The painting is considered a tronie, a subcategory of portraiture that was popular in the Dutch Golden Age and Flemish Baroque art. Tronies are studies of facial characteristics, stereotypical characters or exaggerated expressions. Vermeer captures a fleeting moment, the girl turning her head, her lips slightly parted while she directly faces the viewer. The girl wears a head wrap inspired by a Turkish turban and an enormous pearl earring. These exotic elements increase the drama of the painting, and give the artist the opportunity to display artistic effects in his treatment of light and texture. Another tronie by Vermeer, Study of A Young Woman (ca. 1665-1667) is often seen as a variant or counterpart of The Girl with a Pearl Earring. In both paintings, the figures are set against a black background, wearing the pearl earring and having a scarf draped over the shoulder. While The Girl with a Pearl Earring is an idealized beauty, the Study of A Young Woman shows plain and imperfect facial features.
Even though The Girl with a Pearl Earring is consistent with Vermeer’s style and technique, it is distinct in a few noteworthy ways. Vermeer used his inventive method of layering paint that created the sensuality of the soft skin. This was accomplished by layering a thin flesh-colored glaze over a transparent under-modelling (the initial layers of color placed on the surface). Some have suggested that Vermeer was able to capture these details and effects through the use of camera obscura, an optical device that was able to project an image onto a flat surface. Vermeer employed this technique in other paintings, like Woman Holding a Balance (1665) and Young Woman with a Water Pitcher (ca. 1662-1665). In both cases, Vermeer used this technique of layering paint when creating the shaded portions of the headdress on the models. However, in The Girl with a Pearl Earring, the application of paint is bolder and more expressive. In a 1994 restoration, it was discovered that Vermeer accentuated girl’s mouth with small dots of pink paint, and placed light accents in her eyes to brighten her face. The model is set against a dark background, which is very different than the detailed settings of Vermeer’s interior paintings, such as the mentioned Woman Holding a Balance and Young Woman with a Water Pitcher. In the interior settings, the women are portrayed in contemplative and quiet moments, while The Girl with a Pearl Earring has a sense of immediacy and drama. The painting has a timeless quality, the girl bears no symbolic attributes, and she is not placed in any specific context. For this reason, she has captured the imagination of viewers throughout generations.