Okay, so it’s not just any random guy. Tim Jenison was an important early innovator in the digital video space and, as detailed in the new documentary Tim’s Vermeer (in theaters Jan. 31), he invested huge amounts of time and money into the project of replicating the Dutch master’s mid-17th-century painting “The Music Lesson.”
But he didn’t do it by learning how to paint — which means that in theory, with enough effort and patience, anyone could pull this off.
“I think they’re basically 350-year-old photographs,” Jenison tells TIME. “Other artists from the Dutch golden age were trying to do the same thing — make beautiful realistic pictures, like looking through a window — but Vermeer nailed it. I had a hunch that Vermeer must have been using some sort of technique that would allow you to trace not only the shapes but trace the colors, to make a hand-made photograph.”
It’s well-known that artists used camera obscura devices to project real-world images in order to create more realistic paintings, but Jenison determined that Vermeer must have used more than just the camera obscura. In a process that resulted in 2,400 hours of documentary footage, he figured out what that technique might have been and how to copy it himself; though the movie was originally intended as a straightforward look at the technology, it became the story of Jenison’s personal quest to paint. After perfecting the “how” of it, he built a life-size, functioning set that perfectly matched the scene in the painting and then went about creating his own version of the famous work of art.
In this clip, Jenison — alongside Teller (yes, of Penn & Teller, who executive produced the film and serves as something of a guide for the narrative) — shows how it works:
So does this mean that Vermeer — a painter who has actual modern-day groupies — should be less celebrated for his painting than for his inventions or his skill arranging a composition? Is all great art just a trick?
“You could say it’s a trick, but a trick is a perfectly legitimate element of art,” says Teller, who knows a thing or two about tricks. “This movie is less about Vermeer and less about Tim in particular than it is about the whole secret of art — being that art isn’t easy. There’s that moment when you see a work of art and it hits you and you go, ‘It’s magical!’ but to get there is a long and arduous journey, whether you’re Vermeer or Tim. If you’re willing to work as hard and with as much determination as Tim does, maybe you can do stuff that looks supernatural.”