Rembrandt Harmenszoon Van Rijn


embrandt Harmenszoon Van Rijn, whom many consider the greatest artist of all time, learned all that was then known about oil painting while still a very young man, surpassing his teachers very early in his career, and then proceeded to add his own discoveries to the technical knowledge of his time. To this day his best works remain unsurpassed, and serve as inspiration to the rest of us who paint. This being the case, any book on advanced techniques must address Rembrandt separately and at such length as the author\'s knowledge allows.

What technical information Rembrandt was taught may be discerned by studying the works of his instructors, Jacob Isaacszoon Van Swanenburch and Pieter Lastmann. Such study also immediately shows the genius of Rembrandt by the extent to which he so obviously surpassed them both, and in how early in his career he did so. Nonetheless, his training under them was an important factor in his artistic development, and should not be minimized. Both teachers seem to have possessed a working knowledge of the painting methods in use at that time, which Rembrandt learned from them. Various examples of his work show that he was not limited to any one technique, but employed them all, the choice depending on which approach best suited the subject in question, and for what purpose the painting was intended. His facility with all three of the aforementioned methods of painting soon led him to combine aspects of one with another, and to add innovations of his own.

Some of his paintings are on wood, executed in what appears to be essentially the Flemish Technique; some small studies on wood panels were done in a variation of the Direct Painting Technique, and some on canvas in both the Venetian and Direct techniques. The first layer of primer for the panels is glue-chalk gesso, which was sanded to smooth out the irregularities of the panel\'s surface, then a layer of white lead in linseed oil, with a small amount of Umber added, probably to speed drying, covered with a transparent brown imprimatura, which creates the golden glow characteristic of his work. Most of his canvases are primed with a double ground, the first layer of which is a red-orange ochre, perhaps to fill the texture of the canvas, then overlaid with a light, warm grey made from lootwit (lead white with chalk, ground in linseed oil), charcoal, Raw Umber, and various other earth colors

Rembrandt was an extremely versatile artist, and did not follow an unthinking repetition of the same procedure every time. He thought his way through each painting, from the genesis of the idea to the last brushstroke, never lapsing into a routine approach. From unfinished pictures, we know that, at least sometimes, he began in transparent browns, working in monochrome to establish the design of the picture, attending to the masses of dark and light, often using opaque white for the strongest lights in this stage, sometimes referred to as the imprimatura, or later, by the French academic painters, as a frottée, though the term, "frottée" generally referred to a thin brown scrub-in without white, the lights instead being simply indicated by leaving the light ground more or less exposed. This stage was apparently left to dry before proceeding further, though there may well have been exceptions. Over the dried brown underpainting, color was begun, with Rembrandt working from back to front rather than working over the whole picture at once. He exploited to the fullest the qualities of transparence and opacity, relying on the underglow of light coming through transparent color for many special effects, with opaque lights built up more heavily for the brightly lit areas, their colors sometimes modified by subtle glazes, semiglazes or scumbles, and the arrangement of transparent darks and opaque lights to play against one another for maximum visual impact and depth. Clues as to his choice of primer may be seen in areas where he has used a sharpened brush handle to scratch through wet paint in order to indicate bits of hair. This is evident in a very early self-portrait, now in The Hague, and in many other portraits. The primers and/or imprimaturas thus revealed show that he followed no one single procedure, but varied the choices,