10 Reasons to doubt Tim's Vermeer

Two days ago I sat down with my family to watch Tim’s Vermeer. This is a wonderful documentary directed by Penn and Teller about technology entrepreneur, Tim Jenison’s, attempt to replicate Vermeer’s style. The hook was that he wasn’t an oil painter but a computer graphics guy who was able to build a contraption and paint a picture that mimicked the 16th Century painter’s work with light. If you haven’t watched it yet, do so because I’m about to spoil it in the right proper meaning of the word “spoiler.” Which is sad since it is a great movie to make you appreciate what great artists do.

I was totally hooked by this documentary. I’m not an artist but I am very interested in technology. The documentary’s theme was that the great artists invented and used a variety of tools to create their works and, moreover, any other person with those tools could do extremely well. I loved that theme. It was a ‘stick it to the high faluting artist’ claim that often really appeals to me. It also was the use of clever reverse engineering to unlock a secret.

The documentary has been a big success — receiving a 89% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. I was completely sucked in to the premise but the next day some doubts started to rise and I haven’t been able to dismiss them.

It all began when my daughter — who is quite the artist (and it is not just me as her father saying so) — wanted to get the device and try the technique. The device is a mirror on a stick set at a 45 degree angle. Since the movie had been out since late last year, I figured that someone would have been promoting the device for sale. But I couldn’t find it. Which gave me reason No.1.

1. Tim Jenison’s device isn’t available for purchase

I’m an economist so this was disturbing. So that led me to investigate what success others had had in using Jenison’s technique. After all, the paintings he produced seemed magnificent and surely someone, somewhere would have tried the technique out. I searched and could not find a single example. Not one claim or YouTube video.

2. No one appears to have tried Tim Jenison’s technique

The obvious next step was to give it a go. As there was no commercial product, I did what any curious person would do, I built my own. My goal was to just replicate a sketch. I figured that getting the proportions right from a photograph would be just has hard as blending colours. I didn’t expect to do a good job but to see how it could be done.

Here is my device made out of Lego do that I could get a needed 45 degree angle.

I failed for various reasons. First, it is really, really hard to get a fix on the mirror and a page. You have to close one eye and try and move back and forth to get the line. You can do something but a slight change in perspective and things go array. How you could do anything with any precision was beyond me. Second, all that would kill you. I had a headache after 5 minutes. Third, there is all sorts of other light around that I guess can be controlled for but it is a problem. Fourth, my kids tried it too and were similarly convinced that it was not going to be as straightforward as Jenison made out. None of this is a lock. I have to admit I wasn’t obsessed enough to really try everything but my own experience was enough to raise another doubt.

3. It is not easy or obviously possible to use something like Jenison’s contraption to replicate an image.

With all of this, I turned to reconsider the movie itself. Penn and Teller have made careers of magic, illusion and taking people for a ride. They have also been noted sceptics. They put themselves behind and inside this entire documentary (which they wrote) using just that: being sceptical about claims that artists like Vermeer were sheer genius working free of technology as art historians (mostly) like to think. But what if that wasn’t their target? What if their target was “technology types” who like to think there is no art in illusion? What if their target was me?

4. Penn and Teller have all the incentives in the world to produce a hoax documentary

A hoax of this kind would fit Penn and Teller’s mantra and reputation so it isn’t a stretch. They just needed to find the right hero — and Tim Jenison really fits the bill here being a lifetime tinkerer and in a technology field that is very closely related to the production of old-style art — graphic design. They didn’t have to draft too many people to be part of what might be just entertainment.

This was enough to start picking apart the movie. The first thing is that you never, ever see the full production of any work by Jenison in the movie. The claim is that they had 2400 hours of footage that they cut down to 80 minutes. Well, this is the Internet age — where’s the time lapse of the whole thing?

5. They never show Jenison doing more than a few strokes.

Of course, that means that someone else produced the paintings we see. But it isn’t a stretch that they found an artist for that.

But there are other issues. For one, Jenison attempts to go and see the original Vermeer of the Music Lesson — a painting he is going to spend 5 years trying to replicate. It is in Buckingham Palace and, initially, he is not allowed to see it and then it is said that he got 30 minutes with the piece but with no cameras. But as this review by the Guardian’s Jonathan Jones notes:

The film performs a crude sleight of hand by never showing us a closeup of the real Vermeer painting. The masterpiece belongs to the So it’s a film about a man attempting to replicate a poster.

The original painting is not kept hidden away in some royal vault. Last summer it was in an exhibition at the National Gallery.

6. There was ample opportunity to study the original Music Lesson

Jones does not pay too much attention to this as his target is, as the film’s makers wanted, the very notion that Jenison could replicate a Vermeer. And he isn’t the only one. There are several critiques and they actually raise good points. The best is this one. However, these basically suggest that Vermeer didn’t use something like Jenison’s technique and Jenison couldn’t have replicated what the master had done. They don’t suggest Jenison didn’t do something. Indeed, Jones noted:

Was the instrument hypothesised by Jenison the actual device Vermeer constructed for himself? Again, perfectly possible. Got no problem with the science at all.

