Over time many paintings become damaged and need restoration. Restoring valuable art is really complex work. Our Little Art School Course concludes with our young artists triumphantly meeting the challenge of painting Vermeer’s ‘Girl with a Pearl Earring’. This painting is a great example of the incredible transformation that can be wrought by a painstaking restoration process.

In 1994 restorers cleaned the ‘Girl with a Pearl Earring’, removing the discoloured varnish and old retouching which had been applied with previous restorations. Compare the before and after.

YJoanne Robinson_190409-123420-1c0Joanne Robinson_190409-112209-1a9Joanne Robinson_190409-104958-19eYou can see how the bright colours have been restored. Look in particular at the tiny dot of light reflection on the left corner of the mouth, that had been invisible under the browning varnish for decades but it transforms the viewers experience of the painting.

The pearl itself, integral to the painting,  had become so darkened that Vermeer’s original marks had almost disappeared. Compare the top and bottom pearl and look at the way the light falls. The restorers have done an amazing job, bringing back the light and enabling us all to be able to see this beautiful painting in all its glory.

Art restoration isn’t viewed by everyone as being a good thing. During the 19th century irreversible damage was done to many great works of art by well-meaning restorers who ended up transforming paintings so that the artists who painted them would barely recognise them! Controls around restoration at major galleries are so tight now that this is unlikely to happen. There are so many positives to good restoration processes. It is a joy to see the Girl with the Pearl Earring restored, stripped of centuries of dirt and damage; perfect in its luminosity and able to be enjoyed by many generations of art lovers to come.


Visiting Art Galleries

At the Little Art School we believe passionately that parents should feel really comfortable taking their children to art galleries. Every week we talk to the children about the work of past artists. We show them pictures and display the work of our Artist of the Term in our studios. However, there is nothing to beat the thrill of sitting in front of a painting, of seeing the artist’s brushstrokes on the canvas. 

Books simply can’t convey the scale of a painting; the unexpected smallness of da Vinci’s Mona Lisa or the incredible scale of Rembrandt’s Night Watch. It’s only the gallery experience which can do that. Our Founder, Joanne Robinson, completed an MA in Museum and Gallery Studies when her own children were very young. “It meant that for the purposes of my dissertation research into visiting museums and galleries with young families, I took my own kids into galleries on a regular basis. At first I felt very self-conscious, worried about them making a noise or disturbing other visitors. But after a few visits I realised that the gallery, the art in these magnificent public collections right across the UK, belongs to our children as much as it belongs to the cerebral adults observing in silence. I feel so strongly that children should feel absolutely at home in galleries, and that galleries should ensure that they welcome children and have activities available to ensure children get the most out of the experience.”

We’d love to hear your stories about visiting galleries with children. We hope that you encourage them to take their sketchbooks with them, to sprawl on the floor, to feel part of the experience and comfortable in the environment. Galleries are for everyone, whatever their age and they aren’t libraries or sacred vaults where silence should be expected. Instead they should be full of joy and reverberate with the sound of the next generation falling in love with art.


The Geographer and The Astronomer – Vermeer in the age of Discovery

When Vermeer was painting in the 17th Century, Europe was undergoing a great blossoming of Scientific discovery; this is when Isaac Newton was developing a telescope and the Science of Astronomy was beginning to take off. ¨ Take a look at the two paintings ‘The Geographer’ and ‘The Astronomer’. These paintings were produced as a pair. Both paintings have a globe, can you see it? Both men and the interior they are painted in seem to be the same. Can you spot similarities? If you look at the other Vermeer paintings we have been exploring at the Little Art School over the last few weeks you might notice that these are the only two without women in them!

In both paintings the men are surrounded with tools of their trade. The cartographic objects surrounding the Geographer are some of the actual items a geographer would have: the globe, the dividers the man holds, a cross-staff (hung on the center post of the window)

used to measure the angle of celestial objects like the sun or stars . The sea chart on the wall shows “all the Sea coasts of Europe”. If you look very closely you can see that the globes are actually different, the Geographer has a terrestrial globe and the Astronomer a Celestial Globe.

