Painting Part 1: The Syndics of the Draper’s Guild
In this article, we would like to share a bit with you the process we use to reproduce Rembrandt’s painting, “De Staalmeesters” (The Syndics of the Draper’s Guild). After researching many resources about the master and his techniques, it becomes clear that he was an extremely versatile artist, following no one single procedure. Rembrandt varied his choices based on the effect he was after. From unfinished pictures we know that he would begin with an imprimatura layer. Then he would continue with the initial sketch. He would then proceed in transparent browns, working in monochrome to establish the design of the painting. While setting up layer upon layer he keeps concentrating on the masses of dark and light.
In painting, imprimatura is an initial stain of color painted on a ground. It provides a painter with a transparent, toned ground, which will allow light falling onto the painting to reflect through the paint layers. The term itself stems from the Italian and literally means “first paint layer”. Its use as an underpainting layer can be dated back to the guilds and workshops during the Middle Ages; however, it came into standard use by painters during the Renaissance, particularly in Italy.
Rembrandt often used opaque white for the strongest lights in this stage; his version of an imprimatura. Over the dried brown underpainting, Rembrandt began adding color, working from the background forward, rather than working over the whole picture at once. In this reproduction, I recommend using primer as the first oil layer. The first oil layer, the imprimatura, is done with a very thin layer of diluted oil paint applied to cover the pure white background of the canvas. Turpentine is usually added as a dilution method.
Care should be taken that the imprimatura layer not be completely covered by successive layers.
This Imprimatura layer is composed of yellow ocher and a small addition of burnt umber. The tone of the imprimatura layer should match the brightest points of the future picture.
On the picture on the right you can see how I set up the imprimatura layer. Click on it to see more detail.
The Initial Outline
The initial outline drawing is done in charcoal. Some artists prefer to use pencil, but I find it is much easier to erase charcoal as I go. Charcoal drawing is an art in and of itself and it should not be taken lightly. Don’t forget to check your composition! Rembrandt’s mastery of composition in the classical style relied heavily on the golden ratio, which informs most classical painting styles. This will ensure that your angles and proportions are correct. It’s a simple concept to grasp, not so easy in practice. I do this all by hand. No machine copying for me!
The Underpainting Layer
The underpainting layer is made by transferring the drawing onto the easel and fixed using oil paint (I chose burnt umber for this step) to establish the overall shapes of the composition. I don’t use any white paint in this step. This stage provides the initial color base from which all other layers can begin. Rembrandt’s use of chiaroscuro begins at this very fundamental point in the painting process.
Remember the lighting in Rembrandt’s day was limited to either window light (sunny or cloudy depending on the ever-unpredictable Dutch weather), firelight, or oil lamp/candle light. This is why so many of his works have a deep, warm tonal range.
Rembrandt’s palette for this painting consisted of a black (perhaps bone black or ivory black, less frequently charcoal), and a number of earth tones (ochres, siennas, and umbers). I’m going to use lamp black, yellow ochre, and both raw and burnt sienna tones for the monochromatic layer.
The Brunaille Layer
Once the initial underpainting layer has been completed it is time for the brunaille. This additional layer will prepare our painting for color. It is done in brown tones underneath the colorful upper layers and over top of the first underlayer, but can also be done in grays (grisaille) or even green (verdaille), depending on whether your painting has warm or cool tones overall. Working in transparent warm shades of glazing on top of the brunaille produces a very interesting effect on human skin tones.
This completes the monochromatic layer, showing the beginning stages of how Rembrandt achieved his famous light and shadow effect. Next: Color!