But we should have a problem with the science. When I tried this out, I couldn’t see how the parallax effect was dismissed. There was some distortion there. Also, it would have taken a ton of work to keep everything straight. Even centring the image on a point would have lead to false directions.

Then again, what do I know about the science? Not a lot was given in the movie. There was a claim that the human eye can’t process light the way Vermeer seemed to and they had a real neuroscientist say just that but then again we can see the light change and so just because we can’t see the illusion does not mean the illusionist did not understand it and look for it in its painting.

So let me turn to the movie itself to see if there are clues as to a potential hoax. After all, it is one thing to do this but a real hoax should be obvious once you have broken the magic spell.

The first thing I looked for was in the credits to see if anything was out of place. Apart from thanking “Steve Martin” for no apparent reason, the credits did not reveal anything.

But perhaps the main issues arose in the movie itself. First of all, Jenison does not just undertake to paint Vermeer’s music lesson. Instead, he rebuilds the exact room Vermeer used. This is Jenison in the whole Thor Heyerdahl mode. Fair enough. But here is the crazy part: he can’t get the furniture, mirrors, throw rugs, costumes, windows, floor tiles and harpsicord so instead of procuring an expert to make them he decides to learn to make them himself! It takes months. But for what purpose? In what way does making the furniture himself add authenticity. It is also completely implausible. You can’t just pick up those skills. His attempt is comical.

7. It makes no sense to make three hundred year old furniture yourself

As you watch that part you think this guy is crazy but dedicated. The point is that, having supposedly made the furniture, spending 100 odd days doing meticulous painting is easy to stomach.

But suppose you spend 100 days painting a picture, what would you do with that picture? The first thing surely is to exhibit it. But that is not what Jenison does.

8. Jenison’s painting is hung in his own bedroom

Come on. At least put it in the living room.

Wouldn’t an achievement like this warrant going to the “technology sceptics” and seeing what they thought. The way this documentary is supposed to go is that you illustrate the controversy, you find the biggest, meanest looking sceptical against your thesis and film them saying “it can’t be done,” then you triumph and bring them the picture and have them eat crow.

9. No sceptics are part of the documentary

The whole controversy is asserted. I’m sure it exists but my point is that you would want to turn someone towards your cause or at least make them look like an obvious fool. But that doesn’t happen. There is, in fact, no triumph beyond the inner circle who would all have to be in on the hoax if it was occurring.

I am not totally convinced this is a hoax despite the nine doubts I have raised. Any number of these can easily be disproven should anyone of significance read this article and so I would be thrilled to be proven wrong here. Personally, I would love to learn a technique like this and produce some art. But I just don’t think that is going to happen. Go ahead, Penn Jillette, make my day.

What about my 10th doubt? I was hoping to have one but I don’t. What I do have is.

10. Teller never speaks

[Update (20th June 2014): Over at Medium where this post is replicated, a user called “Straylight” who says they are the editor of Tim’s Vermeer, has responded to most of the doubts raised above. Clearly, if that is the case, then my hypothesis that this is a Penn and Teller hoax would be disproved. In particular, he did find one person on Twitter who claimed to have replicated the technique. This is one of those situations where I am more than happy to have been proven wrong.]

[Updates (6th July 2014): Some more examples of people trying out Tim Jenison’s technique have come in here and here. Also Tim Jenison himself contacted me with some instructions in terms of how to do it. My intention is to build a more robust device — still out of Lego — and to try it out more seriously. It might take a while. It isn’t easy.]

[Update (7th July 2014): Penn Jillette has now responded to this post. It is here at 65 minutes on his podcast. Suffice it to say, as I knew already, my hypothesis that this was a hoax is completely off-base. Of course, because I admitted it, he didn’t have an opportunity to make as much fun of me as he would have. I’m sorry for that because that would have been interesting.

Anyhow, just in case your interest isn’t strong enough to listen to the podcast, let me summarise his responses to each of the 10 doubts.

