Rembrandt and The Legend of Steel Bashaw
In one of my previous posts I promised to write about my “conversations” with Rembrandt. Well, there is no mystery about my contact with him or, better said, with his art. The truth is that I live quite close to Amsterdam and the Rijksmuseum, where they have a significant collection of his paintings. During the years I spent countless hours looking at Rembrandt’s magnificent paintings and analyzing his glorious technique. Gradually I learned to tune myself to his art and was able to “hear” what he had to say to me.
As you probably know, Rembrandt van Rijn ( 1606 – 1669) was a famous Dutch painter, by many considered to be one of the greatest painters of all times. Rembrandt is often called “The painter of light”. Being the most prominent aspect of his art, the depiction of light is what he is most known for today. He adopted so called chiaroscuro technique (chiaroscuro means light-dark and is characterized by strong contrasts between light and dark), inspired by the paintings of his great predecessor, the Italian master Caravaggio, whose art had a profound impact on the Baroque style. A few years ago I have seen an exhibition, in Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, of paintings from both masters, hanging side by side. It was an amazing show that strengthened me in my believes that, regarding the impact of chiaroscuro technique in both master’s paintings, I dare say that Rembrandt’s mastery surpassed Caravaggio’s, and set the standard for generations of artists to come.
And indeed, when standing in front of one of Rembrandt’s portraits, or a historic/religious composition, or even a landscape painting, the suggestion of light in the painting is dazzling. It is as if his paintings not only depict the light in a most convincing and dramatic way, but it appears as if the paintings themselves emanate the light as well. I often stood mesmerized by this phenomenon in Rembrandt’s art, trying to comprehend the way and the procedure that enabled him to achieve such a breathtaking effect.
Jeremiah lamenting the destruction of Jerusalem, 1630.
Rijksmuseum Amsterdam. Oil on panel; 58,3 X 46,6 cm.
After many hours spent in examination of and in meditation on Rembrandt’s technique, I came to the conclusion that, roughly speaking, there are three major kinds of light that Rembrandt used to depict in his paintings.
The direct light, the reflected light and the inner light (glow) of the shadows. Of all the three different kinds of light I was particularly drawn to the last one; the inner glow of the shadows, or glowing shadows. In fact the basic principle for achieving this light effects is simple; keep the shadows warm and transparent. Easier said than done! Many painters from Rembrandt’s time used the same principle but were not able to achieve such a marvelous results as the master Rembrandt did.
That brings us to the question; how we are than to connect Rembrandt and The Legend of Steel Bashaw? How one connects a mighty elephant to a tiny mouse. Well, I would say the following; look very good to that elephant, copy him (learn from him) and try to understand the essence of the underlying philosophy. Than incorporate the collected knowledge into your own art, without trying to become another Rembrandt. Although a Giant among the artists, ONE Rembrandt in this world is more than enough.
Beside a few other aspect of Rembrandt’s mastery ( like for example; the glazing of the light(er) impasto parts of the painting, which is a kind of art of its own), the glowing shadows aspect in particular, was often on my mind while painting the Steel Bashaw pictures. Although I did not adopt Rembrandt’s working method, I took great care of the glowing shadows principle, trying to achieve a similar effect by using my own approach to the technicalities of painting in oils.
In order to get the desired results I always painted the shadows thin, using the radish/brownish ochre as the underpainting, letting it shine through the following layers of paint as much as possible. Then keeping the shadows transparent, while applying the subsequent thin layers of paint, and avoiding the use of white paint in the shadows, I tried to bring more light into the paintings. The first three paintings from The Legend of Steel Bashaw, that I have presented you in the previous post, and the picture of the Giants (see below), show the influence of Rembrandt’s art. Later on, as the work on the book project progressed, and as my interest and attention shifted to the other great masters of painting, my paintings reflected less and less of Rembrandt’s influences. However I never forgot to keep my shadows warm and transparent and to avoid the use of white paint, as much as possible (white paint in the shadows tends to kill the light, as well as life in the painting, for there is not much life without light).
A few years ago I heard a curator from the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia, (they have there a big collection of Rembrandts, as well) said something like: “Although Rembrandt is often praised because of his juicy, thick impasto, expressively painted light parts, Rembrandt’s power, in fact, lies in his shadows!”
I definitely agree with this statement.