Look at the positioning of both paintings, both have been set by the window. This enabled Vermeer to paint the way the light fell on the model and the objects. For Vermeer the way the light fell on his subjects was of huge importance, there are no accidents of light in these paintings!

These paintings seem to have painted to form a pair and were sold together several times before being separated  after over 100 years.


Oil Paints at the Little Art School

At the Little Art School our progressive drawing and painting course introduces many new media and techniques to our young artists. In the final three years we begin working in oil on canvas. Oil paints have been used by artists for over 500 years. Traditional oil painting methods used by the Masters of the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries explored the use of layers and glazes. We teach these methods at the Little Art School as well as looking at the techniques of the Impressionists and of more modern artists such as Picasso and Tamara de Lempicka.

Traditional oil paints need to be cleaned from brushes with white spirit and thinned in the early stages of painting with turps. Both turps and white spirit are toxic liquids with an overpowering smell and irritant qualities when they touch skin. In our early experiments using oil paints at the Little Art School we tried using different types of paint. In the end both teachers and students voted overwhelmingly with going with watermixable oils. We use the Winsor and Newton watermixable oils with traditional Linseed oil. It is recent advances in chemistry  which have produced modern water mixable oil paints. The key advantage of these paints is that they can cleaned up with water, rather than with white spirit, and they can be thinned with water or with oil. It is quite small alterations in the molecular structure of the oil which has created this very recent water mixable property. We highly recommend artists who struggle with turps or white spirit to give them a go!

Our artists LOVE painting in oils. Moving to Level 4 of our course marks a real turning point for artists following our course. Oils are rarely used in mainstream schools due to their expense. We made a decision early in the development stages of the Little Art School that access to quality materials would be one of the most important parts of our business. In the last few years every single one of our artists have been thoroughly converted to painting in oils. This wonderful medium has been loved by artists for centuries because of its glorious adaptability. It’s a joy watching our young artists develop oil techniques. We see their confidence and self-esteem blossom and that is what we are all about!

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Stealing Vermeer’s The Love Letter: the bungling of an infamous art theft

Vermeer’s painting ‘The Love Letter’ has a history as rich as its paint colours. In 1971 this painting was stolen from its home in one of Holland’s most famous art galleries, the Rijksmuseum, in an audacious robbery. The thief was 21-year-old Mario Pierre Roymans. He had locked himself in an electrical closet until the museum was closed and then took the painting off the wall and tried to escape out of a window. As he tried to escape he realised that the frame wouldn’t fit through the window, so he cut the canvas from its frame with a potato peeler and hid the strip in his back pocket

The thief started off hiding the painting in his room at the hotel he worked in, then he buried it in a forest. He contacted a journalist and arranged to meet him, he then drove the reporter, blindfolded, to a church and unveiled the painting. He told the reporter that he actually loved art, but also loved humanity. The journalist published the photographs alongside Roymans’ conditions: 200 million Belgian francs to be given to famine-stricken Bengali refugees in East Pakistan. For several days Roymans continued to make contact with the media; when he was finally arrested by police, on the day of his deadline, he was trying to call a news station.

The painting was returned to its home, the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, two weeks after it had been stolen. It was in very poor condition and the restoration took almost a year.  Roymans was given a court fine and sentenced to two years in prison, but only served six months.

The painting itself is an exquisite masterpiece. In last week’s blogpost we talked about ‘Virtues and Vices’, ie people behaving well and people behaving badly. The Love Letter is one of several of Vermeer’s painting which show women receiving letters, with the implication that they are behaving badly! The Love Letter is a painting of a maid passing her mistress the letter, the painting is set up so that we feel that we are peering through curtains at a secret scene.

Lots of the items in the painting have been included as symbols to tell us a story, the brush is left abandoned to show us housework has stopped whilst the two women plan intrigue. Contemporary viewers would have known that the lute was a symbol of love, usually illicit love rather than marriage, as are the slippers left outside the door.

