It’s been suggested that perhaps Johannes Vermeer painted his exacting masterpieces with the help of mirrors and lenses. Tim Jenison learned of these suggestions and started to study the problem.
He was in no rush. His R&D period lasted five years. He went to the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. “Looking at their Vermeers,” he says, “I had an epiphany” — the first of several. “The photographic tone is what jumped out at me. Why was Vermeer so realistic? Because he got the values right,” meaning the color values. “Vermeer got it right in ways that the eye couldn’t see. It looked to me like Vermeer was painting in a way that was impossible. I jumped into studying art.”
A recent documentary called Tim’s Vermeer (directed by Penn & Teller’s Teller) follows Jenison’s quest to construct a contraption that allows someone to paint as Vermeer did. Here’s a trailer:
Not sure you can find the movie in theaters anymore, but it should be out on DVD/download soon.