How to Paint like Rembrandt*

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1 How to Paint like Rembrandt* Over about 15 weeks this winter and spring, Creative Workshop drawing and painting teacher Sarah Hart (after asking for permission and being granted the opportunity) embarked on a project to paint a copy of Portrait of a Young Man in an Armchair by Rembrandt Harmensz. Van Rijn in the Memorial Art Gallery s permanent collection. The process was documented by photographer Gary Graham. The narrative is in Sarah s own words.

2 February 15 Initial lay in. Gary (the photographer) and I were startled by how light the face and hands are in the photographs compared to my canvas. I think it is a bouncing light effect from the first layer of yellow ochre ground.

3 February 15. My canvas is much narrower than the original and I didn t initially compensate for the space where the hands would go. Gallery copying rules require the dimensions to be slightly altered so they are not exactly the same size Sarah s copy Rembrandt s painting

4 February 15 I use a mirror to correct my drawing. The laying-in stage is my best opportunity to see the big angles that are off. Inverting the image gives me a fresh eye and is a technique Leonardo DaVinci used.

5 February 15 The process was action packed. I worked freehand because this is an element of the painting and that is the way Rembrandt would have worked too. This was my answer when people asked why I didn t use a grid to do the beginning drawing. I would go up and measure and decide what to do and sometimes get to the easel and forget and have to go back and re calculate.

6 February 29 I use a string to make comparison checks. For example, I might be checking how much higher one eye is than the other. I will then go and make the same check on the original. I have to be careful to stand the same distance away with each check. I can also use the string in a vertical manner. This string has a weight on it and it s called a plumb line.

7 March 7 I am not using all the colors seen on this palette. Each morning I got up and ground just enough paint for the day s work. Rembrandt s colors would have been freshly ground for him. Since I am trying to copy, I want my materials to be as much the same as possible. One day I experimented with five different yellow ochres.

8 March 7 I could use a rag with thinned medium to correct small drawing errors. At this point I am not using any white, only black, red, and yellow. I could also use the rag to take away the dark imprematura and expose the lighter under-ground.

9 March 07 The most frequently asked questions were, Do you get to keep it when it is finished? (Yes.) What are you going to do with it? (Hang it, I hope.) Is it almost done? (No.)

10 March 21 I think the educational seeds put into children s heads is worth how exposed I sometimes felt. When art is out of reach or intimidating, people don t realize what they are capable of. Seeing someone trying to make art puts it within reach. The educational process then becomes so much more than my experience if someone gets this idea. If I can do it, they can do it,too.

11 March 28 Each session the staff created this private area for me in a public gallery. I had two carpets for drop cloths, my bag of liquids, my mahl stick, paper towels, mirror and my palette. Each time I left I went straight to the art supply store for more brushes! I think I purchased between 20 and 30 new brushes!

12 March 28 Having the opportunity to really scrutinize the picture with materials waiting and ready was the best part of this opportunity. I looked and looked, and then looked some more.

13 March 28 At this stage of the painting the dark areas have been mapped out. The dark areas were initially larger but need to be placed correctly. I can now begin to refine the shadow shapes along their edges. Sarah s copy Rembrandt s painting

14 March 28 The close up shows the amount of detail still to be worked out. In order to avoid muddying the details I try to keep the light and shadow areas separate. I don t want white in the true shadow areas. Sarah s copy Rembrandt s painting

15 April 4, 2008 By listening to what the docents were saying to their groups, I began to understand that some people may have never heard of Rembrandt. The docents helped me figure out what to say, especially when groups who did not realize what I was doing at all came by to watch.

16 April 4, 2008 Susie s enthusiasm was contagious! All the curatorial staff and behind the scenes workers made everything go very smoothly. The stanchions kept people from wandering into my area and possibly knocking into the easel or spilling my liquids. People asked questions about what they could smell.

17 April 18, 2008 Each time we laid out the rugs we were counting out a certain number of squares on the floor. We had to be certain that if the easel tipped over the pieces on the wall were out of range of damage.

18 April 18 This is one of the action shots showing me using my mahl stick. It steadies my hand and keeps it out of wet paint. Standing in the same room as the picture in the same light, I would mix and match colors. I was keenly aware of the trust and privilege granted to be allowed with wet paint in such proximity to the paintings.

19 April 25 Each week a curatorial staff member escorted the picture (my copy) and the live paint through the gallery and up the elevator with a museum cart.

20 April 25 I get to explain to a student group about how copying the picture is the closest I can get to a lesson from Rembrandt himself. Each week I left exhausted from the high concentration and the constant back and forth. It was very exhilarating and I hope to do it again!

21 Why I Tried to Copy Rembrandt By Sarah Hart While working with oil based mediums and referring to the book The Artist s Handbook of Materials & Techniques I found again a quote by A.P. Laurie that reminded me to push ahead with my art education by simply painting. Laurie, the well known professor of chemistry and author from the Royal Academy, is considered a giant on the subject of old master mediums. He points out, It is a common mistake to make up for the want of manipulative skill on the part of the modern painter, by inventing complex mediums which the painter of old is supposed to have used. Picking up the brushes and making an attempt to copy an old master picture is the best way to learn about how they painted. My educational background, in college and graduate school, was in the classical methods of oil painting. Additionally, I spent three months in the Gabinetto des Disegni at the Uffizi copying old master drawings. The old master drawings, especially the Dutch ones, taught me that one drawing can be the product of hours and even many more. I had never had the materials, training, opportunity, time, or the idea to move on to the bigger challenge of copying a master painting until being here in Rochester. I inquired at the MAG to copy Portrait of a Young Man in an Armchair by Rembrandt van Rijn. I had hoped to be put on their copyist s waiting list and find out what I had to do to be granted permission. The opportunity was more than I had imagined; as the curatorial staff made the history of the painting and its technical analysis immediately available for me to study in their offices. They then proceeded to craft the old copyists rules that had not been used before by any current curatorial staffer. The rules were untested and incomplete. I agreed to do whatever they needed and be the willing specimen. To make the most of this unforeseen opportunity I took about two months to prepare, reading and making the canvas. The MAG s library was the other ready resource. It alone is worth the membership at the MAG and I am always encouraging students to see for themselves. Thousands of lifetimes of artistic information are on the third floor. There are all kinds of videos for passive anecdotal learning as well as teaching kits and teaching tools. There are sections of Rembrandt books and one in particular became the companion piece for the project called The Painter at Work. This book helped me at every step of my process in such a detailed manner that I can only summarize how it assisted me. I also appreciated the many children s books on the subject so that I could keep the painting in mind as much as possible. My objective, of course, was to copy the picture as exactly as possible. I had 10 three hour sessions in the gallery near the painting. The more time I spent with the picture, the farther away my goal became. The initial successes of the prepping of the canvas and lay-in turned to far more challenging struggles. Every week I was buying smaller and smaller brushes and needing fistfuls of them. For every detail I succeeded in copying, I noticed two dozen more details. At home in my own studio, I also worked on a still life

22 that mimicked as many of the same steps I was taking with the copy and applying new things I had learned. I believe the countless hours of careful observation and diligent work are what made Rembrandt so successful. To understand and copy what Rembrandt knew is to spend a lifetime in careful observation of nature around one. For example, a painter who is accustomed to spending 60 to one hundred hours on a single portrait achieves a higher consciousness about what he is seeing and noticing. A portrait has thousands and thousands of tiny details to observe. I have learned from this process that the magic medium lies in the patience and willingness of a painter to take an uncommon amount of time painting in addition to being able to handle oil paint and its complexities.

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