Aug 4, 2012

Old Masters Studio Secrets


By Sharon Teal Coray
I am going to have a regular article on the Old Masters techniques and secrets, the first one is Rembrandt Van Rijn

Belshazzar's Feast

Rembrandt used oil on canvas to create this beautiful painting. Look at the defined shadows, the light and the atmosphere. Do you feel the mood of the setting?
Rembrandt used signs and symbols to subtly convey the morals and biblical message. The hand that is writing the message on the wall is male and represents God. The Holy Communion cup that is tipped over represents the blasphemy that took place at the feast. The beautiful gold cloak the king is wearing exemplify, the wealth of the Kingdom of Babylon.
Rembrand placed the figures in the light so the eye of the viewer would be drawn towards the writing on the wall and then back to the central figure, the King.
Look how the light from the wall seems to reflect off the eyes of the figures, the cloak and the vessel. I love how Rembrandt painted the King with such an expressive posture.
I love the way he captured the moment, look at the bewilderment, and alarm in the eyes of the people at the table. He always liked to paint the eyes of the figures to emphasize the mood of his paintings.
Rembrandt painted using light and shadows alternating the textures, strength, and direction of the stroke to subtly achieve the desired mood. Light and shadows play a compelling role in developing the mood of this painting and that technique is called Chiaroscuro.

Let's take a look at how he started this painting.


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1. The canvas was sized with animal glue to seal it against the binding medium of the ground, which would otherwise have been absorbed and could have damaged the canvas.

2. A medium brown ground was laid on consisting of ochre bound with resin and animal glue. This was introduced by Titian, the use of the brown ground rather than the white ground ensured that the artist had to work from dark to light.

3.  Rembrandt left no sketches or preliminary studies. Composition and distribution of light and shade were mapped out in a monochrome underpaint. The completed image is not so much a sketch as a dead-color painting ready to be worked on.

4.With the dead color painting for his guide Rembrandt applied the body colors working from background to foreground, leaving the figures at the front monochrome silhouettes until their turn came.
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5. Rembrandt relied on body color. Where glazes were applied they built up the rich blackness of the velvet worn by the figure on the extreme left and softened the contour of Belshazzar's body so that it receded into the darkness under his outstretched arm.
6.   With the ground work finished Rembrandt would start applying the finishing touches to the paintings as a whole. He would work in stiff impasto, dabbing in highlights so they would twinkle on the jewelry and shiny metal which drew the composition together.

7. Rembrandt used the following colors on his palette: Lead White, (sometimes mixed with 25% chalk) Black, brown, red, unidentifiable transparent browns probably Cologne earth and bistre. Vermilion and organic red lakes. Lead tin yellow, mixing with lead white, Azurite, and Smalt, which he mixed with lead tin yellow to create his greens.


When I visited the Rembrandt Museum in Amsterdam and saw the work of Rembrandt close up I was amazed at the think impasto highlights he used. Until you see them in person you cannot really understand how much paint he used for this.

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