  1. Tim’s device isn’t available for purchase: Penn agreed this was surprising but Tim Jenison will likely produce one.
  2. No one appears to have tried Jenison’s technique: Penn also agrees with this as surprising but it is hard.
  3. It is not easy or obviously possible to replicate something like Jenison’s contraption: there I clearly got the design wrong and Penn also said that Lego wasn’t available in the 17th century.
  4. Penn and Teller have all the incentives in the world to produce a hoax documentary: here he admitted that I was right to be sceptical and, in fact, when they pitched the documentary several people thought it was a hoax. So I’ll take that to mean that I’m not really a crackpot.
  5. They never show Jenison doing more than a few strokes: obviously, that would be like “watching paint dry” and so they didn’t do that. I or anyone else can contact them to sit through 2,400 hours of footage. What I was thinking here is that they could have had a timelapse thing but ok.
  6. There was ample opportunity to study the original Music Lesson: apparently there wasn’t while they were making the movie but now the Queen has agreed to a high quality scan so that is coming.
  7. It makes no sense to make three hundred year old furniture yourself: apparently Tim only made a chair. I still think that he didn’t have to learn woodworking but ok.
  8. Jenison’s painting is hung in his own bedroom: here Penn takes issue with my use of the word “hung.” It should have said “it is hanging” or something like that. I’m an economist not a grammatrician for goodness sake. Then again I’m pretty darn terrible on that whole proper use of English stuff. That said, it is a compliment about the painting — get it out there.
  9. No sceptics are part of the documentary: so this turned out to be a big issue that they actually made a conscious choice about at the behest of Steve Martin no less. Basically, they didn’t want a straw man and also the possibility that there was some balance there. They wanted it to be Tim’s story. Fair enough.
  10. Teller never speaks: ha ha. ]

92 Replies to “10 Reasons to doubt Tim's Vermeer”

  1. I would say that the biggest reason to have doubts is because, at least in the final cut that I streamed online, known elements about the composition and construction are not addressed. The pinhole at the vanishing point, for instance, the wet-on-wet technique that was well known, that they don’t acknowledge that there is an inventory of Vermeer’s possessions because he died in debt and there were no optics on that list, that he painted people painting women, as he did, and there are no optics in those images, that Vermeers are not photorealistic, if he was hiding his secret knowledge he was hiding the secret of not being a very successful painter in his day, etc, etc. And I don’t think the final products are put side by side for direct comparison. But yeah, I’d say the movie is engaging and Tim is a freaking brainiac who wears a size 32 hat, eats loads of fish, and moves in mysterious ways.

  2. Nice argument, Josh, and I too would wonder about the absence of a time-lapse shot.

    The ultimate argument on the other side is that this would not be a very interesting hoax. All it would prove is that you can lie to people and they will believe you. A good hoax needs to make a larger point, Sokal-style – and Penn and Teller, I suspect, well understand this.

  3. I just heard this page mentioned on Penn’s Sunday School podcast. At the end of the episode, he says he’ll address it in next week’s episode!

    I’m not going to weigh in on most of your points, but I will say that I was inspired to try the technique too. I’ve never painted before (I’m a computer game programmer), but it worked for me. My write-up of the process and pictures of the results is here:


  4. I can draw and paint, and, especially when it was a skill I exercised, I could skillfully draw and paint “realistic” paintings/portraits. If you have the natural skill, doing realistic art is not incredible. It’s just something you can do. But the thing I found most incredible (and unbelievable) about the movie is Tim’s alleged ability to “match” real colors with paint colors. That is not a natural skill, in my opinion. In large part, it is a skill you need to learn.

    Wherever you are, look around. Look at one part of one thing, maybe your hand, maybe a can of soda. Now look closer, and try to isolate the color. Now pretend you have Tim’s device, and that the device allows you to use paint to match whatever color you’ve isolated. But you’re not a trained artist. You’ve leaned how to mix/make paints so you have the basic and meager array of colors available in Vermeer’s day–but nothing like the wall of colors you’d find at a modern art supplies store. How do you mimic the precise color you see? I think it’s excrutiatingly difficult to do so–without training. And it’s even more difficult to mimic that precise color by, in part, teeny strokes directly on the canvas. I also think that if you were to proceed in this manner there’d be a lot of errors and paint-build-up.

    So that’s my main beef here. Was Tim really the untrained artist he claimed to be, or, if he really accomplished what the movie seems to suggest he accomplished, didn’t he have considerably more training–and talent–than we were led to believe?

    1. Thank you. All this talk about science and nothing about art! As a trained artist I could trace something on tracing paper and, because I understand form and line, and draw…could produce something much more compelling than someone who has never drawn. Now we are talking about adding color to the equation? Warm vs. cool, saturation, tone. Underpainting. Undertone. Drawing a lovely line. Impossible for a non artist. Also a non artist could not make up for the difference between his and the original models even with period costumes etc
      . If he turned out a crude, paint by numbers with decent perspective…maybe. Magnificent duplication? No way! Gary

  5. I just saw the film and was totally excited to try this. I took a simple mirror I got from a makeup compact from the dollar store and glue it to a stick, propped up some books, rigged some flashlights, and set up a work space to draw a 2″ x 3″ photo of Lincoln. I am not an artist and have no drawing skills. This took me about 1/2 an hour: http://i.imgur.com/teGLPZp.jpg Maybe not the best drawing ever (it’s only about 3 inches tall) but certainly my best. I’m now going to try harder projects and even painting some. I’d be happy to share the results.

