How to Paint like the Old Masters?

"The Art of Painting" by Vermeer
"The Art of Painting" by Vermeer

I think many of us DO want to paint like the OLD Masters...

the question is, did the Old Masters paint like the Old Masters? Maybe not.

In the very appropriately titled "The Art of Painting" (see above), by Johannes Vermeer, we are shown a scene of an artist seated at his easel, placing the first few strokes upon the canvas as the model poses in a sunlit studio. Vermeer, a Dutch artist who lived and worked in Delft during the 17th century, presents us with a portrayal of the painter at work that seems archetypal-- it matchs so closely the popular image we have of the Painter-Genius communing with the muses of Truth and Beauty. Vermeer includes many factual details that reflect the practical techniques and tools used by painters, such as the diagonally held mahlstick used to support and steady the hand wielding the brush, and the (apparently) tinted canvas which many painters favor as an underlayer upon which to build up the painting in layers.

Vermeer has a reputation for mystery-- there seems to be much hidden beneath the quiet surfaces of his paintings, with more than meets the eye--- and there is much to meet the eye in each of his beautiful, soberly designed, and exquisitely crafted canvases.  It is appropriate, this reputation for mystery, because it seems that Vermeer may have coyly avoided placing all the cards on the table in his portrayal of "The Art of Painting".

In fact, it appears that many other master painters, not just Vermeer, may have availed themselves of "mysterious" techniques in order to achieve their superlative pictorial results. 

That is the very interesting possibility suggested by the research and ideas of three gentlemen who have invested quite a bit of expertise, ingenuity, and pertinacity into considering, and attempting to answer, the question, "did the Old Masters paint like the Old Masters"?. You will see as you read on that they have conducted some very cool--and controversial-- detective work into the history of painting.

"Girl with a Red Hat" by Vermeer
"Girl with a Red Hat" by Vermeer

If you examine closely "The Girl with a Red Hat" above,

another painting by Vermeer, you may come to feel there is something unique about the look of the painting-- not so much the sort of characteristic that is used to place paintings into classifications such as "neoclassical" or "impressionist".  Rather a much more individualized uniqueness based on the way that light exists in the picture, and how the treatment of the paint and surface allows a special way of seeing that light.  For many years, some scholars felt that this special look of Vermeer's paintings was due to an appreciation of optical effects that are typically seen in photography with various kinds of focal and exposure settings of a camera.  But how would Vermeer have known of such effects?  Photography was not invented till more than a century later.

These same scholars, however, were aware that a different kind of camera was available before the invention of the photographic camera.  The older type of camera is known as a camera obscura, which means, essentially, "dark room".  It is really just a variation on the pinhole camera, sometimes equipped with an optical lens, and allows a person to view or trace a projected image. 

Use of a projected image would also help to explain the precision of drawing and perspective found in Vermeer's paintings.  Of course, the idea that Vermeer might have used a camera obscura was not without controversy.  Would that diminish his achievement as an artist?  Was it cheating?

Whichever way one might feel about the controversy, for a long time there seemed no way to establish "hard" proof one way or the other.  That is, until the publication of a book in 2001 by Philip Steadman

Philip Steadman and Vermeer

Philip Steadman, rather than being an art historian, is a professor of architecture, with strong expertise in linear perspective. Noticing that quite a few of Vermeer's paintings seem to be "set up" in the same room, (look at the setting of "The Art of Painting", above, and the "The Milkmaid", below), Steadman had the idea that it might be possible, due to the extreme precision and consistency of Vermeer's perspective, to reconstruct the actual size and proportions of the room.  Even details such as the decorative tiles shown edging the bottom of the wall in Vermeer's painting "The Milkmaid" (shown at the end of this hub) were important in the reconstruction, since the size of the tiles and the factory where they were made could be identified to the accuracy of Vermeer's painting.  Similarly, the large map that hangs in the background of "The Art of Painting" also helped to reconstruct the size of the room, since actual copies of the map still exist, making its exact dimensions known.

The techniques by which Steadman applied "reverse" perspective to reconstruct the actual dimensions of Vermeer's studio is explained in great detail with illustrations in his book. His website, Vermeer's Camera, (see the below link) also explains much about the research process. The really exciting thing, though, was that Steadman was able to do much more than just reconstruct the room in which Vermeer worked.

