Painting with Light

Tim’s Vermeer‘ is a documentary about a non-artist attempting to re-create one of the great artworks of Dutch master Johannes Vermeer. In it, we discover that Tim Jenison believes that Vermeer may have created his artworks with the aid of a camera obscura.

It’s a fascinating theory, simply because it suggests two things:

1) That photography is much older than I thought it was

2) If artists like Vermeer could have had access to a camera that could actually record scenes, they might not have taken up the brush.

The documentary is highly worth watching, if you can source it, simply because we find that Tim gets very close to creating something like a Vermeer by using a modified camera obscura to help him etch out a real scene.


The camera obscura has been around since 400 BC, and it’s known that Leonardo Da Vinci used it as an aid whilst sketching, so it’s perhaps no surprise that artists of all generations may have tried to employ it in the making of their art. Particularly so the kinds of works that were an attempt to record a verbatim image of real life.

But in Vermeer’s case, there is no evidence that he used such a camera obscura as his will lists no such object in his possession. What leads Tim and others to believe that Vermeer used one is the simple fact that most of his art uses the same room for the paintings setting. A camera obscura of the day would not be practical to move around so much, so you would be forced to work with it in the same location.

Vermeer’s genius is in no-doubt. And the documentary does not suggest otherwise, it is a quest to know how an artist of the day could be so much of a genius to paint such convincing images.

For me, the documentary was illuminating. I had never really considered that man has always had a fascination for being able to freeze a moment and hold onto it. Whether it is drawing in caves, or painting in the 17th century.

In that regard, I think if Vermeer did use a camera obscura to aid in painting these images, then they are some of the first photographs every produced.

When we look at a Vermeer, we are looking at a photograph from the 17th century. I find this quite a startling thought, more so than the realisation that artists like Da Vinci and Vermeer may have been some of the worlds first photographers.