  6. Bob, there is a pinhole at the vanishing point in Tim’s Vermeer. It was the obvious way to draw the orthogonal lines on the windows. I stuck a pin into the vanishing point and used a ruler to trace the lines in the optical image. That didn’t make it into the film. As to the optics in Vermeer’s death inventory, there would have been two common mirrors, and the lens could well have been borrowed from a telescope, which were plentiful at the time. Vermeer expert Jonathan Janson tried out the machine and reports on it’s compatibility with what is known about Vermeer’s techniques here: http://flyingfox.jonathanjanson.com/2014/06/21/tims-vermeer-from-a-a-painters-point-of-view/

  7. While the comparator mirror used in Tim’s Vermeer has a family resemblance to a camera lucida, you cannot use a camera lucida to copy the colors and values.

  8. Tim, I watched your the movie and was enthralled both times. Renaissance geniuses still live! Your perserverence and curiosity are inspiring. I enjoyed this movie on so many levels. My attempt at a jerry-rigged version of your comparator mirror was not very successful. Do you have any secrets regarding the shape/ size of the mirror. Thank you! (P.S. I look forward to what you will do next)

  9. I’ll add that I loved the movie. I’m somewhat artistic and use a variety of technology to produce realistic paintings. But projectors and slides are cumbersome. And while great for sketching an outline, it’s done in the dark and then you’ve got to transfer to a reference photo for painting details. And I’ve never been one for painting by grids. What a pain.

    Thus I am interested in replicating the 2nd device. The concave mirror was an easy purchase – I found a cheap 10″ one at a national bath/home store. But I’m having a hell of a time finding a double convex lens. I’m figuring at a minimum it would need to be 6″, maybe closer to 8″. Anyone have a spare one laying around in Atlanta? And of course I have ideas (dreams) of adapting this to paint on larger canvases or other materials – and speculating about how to scale for using a photo as reference material instead of a room mock-up some 20 feet away. Smaller reference with larger output versus life size reference with smaller output. Any input and/or collaboration … or spare lenses… would be appreciated.

  10. loved the movie; agree there are still some unanswered questions, like how did Vermeer paint View of Delft c1660-61.

    1. I see no reason this could not be done anywhere including outside or out a window. I can not think of any problems, just set up your lens and mirrors like setting up a camera. I camera with the 2-4 month exposure time.

      I loved the movie too.

  11. I think one of the important thing about the comparator mirror is that you should use the “First Surface Mirror”. This is were the reflective layer is on the top surface not behind a layer of glass. Second is the mirror need to be located above the section of the painting you working on, so if working on the middle the mirror needs to be above the middle of the canvas.

    Edmund Optical sells First Surface Mirrors and mounts. I am ordering some to give it a try as I have zero art skills so should be interesting. If it come out as good as Jon results I will be very happy.

  12. Fascinating film. Don’t know if it is a clever hoax but if it is genuine then at the very least Tim Jenison is being disingenuous when he says he is not an artist. He clearly is based on his ability to mix the colours needed alone. He didn’t appear to make any colour matching mistakes as he was going along though I guess these could have been edited out. And, yes, why on earth did he hang the painting in his bedroom?

  13. The true genius of Tim’s Vermeer and presentations by Hockney, Steadman and Falco et al., is the sheer volume of conversation generated through armchair expertise; skepticism; experimentation and most importantly, a fervent desire to learn more about Vermeer and the Golden Age. This is a good thing.

  14. Just today I saw a commercial for a new children’s toy from Crayola called the Sketch Wizard; it reminded me of Tim’s tool, so much in fact that I want to buy one for myself!

  15. Hello
    For anybody interested I put together a seven minute YouTube video regarding the movie Tim’s Vermeer. Since Penn and Teller are noted skeptics I felt it was imperative I used my 15+ years in amateur astronomy to debunk some of the claims made in the movie. I’ve included the link here. the basic flaw is that the optical Technology wasn’t available in the 1600s namely concave mirror manufacturing.

  16. Thanks for the link – they did experiment with concave mirrors but they could not make a usable one in the 1600s and anyway not the 21st Century optical powerhouse that Tim used.

  17. Hi

    In the interests of fairness, you should post a note right at the top of the article that explains that Teller responded to all your criticisms below.
    That will save people having to ready your entire article, only to know it was largely debunked, which will save people valuable time.

  18. Kat,

    I’ve seen that Crayola Sketch Wizard and also thought of Tim’s Vermeer. However after taking a better look, the Sketch Wizard instead seems to be a toy version of a camera lucida. Old comic book ads used to sell variations of this called a “Magic Art Reproducer”.

  19. It’s interesting that idiots who cannot do things criticise those of us who can. Typical of the 2100 century mindset who grew up playing video games not inventing either them or anything else of value.

  20. buy these on amazon and you can make the mirror (take off rubber grip)

    Lisle 32050 Telescoping Mirror
    SE MZ101B Helping Hand Magnifier

    you can also use a hobby vise to hold the mirror

  21. Not only is Tim’s Vermeer hanging in his bedroom but it’s way too high to be appreciated. In the last scene, Tim’s head is about level with the bottom of the frame…the top third of any framed art needs to hang at eye level to be viewed properly.