Look at the magnificent colours, can you see the trademark Vermeer yellow and blue?


Vermeer’s Milkmaid: Vices and Virtues in art

In Vermeer’s time Dutch art often showed ‘Virtues and Vices’, ie people behaving well and people behaving badly. The Milkmaid is one of several of Vermeer’s painting which show women working, ie behaving with what Vermeer and his contemporaries would have seen as virtue! The Milkmaid is one of Vermeer’s most famous paintings. Even when Vermeer was alive this painting was very highly valued. It is a small picture but when Vermeer’s estate was sold at his death this painting fetched the highest price.

The painting is very simple but take a bit of time to look at how the light from the window shines on the jug and the basket. Look at the close up picture, and think about life without cameras; Vermeer captured the detail of his subject in a way which would have seemed quite magical to his contemporaries.

This painting has “perhaps, the most brilliant colour scheme of his oeuvre”, according to the Essential Vermeer website. One of the aspects of Vermeer’s palette which makes him stand out from his contemporaries is his use of expensive natural ultramarine made from crushed lapis lazuli. Other painters used the much cheaper azurite. This glorious blue is something which also shines out from ‘Girl with a Pearl Earring’. Also look closely at the white walls. Vermeer’s contemporaries often used different forms of grey pigment. But for Vermeer the white walls reflect the daylight with different intensities, look at the uneven textures on the plastered surfaces.

Finally take a look at the close up of the bread. Vermeer’s technique here is to use tiny dots, a technique he used in other paintings. This early form of Pointillism is really effective and demonstrates Vermeer’s revolutionary use of painting techniques. Vermeer truly was a pioneer.



Girl with a Pearl Earring at the Little Art School

Throughout the design of the unique 12 year Little Art School course, the aim has always been for our students to be able to look at any painting and think ‘yes, I think I could confidently have a go at that’. Great artists for hundreds of years mastered and perfected their craft by copying the works of artists before them. In this way they could develop techniques that would allow them to go on to tackle their own choice of subjects in their own ways, and this is exactly what our course is about.

Challenging our Level 6 artists with the portrait of the Girl with the Pearl Earring felt very ambitious. However, every single one of our students rose to the challenge and here we show the progression of one of our students, Niamh Stewart and demonstrate how she built her painting. At this stage in the course our students are working completely independently, finding their own way around a painting and working out the best ways to create the techniques and style. Niamh began by painting a black and white tonal study of the painting, really focusing on getting the values right. She then progressed to adding thin layers of glazes in oil. After this she worked on developing intensity of colour by lessening the oil/paint ratio. We are very proud of her focus and the attention to details. She produced a fantastic painting which we are sure she will treasure for many years to come.

The Girl with a Pearl Earring is not the final painting of the course. Student complete our course by using their own source materials and inspiration to create a painting which has great meaning to them. In future blogs we will highlight the work of some of our graduating young artists.


The Girl with a Pearl Earring

This is one of Vermeer’s most famous paintings, there has been a book written about this painting ( Tracey Chavalier, ‘The Girl with a Pearl Earring’) and a film of the same name starring Colin Firth and Scarlett Johansonn. This painting holds a very special place for the Little Art School as it is the final painting in our Level 6 course inspired by the great masters. Our course builds up over 12 years, starting with the little mouse in the gruffalo and finishing with our artists’s painting this, Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring, in oils as their final challenge. It’s an extremley difficult painting to recreate and our young artists rise to the challenge magnificently!

The dark background of this iconic painting makes the light colours shine through. The girl’s partly opened mouth makes it feel as though she is just about to speak.  She is wearing an exotic turban headdress but what stands out in the painting is the large, tear shaped pearl hanging from the girl’s ear. Vermeer was a Master at using LIGHT in his painting, look at the earring; it is not one flat colour but light and dark, shade and a sparkle of light.