Steadman was able to show, using the geometry of perspective, that if the view shown in each of Vermeer's paintings was "projected" through the viewpoint indicated by the painting onto the wall of the reconstructed room, the perspective "projection" would MATCH the size of the actual painting. Which suggested VERY strongly that with a camera obscura lens Vermeer had literally projected an image onto a canvas placed on the wall of the studio.

Steadman's findings have been the subject of a BBC documentary. You can also find additional commentary by Steadman at the below link to a brief article on the "Art and Optics" website. In this article Steadman presents a few comparisons and contrasts between his own work and that of artist David Hockney, who also has presented controversial findings about the use of optics by painters. More on Mr. Hockney and his co-theorist, Charles M. Falco, directly. 

"Bacchus" by Caravaggio
"Bacchus" by Caravaggio

The Hockney-Falco Thesis

If you look at the above painting of Bacchus (the Greco-Roman god of wine), by Caravaggio, you will see that it has been rendered with considerable accuracy in its perspective. You will also notice that Bacchus is holding the glass of wine in his LEFT hand. More on why that is important soon. 

Now, another book that reinterpreted the achievements of painters "in light of" the use of optical equipment was David Hockney's Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters . Whereas Philip Steadman had concentrated on the work of just one artist, Vermeer, Hockney's books looked at the works of dozens of artists over hundreds of years of art history.

Hockney worked on much of his research with optical expert Charles M. Falco. Together, they found evidence of optical "artifacts" (such as tell-tale perspective distortions in portions of paintings) that pointed to the use of a lens to project an image. Or if not a lens, Falco, suggested, then a concave mirror, which could also be used to project an image onto a surface. Besides optical "artifacts", many other interesting pieces of evidence that suggest use of optics are put forward by Hockney. For instance, Hockney noticed that a disproportionate amount of the people shown in old paintings appeared to be LEFT-HANDED, like the Bacchus by Caravaggio. It occurred to Hockney that rather than supposing that such a high percentage of artist's models were left-handed, it made more sense to suppose that the images of right-handed models were being REVERSED by the use of a lens or mirror to create a projection.

Secret Knowledge sets forth many other ideas in support of the Hockney-Falco thesis on the use of optics in art. I would say that Hockney's/Falco's work is more controversial than that of Steadman, because the Hockney-Falco Thesis is much more along the lines of a "sweeping generalization". However, I think it's also because Hockney is willing, eager even, to go out on a bit of a limb and actually court controversy. I'm not always a fan of controversy, but in this case I personally all for it. Not because I entirely agree with Hockney on all of his points. And not because I think that Vermeer depended on a Camera Obscura to be one of the greatest painters of all time. But I think this controversy has generated a great deal of very valuable discussion. Some new things have come to light because of it. Also, more people are now aware of things that were already known, but not WIDELY known. And reading the account of the detective work, sagacity, and energy displayed by Steadman, Hockney, and Falco-- and all of the experts, etc. who have responded to agree or disagree with those three gentlemen-- makes one deeply appreciative--maybe even a little awed-- at the dedication and intelligence of those who dedicate themselves to the practice and the study of art and its techniques and history. 

"Girl with a Pearl Earring" by Vermeer
"Girl with a Pearl Earring" by Vermeer

For a slightly different view on Vermeer's possible use of the Camera Obscura,

you can always check out the DVD of the movie, Girl with a Pearl Earring , or read the book by Tracy Chevalier of the same name, upon which the movie is based. Of course, this fictionalized account may perhaps embellish upon the actual facts. Did Vermeer himself really pierce the model's ear? Were their sessions tense with the emotions of unrequite-able attraction? For Scarlett Johansson fans, the attractions of this movie will be many and obvious. But even if you are considering whether or not to view the movie based solely on its informative worth on actual facts about Vermeer, art and history, I think that there are things to be said in its favor. Details such as the reconstruction of daily life in Delft and life in Vermeer's household probably are based as much on up-to-date historical knowledge as they are on "artistic license" and "narrative necessity". Also, certain ideas are presented that may not be verifiable but do seem practical and insightful. An example is the way in which Vermeer's model DUSTS the furniture and items in the studio. Vermeer, by all accounts, worked quite slowly, and allowing dust to accumulate during the weeks or months devoted to a painting would in all likelihood make it hard to create consistent color and tonal schemes within the painting.