    1. I’m an artist and I knew exactly and instantly why he hung it both where, and how high – to protect it – it’s in a family home with kids on the loose and other general day to day household goings-on. Try create a detailed painting yourself and once it’s done you’ll immediately understand the instinctive sense of protectiveness you have over it.

  22. Who would ever doubt that a guy on roller skates and a fan strapped to his back could paint a Vermeer? Haters gonna hate, I guess.

  23. Loved the movie & the idea. The only part I could really disagree with was the idea that people can’t see or work the fading/ shading of light. I’m a photog but not a great one. I got into painting with the hopes it would give me a better eye. I think it has worked well except I no longer want to take pics as much as I want to play around with paints!. I was thinking on Adam’s & all the zone system type photog’s that are extremely sensitive to light changes. These guys could work magic (oops I said the M word) on tonal changes in the dark room. The camera takes a static shot but they could bring out highlights or darken up areas if they so desired. Any way that’s my nickels worth.

  24. Correct me if I’m wrong but this keeps bothering me: Vermeer very obviously painted with the age old techniques of glazing and scumbling over a detailed underpainting building his work up in layers. Pretty much all the old masters painted that way in the 17th century. Jenison uses a more modern technique of direct painting which cannot produce the exact same effects that glazing does. How can someone who gave such meticulous attention to all areas of the project fail to notice he was painting in an entirely different manner than Vermeer? Glazing causes light to penetrate the paint film entirely differently than direct painting and you won’t get satisfactory results. This could even be seen from the glimpses of the painting in the video yet nothing on it was ever mentioned or noticed.Not claiming it’s a hoax or anything; just an incredible oversight? In Vermeer’s “Girl with a Wineglass” Vemeer underpainted the red-orange dress in umber and white and then glazed it over with red. Jenison’s method would paint direct.. He would, in effect be making an alla prima copy of a glazed garment and it couldn’t possibly give the same result could it? I’m confused.

    1. I completely agree with you. For me the issue is that Jenison’s experiment does not conform with the scientific analyses of Vermeer’s pictures, which show that he painted in layers, starting with a dark underpainting which has no lines. These underpaintings are almost a complete tonal ‘mapping’ of the picture, which Vermeer relies on for some of his further painting.
      An example is the coat the girl wears in the Girl with a Peal Earring, which is just one thin layer of ochre on top of the dark first layer.
      Vermeer did not make mixtures of colour as Jenison does, he uses optical mixtures, the result of glazing one transparent colour on top of another opaque one. Vermeer, like other painters of his day, tended to use cheap colours like the earths underneath, and the brighter more expensive pigments on top layers.
      Also Vermeer’s paintings show a variation in focus: his paintings are blurred,something also completely absent from Tim Jension’s effort.

      To see a way that Vermeer could have transferred images from a camera obscura, correcting the orientation of the projection, and allowing him to do most of this work in the light of his studio, see my experiment at http://www.printedlight.co.uk.
      This practical project also explains the Vermeer’s strange tonal underpaintings, the variable focus, and some of his pigment choices.
      All it needs to work is a simple piece of paper; a very different investment from Jenison’s 3 mirrors and a lens….

      Jane Jelley Oxford Uk

  25. Try replacing your mirror with a piece of “security” glass. It makes using the optic “machine” child’s play. Security glass was widely used before closed circuit TV cameras were invented. If Penn were to stand facing Teller holding a piece of this glass up between them, he would see the reflection of his face superimposed over Teller’s face, as long as Teller’s face was illuminated. So if Tim had used security glass the same way he used a mirror to paint his father-in-law’s high school portrait, he could have looked straight down through the mirror and seen the paint brush on the canvas portrait he was painting.
    You could look for this glass at a commercial window and mirror glass shop if they have been around for awhile. They may have an old piece in storage.
    But this only lets you trace the outlines of the images, it does not make a painter out of you.
    Further, you can avoid distortion in the tracing by drawing a small cross hair at the center of the target picture and another on your canvas (on a small piece of masking tape). Before you put your pencil to the canvas, make sure the cross hairs are lined up, and keep them lined up while you trace.
    But did Vemeer have this type of glass available to him? Maybe. But even so, it would only have accomplished 5% of the work. The other 95% is talent.
    Thanks for the wonderful movie.

  26. 1. Jenison made the contraption himself.
    2. Nobody else has had the urge to do the same.
    3. Yes, it wasn’t easy. The movie makes that clear.
    4. You may have fraudulent motives. #fallacious
    5. A movie showing hours of his work would be boring.
    6. He could have made it other ways. He says its possible Vermeer did it like the way he did. That’s the point.
    7. “It makes no sense to three hundred year old furniture yourself.” If you want to make a photographic tracing of it in the manner of Jenison it does.
    8. C’mon. You’re just trying to get to ten.
    9. “They wanted it to be Tim’s story” is not actually a reason for doubt. You’ve whiffed nine in a row.
    10. I called it back at #8.