In MANY of his paintings Vermeer dressed his female models in pearl jewellery. He may have been using the pearls to symbolise VANITY; like the both the Music Lesson and The Art of Painting he is telling us a story through the images he chose. However, there may have been another reason Vermeer chose to include pearls in so many of his paintings. Pearls offered Vermeer a wonderful opportunity of showing off his talent in creating wonderful variations in his yellows. Don’t forget that Vermeer had to make and mix all his own paints, there were no paints in tubes in the 17th century!

In 1881 this painting came up for auction. Dirty and unlooked after, only the buyer and his friend recognised it as a work of Vermeer. It was sold for a tiny amount, the modern equivalent of just £20. It is now seen as one of a priceless work of art, it’s impossible to imagine how many millions of pounds it might be worth!

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Looking for meaning in Vermeer’s ‘The Music Lesson’

Throughout his career as an artist Vermeer painted several exquisite paintings of women either playing their musical instruments or involved in a music lesson.  All of these paintings have hidden messages, they are telling a story. In ‘The Music Lesson’ the girl is playing an instrument called the ‘Virginal’. On the lid of the virginal there is an inscription in Latin which translates as: “Music is the companion for joy and a medicine for suffering”. Vermeer has painted the lady so that we can only see the back of her head which looks as though she is concentrating on playing her instrument but look closely; just above her Vermeer has positioned a mirror so that we can see that her head is turned to look at the handsome young music teacher. Vermeer is hinting that she is concentrating more on him than on her music lesson!

‘The Music Lesson’ is seen as being one of the most refined of Vermeer’s painting; every single object and it’s placement and use of light and shadow has been carefully calculated.  The painting has been analysed with great precision by  academics in many different fields. Of particular interest is the perspective. The Vanishing Point is just at the point of the  woman’s sleeve, you can take a ruler and see that all lines lead into that and the composition has been planned with incredible mathematical accuracy. Very close up you can actually see the hole in the canvas at this point, made by a pin. Every part of the composition: the angle of the windows, the pattern of the floor, the series of rectangles behind her, all leads the eye to the woman as the focal point. During Level 2 of the Little Art School Course we begin to explore perspective and composition. It’s fascinating to see how effectively artists can use perspective to create a painting which draws our eye in and Vermeer’s ‘Music Lesson’ is a wonderful example.Joanne Robinson_190409-105039-1a0

There is an 8 minute video, narrated by Meryl Streep (National Gallery of Art, Washington DC) which can be found at https://youtu.be/xmugrV7vM2o, this video both explains in detail the complexity of the planning of this painting and is well worth watching



Landscape painting – how Vermeer captures a moment in time

This week we are looking at the painting ‘View of Delft’. This painting is a beautiful ‘window’ through which we can see Vermeer’s hometown of Delft exactly as he would have seen it, it’s like having a photograph of a moment in time 350 years ago. Look at the way the sun shines on some of the buildings and the light on the water. Vermeer is known in the art world as one of the greatest painters of light. From the very beginning this painting made a deep impression on art lovers. It’s difficult to see in a print, but anyone standing in front of this painting couldn’t fail to be overwhelmed by the play of light and shadow; it is, quite simply, luminous.

Vincent Van Gogh, also a Dutch artist, although 200 years after Vermeer, came to see this painting in it’s home in the Mauritshaus in The Hague and wrote about it in a letter of 1885.  He wrote: “Isn’t it curious that the Van der Meer of Delft in The Hague has kept its colour so splendidly, with the whole series of glaring tones of red, green, grey, brown, blue, black, yellow, white? ….if one sees his town view at The Hague close up, it is incredible, and painted with entirely different colours than one would suspect at a few steps’ distance”. Van Gogh, like most artists until the 20th century, spent many hours studying the works of past masters and learning from their techniques. This is the methodology that we are developing at the Little Art School and work towards in Level 5 & 6.

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Look at the figures in the foreground, they are very small but placed so that we see them as part of how Vermeer saw this view. Originally Vermeer painted an extra man to the right of the women but painted over him later, when the painting was restored the figure came to light!