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Three Lessons Jan Vermeer has taught me

August 17, 2019
Vermeer street photography

Jan Vermeer (1632-1675), holland artist famous for his canvas in which he painted domestic life scenes with an awesome light and wonderful colors. He made only 36 paintings in his artist career. In his works sometimes point of view is behind a curtain or door: we look like curious voyeur. In most of the scenes the subjects don’t look at us, they are making something inside a room (reading, studying) and we are “spying” them. Light, colors, composition and naturalness of the scene catch our eyes.

It seems that Jan Vermeer used also the Camera Oscura before painting on canvas. We can hypothesize this essentially looking at one of his work, The lace maker in which objects in foreground are blurry, as a photo with elements out of focus. We don’t know exactly if Vermeer used the camera obscura or moreover in which paintings. But probably there is a link between his art and photography. In this article I’d like show you 3 lessons Jan Vermeer has taught me and essentially how you can improve your photography.

Vermeer street photography

He is also the painter of one of the most famous portrait of the history, his masterpiece Girl with a pearl earring, called also the Holland Mona Lisa. I’ve posted this beautiful painting at opening of this article. But let’s see how Jan Vermeer can teach you something also in your photography. I’ve learned from him almost 3 important lessons. Let’s see better in detail which ones.

1. Gestures, actions

Probably the most important to me. He painted people doing always something. Reading, playing piano, studying… Hand gestures (and actions) are fundamental to catch view’s eyes, even in your photography. Think to modern street photography on social, all about walking people or persons doing repetitive and busy actions like talking or chatting with their smartphones. Obviously these are not “good gestures”, they are usual and normal, don’t give any emotion or sense to a picture. Looking at Vermeer’s paintings you can see how simple hand gestures or facial expression can give something more to a normal scene.

For example look at following canvas, Woman in blu:

Vermeer street photography

The action is simple, she is reading a letter. Who is the addresser? A boyfriend? The father? The mother? Vermeer painted this woman focused on reading with both hands holding the letter and mouth a bit open. Is she reading aloud? The scene is natural and simple, but Vermeer has created a story with multiple interpretations: for example who is the addresser? You can feel a sort of suspence in an otherwise silent scene. This suspence (suggested but not painted) is what give a soul to the picture. Now think at the same scene with a person doing nothing. Ok probably a beautiful composition with wonderful light and colors and whatever you want, but at the end of the day what else? Where is the emotion? It is the same for your street photography! Try to tell a story or give something more than shooting simple walking people. So look at actions and gestures!

2. Light

Second important aspect about Vermeer’s works: light. It’s an fundamental element also in photography because we essentially photograph it. Looking at Vermeer’s paintings you can see how light is important in his works. For example watch how in one of his great masterpiece as The milkmaid he used light entering from a window to give life to the scene, creating contrast with shadows, lighting colors… It’s a “materic paint”, light filters through a “thick and creamy milk” and through “creaking wickers” of the basket reflecting also on a cold blue ceramic. In most of his canvas light enters from a window on the left. Selective light on things and faces help viewer’s eyes to catch the essential.

Vermeer street photography

Also in your photography (street, landscape, portrait…) light is one of the most important thing. Try to photograph the same scene under different lights. Personally I love sunset light (golden hour) with cold colors and long shadows when I’m doing both street and landscape photography.

3. Composition and perspective

Jan Vermeer was a master also in composition and perspective. Often he used different elements to give the idea of depth and three-dimensionality of the scene like diagonals and objects in the foreground… He created multiple depth levels in his pictures. He was great also in composition of the scene using lines to guide eyes on the main subjects. Elements are usually well balanced in his works; his compositions facilitate the reading of the painting. Below some practical examples directly from his masterpieces.

Vermeer street photography

Vermeer street photography

Vermeer street photography

Vermeer street photography

Personally I love how Jan Vermeer introduce the viewer into his works helping to focus on main subjects of the scene. These are only few examples that describe how he composed his images giving also a perfect sense of perspective. Look how he often used diagonals painting objects (like tables, chairs) and tiles in particular spatial orientation.

Composition is another important thing for the final result also in photography. Henry Cartier Bresson was a great master in geometries and compositions of the scene. Every great photographer knows these rules and has his personal style. You have to study both magnum photographers and great painters like Jan Vermeer to improve your skill as visual artist. Enjoy.


That’s all folks

Stay well, have always light in your life

Best, F.S


Read also:

Three things Munch has teached me

Street photography: mental issues

The circular rhythm of life

Read more articles about Art clicking here

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