  27. I also had my doubts about the film. Tim Jenison went over the top by replicating the furniture. That shouldn’t have been necessary. But if he had not tried to replicate all the conditions so exactly he would have been criticised for not doing so. Makes me question your criticism for doing what he did.

    Then I thought I would try to replicate his apparatus. I thought it would be difficult. It took me about 20 minutes. I used an old Starret holder for a micrometer run-out gauge and hot glued a small mirror on the end at a 45 degree angle. Worked perfectly, I found it very easy to replicate lines and colours. I didn’t go to the extent of mounting the convex mirror but it wasn’t necessary to prove the concept.

    There are now two or three Web sites that have similar and perhaps simpler mechanisms.

    Tim Jenison did not paint a Vermeer. Only Vermeer could have done that. But he did show that Vermeer could COULD have used some similar apparatus. I think it likely.

  28. Howdy. I didn’t read every comment. Who has that much time?? I did read the one about how difficult it is to match a color perfectly and correctly. I work as a touch up artist and it’s very very hard to match a color exactly. I’d like to believe the things in the film too, but the other thing that stuck out to me (and I don’t know if anyone else has commented on this yet) is the fact that Vermeer, I assume, was using natural lighting. So how do you get the same natural lighting to stay the same during a time consuming painting process like that?
    I’m just sayin’.
    I don’t usually join in these little chats but I wanted to share my observations.

    1. YES! I watched Tim’s Vermeer on Netflix last night and that was the major question I had about the film as I was watching it. I assumed they would address the light issue, but they never did. If Tim was using natural light only, to duplicate Vermeer’s conditions, this technique simply wouldn’t work. The lighting would be changing by the minute and would completely distort the subtle hues that Tim was painstakingly matching. You would only have a small window of opportunity to paint at the same time every day!

      1. @ Jeremy. You say that Tim could not possibly do this by natural lighting… why not? Don’t you think that Vermeer did it by natural lighting?

      2. The point I was trying to make was that the position of the sun is constantly changing, so if Tim is sitting there painting for 4-8 hours straight, the way the objects are illuminated would change rather dramatically resulting in the painting(Tim’s) looking quite off in terms of his use of light, but it didn’t so it is my beleif that he was using artificial light to keep it consistent while he painted. I beleive that for Tim’s technique to be effective, you would need to use artificial light, which is something Vermeer did not have. Eg- imagine using the technique and natural light and starting to paint the vase in the afternoon. You get half done and it gets too dark to continue. You begin painting again the following morning, and there would be a noticeable difference between the object in the little mirror and portion that was painted the previous day because the lighting is very different. So to answer your question, yes I do beleive Vermeer used natural light, but I don’t think he used Tim’s technique. I think he was simply an awesome artist and savant and didn’t need to use any tricks to produce his paintings. What about people who can multiply large numbers in their head and give you the answer in a second. Are they using some sort of trick? No, they just have that ability and it’s hard for people who can’t do it to understand how it’s possible, but it is.

    2. You make an interesting observation but I’m not sure of it’s relevance. Regardless of how Vermeer painted, and under what lighting conditions he used, the point is that he did it. And we can pretty much be certain that he did not paint a copy of a color photograph.
      If Tim didn’t rely on natural lighting alone. That would allow him to paint into the night, but Vermeer probably had no choice.

    3. Yes! I just saw the film, and could not get this question out of my mind. Why did they not even address it? Light is the most important part of a painting’s composition. The old masters must have had an equally ingenious way to deal with the problem of ever changing natural light. Figure that one out, Tim. Then let us know!

      1. All painters of long poses have to deal with changing light. Their completed paintings attest to the feasibility of doing so, regardless of method. That one cannot fathom how it is done is hardly a refutation.

  29. I’m on my second painting using Tims technique and I have to say I’m quite happy with the results. I’d be happy to show you my works if your interested. I have pictures during the process.


  30. An interesting article but I have to think that you are an Idiot. Simply because you draw so many firm conclusions that must be accepted as fact in order to support your position. “You never see Jenison doing more than a few strokes… the device is not for sale… the picture is not on display…” You make these point and seem to insist that there is only ONE plausible answer to each…. yours and yours alone. Obviously from reading other’s post, they have tried successfully to reproduce the technique, but you have not. Therefore I conclude that either all of these people are somehow connected to this hoax or you really are an Idiot!

  31. It’s easy to sit back on these chats and call other people idiots, isn’t it, dummy. (haha. kidding)Seems like people like to use these back and forth conversations to rant. Funny. But back to the issue at hand, I wouldn’t doubt that Tim’s technique might work (I haven’t tried it…I prefer to draw in my own way) for copying photos, or for copying reality in an artificial light setting. Might work great. But I don’t see how Vermeer could use this method in a natural lighting situation. I’ve said this before and I haven’t read where anyone can explain how he could. Someone before me wrote: “The general thrust of the experiment is the representation of space, not color.” but watch the film again. it is indeed for duplicating the color and the color CHANGES in natural light. Right? The technique might work. I don’t deny that. But I doubt if Vermeer needed that technique for his paintings. He probably had…………..talent.

