Tim’s Vermeer: Unlocking an Old Master’s Mystery

Penn and Teller's documentary proves that Texas techie Tim Jenison is his own kind of magician

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Art is hard; art is painful. So is reproducing a work of art. Each morning, for 130 days, Tim Jenison — whom we may call, entirely without exaggeration, the hero of the illuminating new documentary Tim’s Vermeer — would take three aspirin before he sat down to work on his meticulous simulation of the painting “The Music Lesson” by Johannes Vermeer. The aspirin dose was meant to alleviate the almost back-breaking discomfort of leaning over his easel for hours on end. Its reward, Tim hoped, was learning the secrets of a 17th-century Dutch master.

Does Thomas Edison’s definition of genius —”one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration” — also apply to art? For awhile, in the middle of the last century, inspiration seemed the key: in the drib-drab paintings of Jackson Pollock, the saxophonic improvs of Charlie Parker, the jazz-influenced novels that Jack Kerouac pounded out in a kind of mad trance on 12-foot-long strips of tracing paper. Inspiration is sexy, a hallucinatory channeling of the muse, while perspiration is for drudges, the long slog of any milliner or riveter. But the creation of art requires both: the ecstasy of dreaming up an idea and the agony — the grinding experimentation and inevitable failure before success — of making it work.

(READ: Richard Lacayo on How to Fake a Vermeer)

Jenison wanted to test the notion, proposed a decade earlier by painter David Hockney and art historian Philip Steadman, that Vermeer’s perspiration was his inspiration: that he had physically staged scenes in his studio, used a mirror device to throw the image on a canvas and, more or less, traced the scene into a work of art. Jenison thought Vermeer was using his brush and paint as an early camera. Two centuries before photography was invented, the painter was taking pictures, dot by dot, stroke by minute stroke, of the tableaux he had created. As Steadman says in Tim’s Vermeer, “You become a machine.” Was Vermeer a machine?” Moreover: Was his eye a camera?

To inspiration and perspiration, add obsession. Vermeer was devoted to capturing, on his “Music Lesson” canvas, each detail of a face, a clavichord, a swatch of cloth; Jenison was just as obsessed with proving that he could reproduce in a San Antonio warehouse what Vermeer had achieved in his house in Delft. Unable to work from the actual painting, which hangs in Buckingham Palace, he precisely duplicated the “Music Lesson” scene. Using only materials available to Vermeer, he recreated the artist’s studio, his pigments and his 45-angle mirror device (which looks a bit like a dentist’s tongue depressor). And when the light was right, this man who had never before painted sat down to paint — and to show the science behind the magic.

(READ: Tim Jenison talks to TIME’s Lily Rothman)

Like any good magicians, the duo called Penn (last name: Jillette) and (first name: Raymond) Teller are scientists and showmen. Hearing of the challenge Jenison had set for himself, they empathized with his efforts to master an ancient trick of the eye. Teller, who directed Tim’s Vermeer, and Penn, who produced and hosts the movie, already knew of the 45-angle mirror: it’s the same device magicians have employed for ages to make a large box on stage seem empty, the moment before the lovely assistant pops out. “So seeing that magic principle suddenly unlock this 350 year old mystery was amazing to me,” Teller told Beth Hanna of the Thompson on Hollywood blog.

Vermeer’s technique, if Jenison is right, predicted those used in movies — whether art by machine, or science in a box. Walt Disney‘s animators often traced over photographs of staged scenes. Ralph Bakshi photographed live-action scenes, and then rotoscoped them, for his 1978 adaptation of The Lord of the Rings; so did Richard Linklater for his digitally rotoscoped movies Waking Life (2001) and A Scanner Darkly (2006). Norman Rockwell “directed” scenes for his illustrations; a photographer took the picture and, with the help of a Balopticon projector, Rockwell traced and painted over the image. Inspiration, meet duplication!

(SEE: The photographs behind Norman Rockwell’s art)

Jenison — serious, friendly and bearded — is a Texas techie; he’s the founder of the video and graphics company NewTek, which produced the Video Toaster, the Lightwave 3D and the TriCaster. Having no background in art, he started from scratch. (“It took me about half an hour to learn to operate a paint brush,” Tim tells Martin Mull, the comedian, actor and lifelong painter. “Oh, good for you,” Mull replies sourly, “it took me about 40 years.”) But Jenison’s eye was trained in detecting visual nuances; and Vermeer’s work, he observed, “has the clarity of video, not film… It looks like a color slide, like a Kodachrome.” The paintings looked different from those of the artist’s contemporaries. Maybe he made them using a different technique.

The movie itself is an exemplar of new technology. Five cameras recorded Jenison each day in San Antonio, for footage that Teller, usually in Las Vegas where he and Penn perform, would monitor each night. Some 2,000 hours of footage became a brisk, funny 80-min. movie. Over the months Tim toils away, sometimes near despair, especially as he works on every thread of the cloth. And finally, there’s the deep satisfaction of the Eureka moment, when he cries, “I can’t believe it’s finished!”

(READ: A 1928 story on the Vermeer renaissance by subscribing to TIME)

Viewers, sweating along with Tim Jenison, can share in the thrill of his achievement. The man who worked so hard to prove his theory that science can help explain art is — for all who see Tim’s Vermeer — a true inspiration.