Inventor or Artist? An Interview with Tim Jenison of ‘Tim’s Vermeer’


Born in Delft in 1632, Johannes Vermeer was not a prolific painter; scholars can only definitively attribute roughly 35 paintings to him. (A few more are in dispute.) Modestly successful in his lifetime, then relatively forgotten, Vermeer was rediscovered in the 19th Century. He has since become regarded as a grand master, best known for his impeccable rendering of light and color.

In recent decades, scholars and artists have speculated about Vermeer’s potential use of optics in his painting process. In his controversial book Vermeer’s Camera (2001), art historian Philip Steadman explored the case for and against Vermeer’s use of a camera obscura, an optical device that reflects light to project the image of objects onto a screen, rendering them in vividly sharp detail. British artist David Hockney also ignited debate with his book Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters (2001), using the works themselves in an attempt to prove that optics have been used by artists for centuries.

Enter Tim Jenison, a digital video visionary who founded NewTek in 1985, leading the way for the development of desktop video production tools DigiView, DigiPaint, and the Video Toaster®. Admittedly not much of a traditional art fan, he read both Hockney and Steadman’s books, and his inventor brain couldn’t shake the questions that remained: did Vermeer use secret tools to achieve his photographic-like paintings? If he did, what did that painstaking process look like? And was Vermeer “cheating”?

Jenison wasn’t sure Steadman and Hockney had taken things far enough, so he began to experiment. Having never painted before, he managed a striking facsimile of a black-and-white photograph of his father-in-law using a jerry-rigged mirror device of his own creation to exactly replicate light and color.

His next move was considerably grander: he recreated (to scale) Vermeer’s studio, as depicted in The Music Lesson, and then set about painting a replica. That entire process is chronicled in Tim’s Vermeer, a cheeky and fascinating film that features Hockney, Steadman, comedian-artist Martin Mull and producer Penn Jillette (his partner Teller directed). Jenison spoke recently about the inspiration, curiosity and tenacity behind the film.

Read the full interview here:
Inventor or Artist? An Interview with Tim Jenison of Tim’s Vermeer