    1. Using an easel would not have stopped color from changing due to natural lighting variation. If Vermeer worked around the issue of color change while painting at an easel he would have been able to work around it as well using a set up similar to Tim’s. No one has said that Vermeer had no…………talent.

      1. We’ll never know if he used a reflection method or not. I’m just glad we’re not calling each other names any more!

  32. Your arguments are nonsensical. Artist’s have used the camera obscura since the Renaissance (da Vinci probably used it), as well as other so-called “cheats” (Michelangelo, for example, used plaster cats of arms and legs to copy from). Today’s artists do the same with photographs or projection techniques on the canvas.

    Penn Jilette summed it up nicely when he commented that people don’t want their idols to have feet of clay.

  33. Generally speaking, changing light is not the problem you might think when using the comparator mirror process because the canvas and the room are lit by the same sky. When the room darkens or gets bluer, for example, so does the canvas. The comparison at the edge of the mirror is unaffected. In a manner of speaking, the machine has a built in automatic brightness and automatic white balance control.

  34. So…when the sun goes down and the room goes dark and the canvas goes dark you are still mixing bright afternoon sunshine colors to paint with?
    I’m sorry. That doesn’t make sense to me.
    I think I know why all the believers will try to think up anything they can to try to disprove the fact that Tim’s reflective copy method can’t work in a natural light situation. It’s the same reason I wanted to believe the whole thing when I first saw it. We like Tim…we think his idea and his device is clever and, here’s what really gets us, he breaks into tears when he completes all his hard work. That gets to our emotions. That affects our heart so now we’re hooked and we’ll believe no matter how many facts are presented to us. I believe that Tim could have copied the room he built, with his device. I don’t believe that Vermeer could have copied his room in the same way….and it’s not because I don’t want my “idols to have feet of clay”, as someone suggested. It’s just that I feel it would be impossible for anyone to copy a sunlit room in that way and I haven’t heard a logical argument against it yet.

    1. It works. The room and machine are still set up. You are welcome to come and try it. Think of trying to match two paint chips. You can do this in a wide variety of lighting levels and color. Daylight, tungsten, fluorescent, etc. And this process is very much like matching two paint chips. Of course I didn’t paint at night. I would typically paint from about noon until three or four PM.

      1. In any event, exact color matching is somewhat moot as Tim was attempting to recreate what he believes was the method Vermeer used in painting an original work of art. Note I said ‘original.’ Vermeer was not attempting to copy the colors of someone else’s painting, but rather look at his subject matter and paint colors accordingly. There can be no denying that the light was ever changing and that Vermeer compensated for this either by taking into account changing light conditions, as Tim notes is feasible, or by painting at the same time each day, or modifying colors as an artist may see fit.

      2. Well if you’ve got it set up in a natural light setting and are doing it and you say it works then I stand corrected. It wouldn’t be the first time I was wrong.

      3. I have several pictures of my children that I would love to make black and white oil paintings of. I recently watched your documentary and promptly made a mirror on a small boom. I’m definitely doing something wrong as they are not turning out accurately. I Would fly to Texas tomorrow to see your device and pick your brain. Even if it was for only a few minutes.

  35. Having watched the documentary and then read this fascinating critique, there is one thing that makes me quite sceptical of it, not mentioned in the article: I wonder how Tim got round the problem of exposure compensation? We are talking of a painting that was produced over a period of months – whereas a camera shot is taken in a fraction of a second. It seems to me that the lighting conditions could not possibly have been sufficiently constant for the colour-matching-at-the-edge-of-the-mirror technique to work. After watching the film I went out to capture some photographs in the late evening in a field of rape, and even in the 20 minutes I was there, the lighting changed dramatically as the sun passed through clouds and emerged. Hence the quality, luminosity, brilliance of the image captured by a camera over a period of several months, or even several hours, would change dramatically.

    Sometimes I like to do “panorama” shots where several images are stitched together digitally. One attempts to get the exposure the same on each of the shots, and even if it’s a bit out, a clever program like photoshop can compensate for exposure differences and match them up seamlessly. But here we have a “panorama” of hundreds and hundreds of shots, and the painter would have to make sure the exposure was compensated by eye – which would completely invalidate the technique of matching the colour at the edge of the mirror.

    Hence I don’t think this can be done by natural light – it might be achievable with artificial lights, mounted, for example outside the window, so that the lighting conditions were exactly reproducible. But such things would not have been available to Vermeer.

    1. I have just seen this addressed in the previous comment, which I didn’t have time to read. But I’m still quite sceptical. The key element, as I understood it from the film, was to match the exact hue, saturation, brightness at the edge of the mirror, so you would be matching the colour as it appeared at the time – over a period of hours, the position of the sun changes, and the quality of light would vary considerably if the sun was passing in and out of clouds.

