In the fascinating documentary “Tim’s Vermeer,” San Antonio-based inventor and entrepreneur Tim Jenison challenges himself to recreate one of 17th century Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer’s most well-known artworks, “The Music Lesson.” Despite his lack of artistic expertise, Jenison goes on this incredible journey that theorizes how Vermeer was able to paint so photo-realistically during an era without today’s photo technology.
After a screening of the film at the Southwest School of Art on Feb. 20, I sat down with Jenison for a quick Q&A about the film and the painstaking hours it took him to complete his own masterpiece.
“Tim’s Vermeer” opens exclusively at the Santikos Bijou Theater March 7.
What is going on in your mind when you’re working on some of the more monotonous parts of the painting? For example, in the film we see you working on the rug portion of the painting for days. Do you have to have a clear mind when you’re doing that or are you thinking about what you’re going to make for dinner later that evening?
You kind of have to be in this Zen state. You have to know what you’re doing. There’s no time to really be thinking about something else. It doesn’t require a whole lot of analysis to know what you’re doing once you get the hang of it. It’s kind of an altered state. It’s not unpleasant, except for the back muscles. It was just silly to paint the carpet that way. Vermeer didn’t paint it that way. Vermeer painted the rug very economically. If you look at his rug with a microscope, he didn’t paint all those dots. He painted some of those dots just to leave an impression of the texture. I knew that, but I didn’t know how to paint it the way Vermeer did it. There are a lot of ways the two paintings are different. The rug is just one of them. The overall look of the painting has that, sort of, Vermeer look. That was probably the best evidence that I might be on the right track.
What did you learn about the art period of Vermeer that you didn’t know before starting this project?
Well, I got very interested in the Dutch Golden Age of art. I got interested in Holland in the 17th century as well as Italian art just before that. I learned a lot about that period and those people. They painted an enormous amount of art during that time. Holland had money coming out of the kazoo and people had a lot of spare time. They spent their money on luxury goods and art. In the 1600s, they estimate that about five million artworks were made in Holland. It was the first real art market. The church controlled the art.
What did you learn about yourself as a person during this process; not as an artist or inventor, but as someone who undertook what you did and stuck with it for so long?
I learned that my attention span was longer than I thought. I thought it was about 20 minutes. It turned out to be five years. Really, the only reason I was able to finish [the painting] was because of [producer] Penn and [executive producer and director] Teller and their stupid cameras. They would call me up every day for a report. I would do a video Skype with the producers. I just had no option. Just before I had started painting [“The Music Lesson”], Teller came out to interview me. Part of that interview is at the very beginning of the film. One of the things he said was, “You know, if this doesn’t work, this is going to be a very different film.” I was like, “What do you mean? There isn’t going to be a film if this doesn’t work, right?” He was like, “Oh, yes, there is.” That was the low point in all this. I had just been to Buckingham Palace and seen the detail of Vermeer’s “Music Lesson” and realized I wasn’t seeing the same detail. I realized it was not going to work and I was going to have to do something. Fortunately, as I was horsing around, I found something that did the trick.
So, contrary to popular belief, Teller does talk, right?
Teller talks a blue streak.