Write the Way Vermeer Paints (Or What I Learned from Girl in Hyacinth Blue)

First off, I don’t compare my writing talent to that of Johan Vermeer. I think few writers can do that. However, he is a classic Dutch master, and the techniques used to paint can also be applied to writing.

Now, who’s this Vermeer fellow, anyway. If you’ve never heard of him, I’m not surprised. He’s a painter’s painter—like Daniel Day Lewis or Gary Oldman (okay, maybe Oldman’s gone to commercial lately, but you get my meaning). Most people will know names like Picasso, Da Vinci, or Van Gogh. Vermeer didn’t do any flashy paintings nor did he live an extravagant life.

If you want to become familiar with his work, you’re lucky. You don’t even need to visit an art museum. You can watch Girl with a Pearl Earring (which I regrettably have yet to see) or read Girl in Hyacinth Blue (which I have read), by Susan Vreeland.

To understand how all this relates to writing, let’s first look at the painting method used by the dutch school of painters around the 17th century. First off, these painters took their time, often spending up to a year or more on a single painting. This is entirely different from modern painters, who can slap together a painting in days, or even minutes (Bob Ross, I’m looking at you).

Painters in the 17th century couldn’t run down to Aaron Brothers and buy a tube of paint. They had to grind their colors by scratch. Even then, they’d only have a few to work with each day. They had to use tricks, like monochrome underpainting or glazing to mimic colors not available. The whole process was painstakingly slow. Thus, most painters painted only on small section a day, slowly building up a whole composition over a period of months.

Sound familiar? It should. This is very much the workflow that novelists go through. We can see this in even more detail if we look at the seven layers of paint used to create a true Dutch master painting.

First the artist would draw his subject onto the canvas. No freeform improvising for the Dutch. These guys make a plan an commit to it. The time for improvising came with the sketches before this.

First Layer: Imprimatura
This is almost a wash over the whole painting. It both seals the canvas (thus protecting the drawing) and also sets the color tone for the painting.

Let the painting dry.

Second and Third Layers: Umbra Underlayer
More tone. The Dutch loved to take their time with painting. Both these layers are burnt umber. The first layer creates the light and shadow, while the second does the same on a more detailed level.

Let the painting dry.

Fourth Layer: Dead Underlayer
This sounds foreboding, and it actually is. The idea is to add blue and gray tones to make everything look like it was cast in moonlight. It’s creepy, but necessary because it paves the way for the color layers. Think about it, these guys have painted four layers so far and they haven’t even reached for the Crayolas yet.

Let the painting dry.

Fifth and Sixth Layers: Color layers
The artist lays on thin layers of paint to build up color. The paint must be thin to allow the previous layers and tones to show through. If you ever get a chance to view a read Dutch Master painting in a museum, lean as close as the security guard will allow. You’ll actually see the pencil lines show through in the lighter areas. The reason for this layering is to create luminous, or even glowing sections of paint. Vermeer was famous for this.

Let the painting dry.

Seventh Layer: Finishing layer
This is it. Almost done. This layer adds all the details the viewer’s bound to notice. Remember how I advised you lean in? That’s because all the layers one through four were meant to set the tone for the painting. It should be almost invisible to the viewer. But the seventh layer has all the good stuff: reflections, highlights, tiny details. Finally, the artist might add a glaze over the painting to bring out the color.


Now let’s transpose this to writing. How does the slow building up of layers relate to the long haul of book composition?

Just like the artist begins with a drawing on the canvas, the author can start with an outline. Remember, that the Dutch masters painted on section at a time, so a writer can do the same, outlining a chapter at a time. What are the points of action? Which characters are involved. What goals do these characters have and what are the conflicts.

All this could be planned on a separate pad of paper or right on the word processing document.

First Layer
In painting, this set the tone for the whole work. The same applies to writing. When I start a new chapter it write quickly, trying to get the ideas and flow down. I don’t really care about grammar or phrasing. I use fragments to sketch out the scene. If something needs to be described or researched, it simply drop a label like “describe room” or “research handgun types.” I know that if I open up that web browser to look up gun types, I will have lost the chapter. The idea is to capture the flow of the scene by hitting the various points where drama happens.

