Interview: NPR's Robert Siegel talks to the usually silent half of Penn and Teller about his upcoming documentary, which follows an inventor trying to replicate the method he believes the Dutch master Johannes Vermeer employed to create his incredibly lifelike paintings.
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Teller Breaks His Silence To Talk 'Tim's Vermeer'

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Teller Breaks His Silence To Talk 'Tim's Vermeer'

Teller Breaks His Silence To Talk 'Tim's Vermeer'

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

"Tim's Vermeer" is a new documentary film about Tim Jenison's project to paint the way he figures the 17th century Dutch master painted. Jenison is a very successful inventor and entrepreneur, the pioneer of desktop video. He was inspired by the paintings of Vermeer and by the book "Secret Knowledge" by the English painter David Hockney. Hockney theorized that Renaissance painters achieved photographic accuracy by employing tools that anticipated photography, the camera obscura, a dark room with a small aperture that a painter would have sat in as if he were inside a giant pinhole camera, possibly lenses, too, more likely concave mirrors.

Well, Jenison brought an inventor's mind to the task of putting these theories to the test.


TIM JENISON: They call it painting with light. Vermeer painted with light. You can't paint with light. You have to paint with paint. And so what they're really talking about is this verisimilitude that Vermeer has that - it just pops. You see it from across the room, and it looks like a slide. It looks like a color slide, a Kodachrome.

SIEGEL: "Tim's Vermeer" is narrated by his friend Penn Jillette of the team Penn and Teller, and the film is directed by Teller, who occasionally breaks his silence for us and who joins us from Las Vegas. Welcome to the program.

TELLER: Thank you. Hi.

SIEGEL: First, I want you to describe Tim Jenison's device. He is, in effect, painting with mirrors.

TELLER: He is. He's using a mirror to allow an artist to compare directly the subject with the canvas. By the tilting the mirror at just the perfect angle so that the artist can see the subject right up until the edge of the mirror, and then the canvas from that point on, he enables the artist to compare precisely the brightness and the color of the subject and the paint on the canvas.


JENISON: To test this, I propped up a high school photograph of my father-in-law on the table. I set a small mirror at a 45-degree angle. And for the first time in my life, I did just what Vermeer may have done. I picked up some oil paints and a brush. And right at the edge of the mirror, I can see both things at once. I'm just going to apply paint and either darken or lighten the paint until it's the same exact color. At that point, when it's exactly the same color, the edge of the mirror will disappear.

SIEGEL: The movie shows us this process. And I should explain here that Jenison doesn't just put up a copy of a Vermeer painting and make a copy of it. He assembles a room to look exactly like the room in the Vermeer painting "The Music Lesson." Did he know at the beginning how long this would take him?

TELLER: No, he didn't. He's a scientist, in many ways. And he had this notion for how Vermeer might have done this work. But he wasn't content to just sort of sit there and say, well, I'm sure it would work. He felt it was necessary to basically go back in time and put himself under the exact conditions that Vermeer was working under. So Tim actually, in his warehouse in San Antonio, created a replica of Vermeer's studio.

SIEGEL: Now, people will be able to see in the film how well Tim Jenison paints the room that he first creates. So, first of all, I want you to tell us - I mean, is he a good draftsman? Can he draw before doing this project? Or is this like, you know, painting by numbers?

TELLER: Tim is not an experienced painter at all. He's someone who's worked with photographic images, someone who's worked with computer images. So he knows imagery. But, no, he's not a draftsman or a painter at all. That's part of the miracle of this because what he turns out is something that is phenomenally close to a Vermeer.

SIEGEL: And all the tools he's using would have been available to an artist in Delft in the 16-whatevers?

TELLER: Very much so. In the 1600s in Holland and that area of Europe, lenses and mirrors were quite popular as things for science hobbyists. The telescope had just been invented. So the chances that Vermeer had very good access to all sorts of lenses and mirrors is very high.

SIEGEL: OK. Let's assume that Vermeer did it with mirrors. What does this say about the artist? Was he just someone who is great at conceiving and composing pictures, but as for his fabled eye and hand, that was kind of a trick?

TELLER: Art is not sports. Art is a - an activity in which one human heart communicates to the other human heart. If Vermeer used this method, which Tim believes pretty strongly he may have used, that makes Vermeer better, not worse. That makes Vermeer a more wonderful and more interesting human being.

What this means is that Vermeer was not only someone with wonderful and beautiful ideas and someone capable of miraculous compositions, but that he was willing to put in the incredibly intense work to translate those ideas to paint on canvas. And it's very possible that Vermeer himself may have invented this device.

SIEGEL: But here's the question that I have. You and Penn Jillette specialize in illusions, and magicians like you guys have secrets that you keep and then you pass down to younger magicians. But if this was how Vermeer painted, how could such a thing have been forgotten or hidden for 400 years without somebody having once written about how the great masters actually painted?

TELLER: In those days, as in these days, industrial secrets are kept very, very secret. And if someone had a means of creating extraordinary paintings, this would absolutely be kept to himself. There are not very many people in the world who have a clue how Penn and I shoot guns at each other's faces and apparently catch the bullets in one another's teeth. And probably three or four centuries from now, there will be even fewer people who will know that.

SIEGEL: (Laughing) So it makes sense to you, at some level that...

TELLER: Well, it makes absolute sense.

SIEGEL: Wouldn't his fellow artists, being the kind and generous folks that competitors are in such a situation, wouldn't they have wanted to know how this guy did it? Wouldn't they have peered inside his camera obscura?

TELLER: Well, I mean, again, I only make the analogy to magic for that purpose because it really does hold true. There's another thing - another analogy to magic that I'm struck by. The biggest secret that any magician has is that he's willing to go to way much more trouble than you would ever believe a person would go to to achieve an effect onstage.

And the trouble is ugly and strenuous and involves trial and error and many things that you just wouldn't want to know about as a viewer. And in the case of this method, this method is incredibly ingenious, but no fun to execute. So the analogy is pretty close.

SIEGEL: Has this entire experience greatly deepened your appreciation of Vermeer?

TELLER: I like Vermeer so much more now that I believe that Vermeer was a human being who was partly a scientist and partly a great artist. I think that a human being being able to do something amazing is much more interesting than a mystical being because the belief in that kind of supernatural person, it kind of makes me feel like when I'm standing outside a department store window and looking in at these perfect mannequins all dressed in perfect clothes that I could never wear. I don't feel more human or more powerful because of it. But when I think of Vermeer as somebody as clever as I now believe he was, and as artistic as I now believe he was, I feel much stronger as a human being.

SIEGEL: Well, Teller, congratulations on "Tim's Vermeer," and thanks for talking with us about it.

TELLER: Thanks, Robert.

SIEGEL: The documentary film is called "Tim's Vermeer." And that was Teller, the director of the film and half of the famous duo Penn and Teller.


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