Also, I almost forgot about the camera obscura: In the movie, Vermeer is shown consulting a camera obscura with a ground glass screen upon which to view a small projected image. He uses the device as a compositional aid, but not as an aid to project the actual size image directly onto the canvas. This is a view actually held by some artists and historians who may not be convinced by Steadman's findings.

"The Milkmaid" by Vermeer
"The Milkmaid" by Vermeer

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Comments 14 comments

Les cookson 6 years ago

Below is a link to an interview with David Hockney, where he explains and demonstrates the use of camera obscuras and camera lucidas in the artwork of the Old Masters chronicled in his book “Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters”.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GUs7QqJ87Mc


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watcher by night 6 years ago Author

Les, thanks for the Hockney interview link.


Jim 5 years ago

I think it is great to want to paint like them, but we aren't really sure how they achieved much of what they did. How did artists of the time paint such incredibly large canvases! Even if they projected them, why isn't there great distortion and how did they get such superb detail working so large! I think we are missing something...


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watcher by night 5 years ago Author

Jim, good points. Hockney and others have documented some distortions that do seem to match using optical projection... for example, Hockney's book shows a Caravaggio painting depicting an event from the New Testament in which the outflung hands of a man are not scaled correctly relative to one another... if Caravaggio had built the painting up using a strict linear perspective method, such an error shouldn't have occurred, but if he was using a lens to project and "trace" different sections of the image, one part at a time, it would be easier to make such a scaling error of one part compared to another part. I think that Hockney and Falco and Steadman are definitely onto something, but master artists of the past had a lot of other resources they used, including incredible dedication and skill, used in ways that cannot quite be duplicated by today's artists (or so it seems to me). Without the old masters' work in various types of perspective, I doubt we'd have the CGI effects used in the movies nowadays.


Mirnander 5 years ago

Great article!

I think it's very plausible that many old masters used optical devices as an aid in composing their great works, but I don't think that means that they relied on them like a crutch.

One thing we forget today is that the old masters were not artists in the way that we think of artists today. In their time, being an artist was very much a job, more akin to what a graphic designer is today than what a painter is today. An artist such as Vermeer or Caravaggio had to produce an astounding number of paintings during his career in order to support himself, and I think considering that, we can assume that a working artist would have used whatever tools were at his disposal to save himself time and keep himself competitive.

This is not to say that those artists were not perfectly capable of drawing without the aid of optical devices. Quite the contrary, even if a particular painter did incorporate the use of optical devices in his process, without a firm foundation in drawing and painting skills, using such devices would have been of little benefit. An artist would have to have had a great deal of experience working from direct observation in order to compensate for the shortcomings of using a camera lucida or similar device. I would guess that using optical devices helped the artist quickly determine proportion in a composition, and perhaps outline facial features, but that from there, the artist would have to also work from direct observation in order to complete the painting.

Obviously, many great painters did not use optical devices, because we see many inaccurate representations in perspective, proportion, and so on in many very effective paintings throughout history. Not only that, but no amount of mechanical trickery could account for Michelangelo's ability to represent the human form in marble as he did. On the other hand, his two dimensional works were far less accurate.

In response to the comment that asked how the great masters may have worked on such a large scale, my guess is that most compositions were drafted on a smaller scale first and then gridded and redrawn on a large canvas, whether using the aid of an optical device or not. To my knowledge, most artists working in a highly realistic style work out most of the compositional elements in a smaller drawing before moving on to the final piece.


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Kathryn L Hill 4 years ago from LA

I would think they had plenty of time and fewer distractions then we do today.. Life was very different then. Different types of stress, I guess.