Dialogue often overrides everything. When people are having a conversation, the flow of their conversation will take precedence. I write it quick, only typing what the characters say without any quotes or dialog tags. If I want to indicate a pause, I simply write the word “beat” unless I know the action, and then I’ll drop a fragment in.

Let the writing dry
Step away from the scene for at least a few hours, a day is better.

Second and Third Layers: Underlayers
This is where you continue with the flow of the scene or chapter you already wrote. Fill in the fragments, writing them as actual sentences. Format the dialogue and add descriptors. Decide what your beats will be. Here’s where you can finally do your research on individual items. Also, craft the descriptions using as many senses as possible.

I try not to worry too much about word choice at this layer. Even if I have to throw in a clumsy adjective or even, shocker, adverbs, I will. Anything to preserve the flow. I’ll also experiment with metaphors or interesting descriptions. Often I’ll remove them (paint over them) in subsequent layers.

Let the writing dry.

Fourth Layer: Polish
Okay, the Dutch called this the Dead Underlayer, but what they were really doing was forming the highs and lows of the painting (shadow and light). You can do the same with your writing. Reread the scene and see how it flows. Here’s where you can pick up that thesaurus (or rack your brain) to strengthen the verbs. If possible, eliminate all but a few adjectives or adverbs.

I often use this time to break up those clunky paragraphs of description and try to sprinkle them throughout the scene. I’ll do the same with physical descriptions. Usually I can make these my beat actions after bits of dialogue.

Let the writing dry.

Fifth and Sixth Layers: Revision
Just like with the Dutch painters, your real writing starts here. Most writers will tell you that the real magic happens in revisions. It’s true.

This is where you prune your cherished words, taking away anything that doesn’t work. Read the scene out loud and underline or circle anything that sticks out or you have trouble reading. This is the best time to get it critiqued. After you mark it up, go back and rewrite, fixing or eliminating problem areas.

I was lucky enough to have an excellent first writing teacher: Susan Vreeland. Yes, she taught high school English once. She taught me to have a built-in error detector. Now, my brain searches for repetitive words or phrases. If a sentence sounds weird, I mark it. Finally, where ever possible, I try to eliminate character names. These act like white noise. When I can get away with a simple he or she, I’ll use it. It creates a closer emotional distance with the reader.

Let the writing dry.

Seventh Layer: Finishing layer
Just as the Dutch masters, look for additional details that will strengthen the scene. Often smells and sounds are overlooked. A key word of phrase can make a or break a scene. These are the tiny details that brings the writing alive.

I became interested in Vermeer’s painting after reading Girl in Hyacinth Blue by Susan Vreeland. Not only is each scene skillfully crafted by Vreeland. This novel contains vignettes that follow a certain Vermeer painting back in time to when the artist actually painted it. In a way, she is peeling the layers of paint away as she lays them down. Just like a painting that keeps drawing your eyes, I found myself constantly thinking back to previous scenes in the book.

I can’t guarantee that writing this way will produce a masterpiece. Some writers prefer to attack the novel and just start writing with no plan, Thema and Louise style. But if you’re a planner, like me, than the methodical approach might be the ticket. Sure it takes time, building up your writing layer by layer, but in the end, you’ll have something compelling to read. And isn’t that what we’re all after?

Tim Kane


About Tim Kane

Tim Kane is a writer of fiction.
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6 Responses to Write the Way Vermeer Paints (Or What I Learned from Girl in Hyacinth Blue)

  1. Lee Polevoi says:

    Excellent advice! I follow most though not all of the steps described & will try to add those as well, maybe even read my drafts aloud while waiting in line for a movie or at the bank (always good to get audience reaction). You’re absolutely right about trying to get core of the scene down on paper (or screen) ASAP, filling in blanks & beats later on. Of course this doesn’t preclude the stunningly original description or insight into human nature, should that come up at this time.

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  3. Marianne Su says:

    I have read Girl in Hyacinth Blue and I too admire painters including Vermeer. I found the comparison smack on. When art is created, you pile on the layers. When art is digested, you peel them away. That’s why we love it.

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