The search through the directories specified in
VPATH or with
vpath also happens during consideration of implicit rules
(see Using Implicit Rules).
For example, when a file foo.o has no explicit rule,
considers implicit rules, such as the built-in rule to compile
foo.c if that file exists. If such a file is lacking in the
current directory, the appropriate directories are searched for it. If
foo.c exists (or is mentioned in the makefile) in any of the
directories, the implicit rule for C compilation is applied.
The commands of implicit rules normally use automatic variables as a matter of necessity; consequently they will use the file names found by directory search with no extra effort.