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watcher by night 4 years ago Author

Kathryn, just the fact that they didn't have cell phones back then would guarantee that life was very different. Nowadays we can generate tons of imagery just by pressing a few buttons. Back then, each of those images would often have taken days, weeks, or longer for a highly skilled artist to create-- even if the artist was using optical equipment as hypothesized by Hockney-Falco. Kind of paradoxical: even though we can snap a photo in a split second, we may not be able to savor that photo as much and as long as a painter of long ago could savor a masterpiece that took months to complete. I guess, as you said, that there were fewer distractions back then... or more focus. I tend to think so, even though I know that people back then had to deal with living without electricity and all sorts of other conveniences we take for granted today.


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Kathryn L Hill 4 years ago from LA

I used to work as a gallery attendant at an art museum... I was amazed to count the seconds it took for people to look at a painting...usually not more than 45.


joseph mcgurl 4 years ago

Most of what Hockney says is wrong or deceptive. There are not mostly left handed people in Rennaissance paintings. The "left handers" usually have something in their right hand too, such as a wine bottle that they are pouring with their dominant right hand as would be expected. Look at the examples Hockney provides. Though usually the hands are determined by the composition. Caravaggio's Bacchus needs to hold the wine glass in his left hand for the composotion to work, but there is a caraffe of wine by his right hand which he just used to fill his glass. Also, almost all of the males have their swords on the left side which is where a right handed person carries them.

Hockney also is deceptive in his perspective lines on the carpet on the table. There are several different vanishing points in the carpet, not just the two that he cherry picked to fit his thesis. The whole carpet is crooked which just indicates sloppy drawing rather than using a lens.

The strong light he claims is sunlight as required by the lens is not sunlight! It is north light coming in from a window next to the model. Any figure painter knows that the best light to paint from is north light with no other light sources that would change during the day. North light produces exactly the same light as seen in these paintings- light highlights and very dark colorless shadows. If it was sunlight from outside, as required by the camera obscura, there would be sharp cast shadows, lot of reflected light and squinting models.

It would also be impossible to paint in reverse. Hockney claims that the artist drew the image from the projection, which would be reversed, and then painted it. Imagine painting those complex patterns in reverse? Impossible to do. His other theory is that there was a mirror lens used. This did not exist at that time. He is inventing things to fit his theory. There are no hard docouments of a mirror lens existing...just as there are no hard documents of Bigfoot existing- only rumor and inuendo.

The problem with hockney is that he has no idea what he is talking about. He is too ignorant to know that he is ignorant. He was never taught to draw properly and doesn't appear to have any natural talent for it anyway. Just loook at his drawings of the guards. They look like a junior high school student's work. How could he ever understand what is entailed in classical drawing and painting? I could go on for several more paragraphs chronicling more of Hockney's ignorance and deceptions.


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watcher by night 4 years ago Author

Joseph Mcgurl, thanks for comments. It's nice to get some feedback that reinforces the position I took that Hockney's (and Falco's) claims are controversial and that indeed "Hockney is willing, eager even, to go out on a bit of a limb and actually court controversy." Your comments are an example of the kind of discussion I like to see generated by the controversy.

However, I do have to disagree with at least a couple of statements you made. You said that north light produces "very dark colorless shadows". I am a figure painter myself, and know the virtues of north light, and have spent a lot of time painstakingly painting from perception, analyzing the colors present under the conditions of north light, and mixing colors on the palette to replicate upon the canvas the impression made by each unique patch of color upon my retinas. In light of my experience, I can state unequivocally and EMPHATICALLY that north light, contrary to your assertion, does NOT produce "very dark colorless shadows". In fact, I would go so far as to say that any painter worth his/her salt knows that there's no such thing as a colorless shadow, in the real world outside the canvas--especially in the studio of an old master such as Vermeer, in which the numerous props, pieces of furniture, draperies, and other items would all lend a bit of their reflected color to the environment--and shadows are part of that environment. It is also well known that according to human visual perception the shadow of an object will have a color complementary to the color of the object itself. An artist might make a choice to try to depict a shadow as if it were colorless, but that would result in conceptual, rather than perceptual art.

