Tim’s Vermeer

‘Watching paint dry has never been so captivating’ – MacDara Conroy on Penn & Teller’s documentary Tim’s Vermeer

The phrase ‘A Penn & Teller Film’ brings to mind all sorts of chicanery and shenanigans, whether it’s their kayfabe-breaking magic shows or their cynical, snide take on the world’s ills in their TV series. So it’s a relief to discover that the duo’s latest team effort, Tim’s Vermeer, is a thoroughly sincere and respectful portrait of a geek and his obsession.

The Tim in question is Tim Jenison. He’s the founder of NewTek, a pioneer in post-production video tech (and a brand name probably better known to Star Trek nerds as the company Wil Wheaton joined in real life after leaving the Enterprise) and an engineering whiz with a knack for problem-solving, even when there’s no real problem to be solved. He’s also a man with no avowed artistic aptitude or skill, which makes his determination to paint his own version of Vermeer’s The Music Lesson seem quite deluded, and not a little uncomfortable.

But Tim has an ace up his sleeve. Working off theories purported by David Hockney and others that the master painters of the 1600s must have used the various newfangled optical technologies available to them in their work, he believes he’s cracked the secret of Vermeer’s paintings, which are unique among the period’s best in their vivid photorealism. And he sets about putting his hypothesis to the test. 

I’m not going to spoil it for you here; suffice it to say Tim’s solution is ingeniously simple – and as crazy as it sounds, it appears to work. Amazingly so. We’re talking about a contraption that pretty much anyone could jury-rig from things around the house that, on the face of it, can turn someone with little or no artistic prowess into the modern-day equivalent of a Dutch master (provided one has a steady hand).

Once he’s demonstrated his invention to the delight of various artists and historians, Hockney included – and even made pilgrimage to the town where Vermeer lived and worked – Tim builds up the confidence to take on the ultimate task. And that’s when the geek meter goes into the red.

For all the promotional guff about a mystery, that ‘mystery’ is dispelled (if not actually solved) quite early on, and we’re left with what makes for a pretty boring elevator pitch: man paints picture. Simple as that. Except, like any great work of art, Tim’s Vermeer is all about the little details adding up to a greater whole.

It’s about the eight-year journey Tim Jenison embarks upon to achieve what others would dismiss as a pipe dream. It’s about his stubborn resolve to do it the right way, which means mixing his own paint as Vermeer would have done. It also means building a life-sized facsimile of the painting’s scene from scratch, and even grinding his own lenses for the camera obscura the artist presumably employed. We’re talking next-level, Adam Savage-style geekery here. 

Yet far away from illustrating the heartbreak of futility, Tim’s Vermeer is a celebration of eccentricity, and the highs and lows of creative endeavour. Of course it helps that Tim himself is such a warm and charming individual that when he gets down to the nitty-gritty of actually painting like Vermeer, we’re with him all the way through his triumphs and frustrations. 

It might be a mangling of a well-worn cliché, but it’s true nonetheless: watching paint dry has never been so captivating.

Tim’s Vermeer opens exclusively at the Light House Cinema in Dublin on Friday February 28th

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