own style. It is doubtful that the majority of Lucy owners purchased the tool expecting to produce their own Vermeers et al, brush stroke by brush stroke, but rather to interpret what their own eyes see through Lucy. Wouldn’t Lucy be an extraordinary teaching tool in art departments everywhere if every student, using Lucy, interpreted their vision of the same painting?

Richard Greene sur

Excellent points, delivered with kindness and respect. I hope that Jenison will respond.

James sur

I’ve used a comparator mirror from VerMirror.

Almost identical to the tool from Tim’s Vermeer with a few upgrades, it lets you paint as photorealistically as you want or draw as accurately or abstract as you want.

It’s a real game-changer tbqh.

Sandra sur

Interesting article. I bought a Lucy mini , and have used it once, so far. Getting the outer shape of an object just right is all I plan to do. The rest is up to my own eye. Even if Vermeer did use one, his talent was incredible. No tool should ever replace the development of one’s artistic skills.

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