As for your tantalizing hints at several more paragraphs, I really would like to see them. Having to satisfy myself for now with the few paragraphs you have condescended to share, I find considerable food for thought. Your assertions of Hockney’s ignorance and inability to draw did elicit a chuckle as I scanned them. Of course, Hockney himself made some assertions that elicited similar chuckles when I read his book. But Hockney --although no Vermeer-- is an accomplished and skilled artist. Regarding your allegations of the impossibility of transferring complex patterns in reverse, and the nonexistence of the mirror lens, during the relevant historical period/s: Have you never heard of the technique, dating from at least the Renaissance, of creating on paper a full size “cartoon” (drawing that maps the composition of a painting), and transferring the COMPLEX cartoon design onto a prepared panel on which the painting was to be completed? One transfer technique was to used a needle to prick holes through the paper along the drawing lines of the cartoon and then use a bag full of charcoal powder to transfer marks through the holes in the paper onto the prepared surface of the painting panel. What possible obstacle there could be to reversing the cartoon before transferring the charcoal dots? Do you think that would be beyond the thought capacity of master artists who lived a few hundred years ago? Forgive me if I seem harsh, but I find myself perilously close to being ticked off by the fact that you not only severely underestimate the abilities of David Hockney, you also underestimate--to a degree completely ludicrous--the abilities of the old masters themselves to make and use technology for artistic purposes.


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megkm 4 years ago

@ Kathryn: I had a professor in college who would repeatedly tell us that any given artwork in a museum is looked at for an average of 3 seconds. I have no idea if that’s totally factual, but it seems right--and it’s quite humbling.

I appreciate the assertion that Hockney’s drawing style—or even his skill—should not undermine his argument. I do wish that his presentation had been more scientific. In many cases, he seems to be presenting theory as fact. The controversy surrounding his claims is interesting, but I do wish that people did not feel that they needed to be so reactionary. Like you, I think Hockney enjoys stoking the fire.

I had not heard of Philip Steadman! I will have to look into him further. His argument sounds easier to swallow.

If you (or anyone out there) are interested in experiencing these techniques firsthand, check out the Pre-Photographic Process Workshop at the George Eastman House: http://www.eastmanhouse.org/events/detail/photo-wo... The participants will have the opportunity to use their own cameras, a tent camera obscura and camera lucida to make drawings in the formal gardens, and will use a pantograph and a physionotrace to make silhouette portaits of one another. Participants will also build their own drawing camera, which I am sure they will use to make masterpieces of their own!

Here is an article with more information about the physionotrace that you may be interested in as well: http://blog.eastmanhouse.org/2010/05/12/physionotr...


JOSEPH MCGURL 4 years ago

When I am saying north light produces colorless shadows, I am speaking in relation to outside light that Hockney asserts these paintings were painted by. As a plein air artist, I know that outside light has much more color in the shadows as there is a lot of reflected light in these shadows. In north light, there is little reflected light coloring these shadows, because the shadow side of the room is dark and not reflecting light back into the shadows. Compare Frank Benson's outside portraits with any indoor portrait and you will see what I mean.

Yes, the renaissance artists could have reversed the tracings, but why go through all the trouble of setting up the scene to accomodate the limitations of the lens, adjusting the lens several times for each section, making the reversed drawing, pricking the drawing, flipping the tracing and pouncing it, retracing the pounce dots and finally get to painting the scene? They could have just drawn the scene in a fraction of the time. Look at any classical atelier student's cast drawing and it is easy to see sthat we artists have the ability, contrary to Hockney's assertions. About the supposed left handedness, I counted the lefties in Velazquez, Carravaggio, and Carracci and Hals. I looked for drinking and eating, sword carrying, musicians, laborers etc. The tally: 110 righties to 7 lefties. What is up with that?

Hockney is totally illogical with his assertions. At one point he states that an artist could be persecuted or even burned at the stake by the inquisition for using the mysterious optics, and that is why they were kept secret. This is riduculous. The church could care less about lenses. They had no impact on church doctrine. The lenses that did exist at the time were small magnifying lenses and eye glasses. Everyone knew that if you held the lens up to a window in a dark room, it would produce a small, fuzzy. upside down reversed image. No big deal. He also states that artists were highly secretive, but also states that artist studios were like a CNN newsroom with dozens of assistants and apprentices. Hard to keep a secret in that environment.

