Saturday Selections: Tim’s Vermeer

A documentary about a guy copying a painting sounds about as exciting as watching paint dry, but the film Tim’s Vermeer pulled me into a fascinating world that shows how science and art aren’t mutually exclusive.

Tim's Vermeer, Tim Jenison, Penn & Teller

Tim’s Vermeer, a fabulous film at 38,000 feet or ground level.

Never heard of Tim’s Vermeer?

Me neither, but when you’re stuck in a tube of death (my cheery term for “airplane”) for nine and a half hours, you have to find something to do. I don’t normally like watching movies on planes because with popped ears and engine noise it’s hard to hear the dialogue without risking major hearing loss (I’m a tad over-protective of my ears).

Still, I was at the point where my eyes and brain couldn’t focus on reading, I had my crappy airplane meal in front of me and so I browsed through the movie options available. Being a huge fan of Vermeer’s art, Tim’s Vermeer caught my attention so I shrugged my cramped-into-economy-class shoulders and decided to give it a chance.

I’m so glad I did!

The Premise of Tim’s Vermeer

Tim is Tim Jenison, an inventor and all around uber-clever guy. Somehow he’s hooked up with the magicians/comedians Penn & Teller and has decided to paint his own Vermeer painting.

Keep in mind that Tim has never painted anything in his life.

Now, if you’ve ever seen a Vermeer painting, you’ll notice how lifelike the image is. Almost like a photograph. I’ve been within inches of “Girl With a Pearl Earring” and within a couple feet of several other Vermeer paintings and they are amazingly detailed and perfectly executed. Tim’s goal: Discover how Vermeer made such realistic images and duplicate the process to make his own painting.

After a few rounds of trial and error, Tim hits on the technique he thinks Vermeer employed (science-based stuff involving lenses and mirrors) and then uses the method to make a painting from a black and white photo of his father-in-law.

The image comes out perfect after only five hours of working on it.

And this is the first thing Tim has ever painted. Holy crap!

Tim is pretty sure he’s hit on the right method, but painting from a photo is not like painting from real life as Vermeer would have done, so it’s time to set up the scene he wants to paint. Rather than going for a simple painting like “Girl With a Pearl Earring,” Tim has chosen one of Vermeer’s most complex paintings to reproduce: “The Music Lesson.” The painting involves minute scroll work on the virginal, a complex pattern on a Persian rug, and intricate patterns on the window panes.

vermeer, music lesson, art, painting

The Music Lesson by Vermeer

To be as authentic as possible, Tim not only builds everything seen in the image (and I mean everything including the tiles and windows), but also grinds his own lens (used as part of the technique), and mixes his own paints using only ingredients Vermeer would have had at his disposal. If nothing else, Tim is meticulous!

Then Tim starts to paint. And I begin to relate to his process.

Tim starts the project with all the enthusiasm I feel when start writing a new book. Then the process turns to tedium, doubts creep in, and even hatred for the project. But on the way Tim also discovers new things about himself and the process. When done, he is beyond words with pride for his accomplishment.

If you can find a copy of Tim’s Vermeer, watch it. It’s a great mix of humor, discovery, and is never bland – unlike my airplane meal.

Want to learn more about the film or see the trailer? Then check out the Tim’s Vermeer page on Sony Classic Studios.

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