The Milkmaid by Johannes Vermeer is a stunning demonstration of realism, color, and composition. In this post, I take a closer look at the painting to see what you can learn and apply to your own art.
Key Facts, Ideas, and Subject
- The Milkmaid is thought to have been painted around 1657-1658, but the exact date is unknown. It is currently held by the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.
- It features a young, strong-looking woman gently pouring milk into a container. A sense of mystery surrounds her, much like the Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci. What is she thinking?
- To the left of the subject at the bottom of the wall, there are four Delft wall tiles with various illustrations. You can see them more clearly in this high-resolution photo by the Rijksmuseum.
- Close examination of the painting suggests that Vermeer originally painted a large map on the back wall and a basket of clothes at the bottom, which he later painted over.
- If you look closely just above the woman's right hand, you can see a small indent (circled in yellow below). This is a pinhole which Vermeer used to mark the vanishing point and assist with depicting one-point perspective. This is evidence against a theory that Vermeer used a camera obscura to trace the composition.
Color and Light
Vermeer's use of color and the way he painted light is particularly impressive. In a broad sense, we can categorize this painting as a split-complementary color scheme, with yellow, orange, and blue. With this kind of color scheme, I generally suggest you pick a dominant color and two accent colors. Vermeer did that in this painting—the blue is rich and saturated, whilst yellow and orange take more of a secondary, accent position. This allows the blue to really stand out.
On an interesting point about the blue, Vermeer was one of the few artists who used the expensive ultramarine pigment. Most other artists used the cheaper alternative at the time, being azurite. This may explain why the color has such a rich and saturated appearance.
There is an interesting contrast between the rich, solid colors used for the fabric and the soft, varied skin tones used for the subject. This gives the skin a more organic and natural feel.
The composition is lit by daylight coming from a window on the left-hand side. There is also a small crack in the window, but I am unsure if this plays any significant role in the way Vermeer painted the composition.
The single light source creates a beautiful interplay between light and shadow. Vermeer was more subtle in his depiction of light and shadow compared to the chiaroscuro technique used by many other of the old masters.
Finally on the topic of color, take a look at the subtle rendering of the white wall in the background. White objects, even ones as simple as a flat white wall, can be challenging to paint. That is because errors in color tend to stick out and white objects are very sensitive to changes in light.
From my readings, Vermeer used a combination of umber, charcoal black, and white lead to paint the white wall. There is a gradual transition from light to shadow, along with some light colors scumbled on top to hint at the rough texture of the wall. Also, notice the subtle details Vermeer added—a nail at the top, small cracks, and holes.
Texture and Brushwork
Vermeer was clever in the way he varied the texture and brushwork to match the nature of the different objects in this composition. Here are some observations:
- Impasto paint with varied tones were used for the subject's face, particularly in the highlights and mid-tones.
- The yellow fabric appears more rough and coarse than the silky texture used for the blue fabric.
- If you look closely, you can see Vermeer used small dots of color on the fabric and particularly the bread.
Below are some close-ups of the painting to demonstrate these points:
In terms of composition, the first thing which sticks out to me is the strong, triangular arrangement formed by the woman, the bread and the table. This area contains most of the color, activity, and light in the painting.
There is also an implied line created by the woman's line of vision as she looks down at the pouring milk. This helps contain your attention within this triangular area—you want to look where she is looking.
Outside of this area, there are several less-important points of interest scattered around the composition: the Delft tiles and box at the bottom of the wall; the hanging basket on the left-hand side; the nail and small holes in the wall; the window; and what appears to be a picture frame hanging at the top left-hand corner. These are not key features of the painting, but they play an important role in setting the scene and drawing your attention into the painting. It also adds that element of, the more you look, the more subtle details you start to see.
Finally, the interplay of hard, soft, and lost edges adds to the remarkable sense of realism about this painting. Hard edges suggest abrupt changes in the subject, such as a change from light to dark, or from yellow to blue fabric. Soft and lost edges suggest a lack of clarity in areas which are masked by shadow.
Tip: At the risk of stating the obvious, I think it is important to note that when an area is in shadow, there is generally less contrast within this area. That is, it is harder to tell one object from another. With more light, the contrast and distinction between objects become more apparent.
Here are some of the key takeaways from Vermeer's The Milkmaid:
- Sometimes, you might need to make major changes midway through a painting, like it appears Vermeer did when he painted over areas on the wall.
- The old masters did not just rely on instinct and a trained eye; they took advantage of many tools and techniques to assist in depicting their subjects. Vermeer appears to have done this by using a pinhole to mark the vanishing point and assist with one-point perspective.
- When painting with a split-complementary color scheme (or any scheme for that matter), it is generally preferred that you pick a dominant color and use the other colors as accents.
- Try to match your brushwork and texture to the nature of the objects you are painting. Vermeer did this by using rough, impasto paint for the fellow fabric and smooth paint for the silky, blue fabric.
- Small points of interest added strategically around the painting can add a subtle level of sophistication and help draw people into the painting.
(If you want to learn more about color mixing, I go into more detail in my Painting Academy course.)