The Artists of Light: Rembrandt van Rijn
If you’ve read the other entries in this Artists of Light series, you can skip right to the section on Rembrandt.
Illuminating Light’s Role in Art History
It goes without saying that light and photography are linked. As photographers we are obsessed with light and for good reason. The effects of good lighting are remarkable. And being able to handle light as a medium can open up entirely new ways of seeing the world. As technology continues to improve it opens a clearer vision of the world around us than the early days of photography.
If you are old enough to remember, think back to the early days of underwater photography. The grainy pictures felt like they were covered in a blue gauze that was unlike the experience of being underwater. As technology improved we began to see the undersea world in all of its splendor. The richness of colors and range of values continues to improve giving us an even deeper appreciation for the ocean. All of this can be linked back to light.
Long before the invention of the camera, artists needed to tackle light in a different way. They had to make it, literally by hand. Starting with a canvas and paint, artists innovated ways to transform piles of ground pigment and oil into scenes that first shaped the illusion of light.
When you become a student of art history, you begin to see how many innovations led up to photography today. Without that understanding, it is hard for your photography to progress. But there is no need to beat yourself up for not taking those art classes you could have in college. A photographer only needs a working knowledge of art to gain valuable resources for their own pictures.
This “Artists of Light” series looks at four artists who represent a lineage of artists obsessed with light. Their contributions are influential to the way that artists, art historians, and curators judge light. Whether you are aware of them or not, they are the benchmark for what is considered good light.
An Approach to Art
While many people find Art with a capital “A” intimidating, it is helpful to keep in mind that you do not need to be a scholar to extract lessons from Art. The paintings and sketchbooks of artists for the last 1,000 years were left to us precisely so we could study them. Artists are not academics. And while some artists study history more than others, any decent artist would prefer to make art than read about it. As a result, they tend to study other artists just long enough to get what they need and get out. They are not writing PhD theses on art movements. Why? Because if you prefer to make things, writing about making things is devastatingly boring.
With this in mind, you might consider keeping a small notebook with art observations. Each time you see a piece of art that teaches you something, write it down. It may surprise you that if you can learn just one thing from each painting you are attracted to, you will very quickly build up a reservoir of knowledge that is easy to recall at a moment’s notice. And when you are out shooting, that is exactly the type of knowledge you want to have handy.
It may surprise you that if you can learn just one thing from each painting you are attracted to, you will very quickly build up a reservoir of knowledge that is easy to recall at a moment’s notice.
Rembrandt van Rijn
If someone were to describe a Rembrandt painting to you it would sound unremarkable at best:
“The aged man, slumped in a chair, wears lose fitting clothing in a dark room.”
This hardly sounds like a masterpiece, but when you see a Rembrandt in person the surface tickles your eyes with light. The luminous effects of Rembrandt’s command of paint far exceeds anything that a printed photo can do. What does that mean for photographers? Well, I take it as a wonderful challenge. Why not set the bar very high, maybe at an unattainable level … isn’t that what goals are for?
Rembrandt’s light drips off of the subjects. It feels as if it just hits the highest points of the roughest skin in each picture. While many artists and photographers were more interested in youth and smoothness, anyone who enjoys a good picture of a weathered person in their 80s owes a debt to Rembrandt.
He opened up the possibility, even more than Titian, to the delicate relationship between age and lighting. Often using himself as the subject, Rembrandt’s pictures emerge from the darkness around them. It could be a hand, or a bolt of gold fabric, but whatever light comes into his paintings it all seems to drip like liquid gold.
Often using himself as the subject, Rembrandt’s pictures emerge from the darkness around them. It could be a hand, or a bolt of gold fabric, but whatever light comes into his paintings it all seems to drip like liquid gold.
For the aspiring photographer, it is interesting to know that Rembrandt was rumored to paint with only four colors. He did not need HDR, vibrance, or even the color green to create his works. He kept the color palette simple: yellows, reds, ochres (beige), and umbers (browns) so that the light could be the star.