The first time I saw the skateboard competition part of the X-Games I was enraptured. Well, I should clarify: I was enraptured for about twenty minutes. At first, every time someone flew off the ramp and into the air I was really impressed, but I quickly realized that basically every skateboarder was doing the same trick. Some of them would fly into the air and spin a full three sixty degrees, and some would add an extra half turn, but all of the tricks basically involved popping up into the air, twirling and landing.
A few weeks later, however, I happened to find myself in a room alone with a skateboard. I tried to play around with it, only to discover that I couldn't even make it go in a straight line on a flat surface. All of a sudden I respected those skateboarders again.
That same cycle of respect-boredom-respect can be applied to painting. Let’s imagine that I was in a museum, looking at one of Vermeer's paintings. I’m sure I would be impressed by it initially – his canvases are pleasing, with soft, delicate light and well constructed tableaus – but I generally find it hard to get too engaged with any one painting in a museum because there are so many of works of art competing for my attention. Ten minutes after I’ve entered a museum’s front door everything starts to blur together, and my ability to appreciate subtleties is being overwhelmed by my short attention span. But now that I’ve seen the amount of work it takes to create a Vermeer – well, I can’t see myself being that callous about his work again.
Tim's Vermeer is a documentary about a man named Tim who is trying to recreate one of Vermeer’s paintings. He didn’t pick Vermeer accidentally. Tim has made a good living for himself by creating graphic software for movie and television companies, and he’s interested in the science of optics. Years ago he developed a theory about how Vermeer painted with so much more subtlety than his compatriots: he thought that Vermeer was using a series of mirrors to create a specialized camera obscura where he tilted a mirror over the canvas he was working on. At the edge of the mirror the color tones of what he was looking at and the canvas would be in stark contrast with each other. If they were exactly the same color they would blend together and be indistinguishable and if they weren’t the same it would be immediately obvious there was a difference. At some point Tim realized that the only way to prove his theory is to use materials that were available in Vermeer's time to recreate a Vermeer painting from scratch.
Painting a Vermeer sounds a lot simpler than it really is. (And it doesn’t even sound that simple because Vermeer is highly respected as a master.) Before he can recreate the painting exactly Tim has to recreate the tableau that Vermeer was seeing in his mirror. That means that he has to learn enough woodworking skills to be able to duplicate the chairs in the painting, and he has to learn enough about metal work to be able to make the specific windows he needs, and so on. Then he has to make his own mirrors and lenses, then he has to make his own paints, since artists mixed their own pigments in Vermeer’s time. Then he has to actually sit down and do the backbreaking work of painting every single dot that he sees from the ceiling to the floor.
And it is backbreaking work - literally, since Tim suffers back pain after leaning over his canvas for so many hours, trying to get the intricate patterns in the wood and in the weave of the carpet down exactly as he sees them. Naturally, given the level of detail he's aiming for, it takes him an ungodly amount of hours to paint a rectangle that's smaller than your average movie poster. While it might sound tedious to observe such meticulous effort taking place over several months, it is actually fascinating to watch, because seeing the painting slowly evolve out of a blank canvas makes you realize how much invisible effort there is in any painting you might see. Naturally, when his hundreds of hours of labor are finished, his painting looks great, and it proves to be a compelling argument in favor of Tim's theory.
There are a lot of reasons why Tim’s Vermeer is a fascinating movie: it’s an exploration of one man’s obsession, which is almost always interesting, and it’s a good lesson in art history and science and the ways those two things intersect. But the main reason why I was captivated was because over my computer there are a few poorly shaded dinosaur paintings that I made a few years ago, and I kept looking up to them and thinking about my own skills as a painter, and I kept thinking about that time that I failed to move a skateboard four feet. After watching Tim’s Vermeer I don’t think I’ll be so dismissive the next time I go to a museum.