      1. I’ve been to Tim’s warehouse and looked through his angled mirror. It’s the real deal and I find it preposterous that anyone would question his technique.

      2. You find it preposterous do you. Preposterous that anyone should question something….that they saw in a movie? I say to you, good sir, that a well worded question is a healthy thing. A healthy and necessary thing indeed. It is not at all preposterous, and quite logical to question the issue of changing lighting in a copying system such as this.
        Good day to you! 😉

    2. The lighting factor was my concern as well. People here say it’s not an issue. Tim says it’s not an issue but I find it hard to believe. If you copy the lighting in a natural light setting onto different spots on a canvas, as it changes, it would seem that you would have a very strange looking painting in the end, with lots of conflicting shades and colors. Another thing: It is hard to believe that a talented artist would have patience for such a time consuming copying process. Most artists, I do believe, enjoy the process of creating on their own and not copying. I think a copying process like this is for people who are not artistically capable of creating art themselves.
      Just my opinion.

      1. Yeah, after reading Tim’s explanation of how the lighting doesn’t matter and it’s like matching paint chips, so you can accurately match paint chips in a brightly colored room or dimmer room I was thinking okay that actually makes sense. But then I thought about it a bit more and was like no it doesn’t, because you would be matching paint chips where the shade of the color is constantly changing. If you were using the copying technique using a photograph, which is what he did earlier in the film, I can see it not being a factor because the lighting within the photo never changes. However, staging the scene with props and people by a large window, relying on natural light would be much different. Even if he did only paint between the hours of 12:00-4:00 pm, what about cloudy days? There would be much difference when it comes to the amount of sunshine coming through that window. Loved the documentary and think Tim is incredibly smart and talented, so I don’t want to call him a liar, but my feeling is that artificial light was used to keep the lighting consistent or a photo of the scene was taken and then Tim copied that. Maybe I’m wrong, and he had consistently sunny days while doing the painting and the sun did not shift significantly enough during the four hours while he painted every day to cause a problem.

  36. I’m also trying to replicate the apparatus from Tim’s Vermeer. I got the flat mirror working and I found a suitable lens in a solar oven shop (700 mm focal length). Thing is, I can’t find any specifics about the concave mirror. Anybody here has them?

  37. I have received the actual mirrors and lenses Tim used in his movie. Tim sent the Optics from NewTek. I knew Tim way back in the early 90s when NewTek was located in the Bay Area Tim sent the device to me for me to experiment and try to reproduce at least in principle what he accomplished in the movie. Now I was able to reproduce an object using the setup however moving around the workspace without significantly changing the size of the object in the diagonal. at this point I can no longer work on a project because I would need a second opinion regarding the optical device Tim invented.

  38. Hockney has proven beyond any shadows of a doubt that earlier artists used optical aids in producing art? And why not? An artist will use any help to lessen working time, including having all the grunt work accomplished by assistants.

  39. I have not read all the comments. I have used Tim Jenison’s device. I have done two sketches with it at the MONA – The Museum of Old and New Art in Tasmania Australia. I have also seen the documentary and I have seen the painting that Tim did. It is on display at the museum. There are also seven artists from around the world there, who are currently painting using the large device that Tim developed for his painting and also using the small mirror on the arm. I was impressed. I will read your post in full soon but I wanted to share my experience with you.

  40. 78 Years ago, on my 11th birthday my parents gave me a toy-copier constructed with a reflecting prism that worked flawless & effortless.
    The could have mentioned HAN VAN MEEGEREN ar least once !

  41. It worked damn well, for me. I find one of the biggest differences between so-called “great” artistry and mediocrity is the standards one holds to one’s own work in order to execute. Many are content with illustrating stick figures. And others obsess day and night over creating an image resembling reality as closely as possible. Tim is probably one of the “others”.

  42. I’ve actually used this device at MONA in Hobart Australia, and managed to produce a pretty fair likeness in pencil of Vermeer’s Pearl Earing painting.

    I could easily believe that someone with a good understanding of colour could use it to product photo like paintings.

  43. I’ve used the contraption which Tim uses in a Gallery in Australia (MONA in Hobart, Tasmania), I think it is possible, with some natural ability to do what he did, the apparatus is surprisingly simple to use, and I have put a crude picture of it on my Instagram page (@melarmstrong). I agreed though on your Fakeumentary proposal.

  44. One reason you seem not to have found mirrors at the time you wrote this, is because you can make one of these from household items in a few seconds. It took me a lot longer because I wasted a lot of time tracking down first surface mirrors, which are necessary for color replication, but since my experiments were in black and white, there was no need to have perfect color for those.

    The lens and rear view mirror are only necessary if like Vermeer you were painting an actual room at distance. If you want to make your own comparator mirror for copying art work, they only cost a few cents.

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