If these lenses did exist, where is even one? He states how valuable and rare they were. If that were the case, they would have been treasured and preserved. In London, you can buy just about any rare antique instrument...except the famous lens. As I said, more people have seen bigfoot than the lens.

Hockney never completes a painting in the manner he describes. Why? He draws a pope, starts an architectural drawing, but does not finish ( due to bad weather?), starts to draw the bapistry, and makes horrible camera lucida portraits that look nothing like Ingres drawnings. Look at the photo of the projected bapistry. It is crooked and fuzzy. How could you make a painting from that?


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watcher by night 4 years ago Author

@Megkm, thanks very much for the information about the Pre-Photographic Process Workshop and the Physionotrace. A version of the Physionotrace was used in a movie I've seen, but I forget which movie it was now. It might have been the "Little Women" in which Winona Ryder played Jo-- but I could be wrong.

I hope you get a chance to check out Philip Steadman's work.

Unfortunately, his "Vermeer's Camera" webite does not seem to be online anymore, but if you google it you can still find online several interviews/articles about Steadman's research on Vermeer's use of optics. That is humbling about the short average span of time devoted by viewers to artworks in a gallery/museum, but on the other hand, some images could form an indelible impression even in 3 seconds (or at least that's been my experience).


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watcher by night 4 years ago Author

@ JOSEPH MCGURL:

Thanks for expanding on your previous comments.

Regarding your statement "“why go through all the trouble of setting up the scene to accommodate the limitations of the lens, adjusting the lens several times for each section, making the reversed drawing, pricking the drawing, flipping the tracing and pouncing it, retracing the pounce dots and finally get to painting the scene?”


 
I doubt that such a project would look at all overwhelming to people who were not used to electrical appliances and power tools and certain other modern conveniences. After all, people ground and mixed their oil paint by hand back then. Of course, some artists still do nowadays, but back then nobody was used to just surfing to their favorite art supply website and ordering up a few tubes of paint. Many things that might seem complicated or overly laborious to us today do not seem like that to people who are used to using such tools and techniques on a daily basis and who started learning young. Also, when “artist studios were like a CNN newsroom with dozens of assistants and apprentices,” the big, important artist could simply assign a few of the apprentices to do the work of pricking, flipping, and pouncing, maybe even of the initial tracing itself. Who knows, maybe in the days before tweets, text messages, and TV, people were glad of honest labor to occupy their time.

I couldn't help noticing that you have avoided any mention of or comment upon Philip Steadman’s research into the question of whether Vermeer used a camera obscura, which I described in the section before the "Hockney-Falco" section.

In Steadman's own words: "It is very hard to see how this strange geometrical phenomenon might have arisen, other than through the painter tracing those images directly in a camera. It is this discovery that has convinced a number of art historians, including some who previously were strongly opposed to any camera theories in relation to Vermeer. The geometrical nature of this argument gives it, I would suggest, a special force.”

It is reasonable to believe that Vermeer did use a camera obscura in the method proposed by Steadman. The evidence strongly supports such a belief. Anyone who sees Vermeer's painting has to acknowledge that this artist, at least, was not handicapped or hampered by using an optical device-- he was able to make complete, highly finished paintings that are among the greatest ever produced in the western tradition. If Hockney casts his net a bit wide and ends up gathering in some other painters who didn't use optical means, fine. As I stated above, I suspect that Hockney goes a bit out of his way to court controversy. I think that even those who are virulently opposed to Hockney's message are enjoying, either openly or secretly, the chance to engage in debate and polemic over an interesting and highly polarizing subject.

Of course, Hockney is silly when in his book he calls a Bouguereau painting silly. But Hockney is right when he indicates approval of a Cezanne. On the other hand, when the Art Renewal Center calls Cezanne silly, the ARC is being silly. And it's silly to completely dismiss Hockney's theory out of hand.

By the way, if you want to call indoor shadows cast by north light "colorless," that's your prerogative, but I can in no way, shape, or form interpret the label literally. There's plenty of color to be seen in them. Take a look at the indoor portrait, figure, and still life paintings by Wilbur Niewald and you'll see what I mean. Or for that matter, take a look at the shadowed areas in Vermeer's "The Art of Painting" shown at the top of this article. Do those areas look colorless?

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