The Rembrandt Technique

Using the Secrets of the Master in Portrait Painting
by Brigid Marlin

Portraits by Rembrandt have a special quality- the brilliant use of light to illumine faces, jewels and rich fabrics; the effective use of a limited palette, and the rich, dark, transparent backgrounds all set off the subjects of his portraiture in a way never seen before and often imitated afterwards. It has been said that a painter has to choose between putting the emphasis on brilliant colour or on the use of light and shade. As a portrait painter myself I had always gone for colour,but I went to an exhibition of Rembrandt's paintings, and realized that nothing was more exciting than the way his faces were lit up in the surrounding liquid darkness, and so I set out to discover how Rembrandt got his effects.

The first thing I found was that Rembrandt did not as a rule do any preliminary sketches. The lower ground colour of his canvasses was often orange-red earth, the upper ground layer of ochre. Over this he sketched a lay-in of brown paint,defining his subject and outlining the main shadows. It sounded very exciting and I decided to begin like this.

Nicole, my sitter, was a very interesting subject. She came from a combination of Egyptian and Italian aristocracy, and was a portrait painter's dream. She was the ideal subject for the Rembrandt technique, as her face suggested many portraits I had seen in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.

I prepared a gesso panel and put on a ground of Cadmium Red and then when that was dry, a layer of Yellow Ochre, and let that dry. It was a delightful feeling then to outline the figure in Burnt Umber. The warm red underneath shone through the brown, making it wonderfully rich. I sketched in the large hat and added several layers of brown to get extra richness. Fortunately Burnt Umber is one of the quickest drying colours.

I put in the warm pink skin tones and added a warm brown dress, and now the painting looked sickly. There were too many warm colours and no cold ones. I went back to my research.

I found the solution in a book called "Art in the Making - Rembrandt" by David Bomford, Christopher Brown and Ashok Roy, obtainable from the National Gallery at £14.95.

It appears that to achieve his astonishing effects, Rembrandt alternated warm and cool colours. So he would start with warm brown shadows, add cool half tones, then the light tones would be warm and the final highlights were of a cold white.But interestingly enough, the cool half-tone can be done in two ways; Either it can be done using cool, bluish pigments, or it can be done by painting a lighter colour thinly over a dark tone. Even if both colours are warm, the effect will be of cool over warm. This is called the turbid medium effect.

I tried brushing a transparent pink over a warm brown. To my surprise it turned into a cool grey. This kind of grey gave enough coolness to the face, but the background needed a stronger grey, and so I mixed Titanium White and Paynes Grey and scumbled them over part of the background. For the warm light tones I used thin glazes of Light Red, an earth colour similar to the colour used by Rembrandt; it gave a beautiful pink that toned with the browns, and set off the greys. Now all the colours sprang into harmony. The grey suggested smoke, so I put in the cigarette that Nicole usually held, and its smoke blended with the background. I tried to put in the details with a certain bold freedom, bearing in mind how Rembrandt's method was described in 1693 by Marshall Smith in his book, "Art of Painting". He writes; "Rembrant had a Bold Free way, colours layd with a great Body, and many times in old Men's Heads extraordinarily deep Shaddows, very difficult to Copy, the colours being layd on Rough and in full touches, though sometimes neatly Finished." It was daunting to read that Rembrandt was "very difficult to Copy"!

My next attempt was a portrait of J.G.Ballard, the writer. One of my problems was that he was a very reluctant sitter, but I undertook a commission to copy a Delvaux painting for him in exchange, and soon he was ensconced in my studio, grumbling that he would rather be at the dentist! Again I was fortunate in my sitter. He had the most extraordinary face. In it one could see a darkness which made one remember that he had been in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp as a young child. (Fifty years afterwards he wrote about this experience in his book "Empire of the Sun", which was made into a movie by Spielberg ) In his face there was also humour, a formidable intelligence, and an odd, almost motherly quality; caused by his having to bring up three small children by himself after his wife had died. Like many hyper-intelligent people, he had a horror of being bored, so I had to keep a lively conversation going on while trying to paint at the same time. However, in this way I learned amusing things about him; for one thing,he didn't believe in cleaning his house, maintaining that after the first three years it never gets any dirtier.

This time for the painting I used a predominately ochre background, and added the cool layer in a different way; using blue over the sweater, and modelling the face in white. I had fun with the background, remembering what Rembrandt's contemporary Lairesse wrote; „ an artist should paint "with a bold hand" , „But not like Rembrandt...whose colours run down the piece like mud."

The background took on a wonderful look of peeling layers which suggested to me the layers in Jim Ballard's complex personality. I copied my own peeling studio table to complete the effect. The question then was; how much finish should the painting have? I knew that Rembrandt had begun with a fine technique as a young man, but he ended up painting in "the rough manner" as it was called in the 17th Century.

Rembrandt has been compared to Titian, whom Vasari accused of painting with splotches. Vasari admitted that behind the apparent carelessness lay a vast store of experience, so he warned young artists not to attempt this technique- stressing that an artist should begin with a painstaking and fine technique, and only adopt the rough manner later in life. I realised that as I was getting older, both options were now open to me.

To complete the effect one needs to glaze over the picture. The glazes blend where they are applied, and make the parts which are not glazed look brighter. Houbraken wrote that Rembrandt was self-willed because "he is said to have tanned over a beautiful Cleopatra in order to give full effect to a single pearl!"

As I worked the painting acquired more finish and I was reminded of the words of one of Rembrandt's pupils, Samuel van Hoogstraten: " is above all desirable that you should accustom yourself to a lively mode of handling so as to smartly express different planes or surfaces; giving the drawing due emphasis and the colouring, when it admits of it, a playful freedom, without ever proceeding to polishing or is better to aim at softness with a well-nourished brush....for, paint as thickly as you please, smoothness will, by subsequent operations, creep in of itself."

Attempting to work in the technique of Rembrandt has given me one of the most interesting painting experiences of my life, and I was very proud when it was acquired by the National Portrait Gallery in London.

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