Is anything known about how Rembrandt manipulated light in his studios?
This intriguing drawing by Rembrandt (Ben. 1161, two reproductions included for contrast) is thought to show the studio in his home. The Rembrandt Museum has reconstructed this scene,suggesting that the curved curtain was part of his method for lighting models.
Rembrandt’s house was divided and heavily remodeled over time, so the reconstruction is somewhat uncertain. It’s an important question to me whether his studio received direct sunlight, because I think there are reasons to think this may show the use of mirrors or metal to reflect direct sunlight. It’s pretty speculative, but interesting to consider.
A second day of straight rain in Tucson, too grim for painting. I am procrastinating on getting some framing done (I hate framing), and always get obsessively interested in something when I am avoiding things! A story of sunlight for a gray day…
Is it plausible that Rembrandt (and other artists of his time) might have lit people sometimes with an arrangement of reflected light? The method has attractive qualities for an artist with no access to fresnel lights: adjustable from classic to dramatic angles, adjustable in strength (by polishing the metal) and color temperature (by using different metals), adjustable over time (to a degree) to keep a constant light, adjustable to send light undiminished into any part of a large room. It can make classic Rembrandt portrait lighting and also the dramatic effects seen in Rembrandt’s narrative painting (if he used maquettes, anyway; spotlight effects can be made with this setup and gobos).
Rembrandt light has long been invoked as the most beautiful light for faces, but it can be quite hard to achieve in the studio with natural light if you want a good match. Most artists I know who paint or draw portraits from life use artificial light. An ideal result is one that comes close in the nature of both shadows and color, and is consistent for a session with a model. Good Rembrandt light shows some degree of cast shadow with a soft edge, which requires a fairly strong light source, along with skin tone ranging from very warm to neutral, not cold or gray.
In terms of shadow features, north light is only close if the subject is quite near the window. In terms of color, I think north light is far too cold. It’s great for lighting your canvas, but not a face. North light is even and consistent for a modeling session, but its other problems make it unworkable for my taste. Direct sunlight is far too hard-edged for the shadow structure, though color is closer. Diffused direct sunlight can create a workable shadow structure and color, but the direction of light changes pretty quickly.
I have been struggling with warm-cool relationships, particularly when I paint from photos. Working from life makes it much easier to see them, since the light is real and internally correct. In photos it is not, with white balance dependent on software processing that may adjust shadow color incorrectly. (Photos also tend to have major value problems in shadows, which hide color temperature.)
The usual instruction in art circles is to paint “warm light, cool shadows and cool light, warm shadows.” I have found this confusing because I don’t comprehend that it is a property of light to behave that way. I paint in narrow alleys where reflected light, often intensely warf or cool, is a huge factor that can overwhelm other color sources in shadow, so I see constant violations of the principle. Is it artist folklore, masking a more accurate explanation?
I’ve done one methylcellulose underpainting so far and absolutely loved it. It’s like painting with pastels. I decided to try a few other emulsions to compare.
1. Homemade casein binder combined with oil paint or pigment. My first response is not as positive as for MC. It set up more slowly (could have been the proportions of course), and emulsified worse or no better than MC, which really isn’t that great an emulsifier compared to…
The MC tests I did the other day used MC gel (step two in DB Clemons instructions) added directly to oil paint. Under about 1:1, it doesn’t seem to emulsify well with the oil paint. At 1:1, I would think it remains an oil-in-water emulsion (since the pigment is taking up part of the volume of the oil paint). It can dry very fast at this point, and works best in a sort of drybrush manner for me.
Today I tried the emulsion, MC gel mixed with heat-bodied oil (step three of DBC). I think I understood his proportions, but when I added pigment (dry or Createx water pastes), I got a mix that did not adhere well to canvas at all, and even beaded up on the palette. This was only overcome by adding a lot of pigment. (Chalk or calcium carbonate also stabilized it, with some loss of saturation. It seemed to work better to add oil paint directly to the emulsion. None of these mixes dried as fast as pure MC gel plus oil paint, but they still set up pretty fast. This would make a stage two paint, not as lean as what I used earlier.
I decided to catch up on some old business and test out info from D.B. Clemons and Tad Spurgeon about combining oil painting with tempera emulsions, the most common being casein, methylcellulose, and egg. I didn’t try egg, but did some tests with casein and MC. This approach is supposed to be very old (with egg and possibly starch, at least), and very durable if done correctly. The principle is to use an emulsifying agent (casein binder, methylcellulose gel, or egg), which allows water and oil to mix into a stable suspension, mayonnaise being a common example. This can be safely used as an underpainting for oils.