Rembrandt’s faded colours

Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669) ‘De Staalmeesters’, 1662, 191 x 279 cm, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

 

 Watching Time at Work

 Paint is an unreliable partner as Primo Levi remarked to the point in his book The Monkey’s wrench (1978). However, we  painters have to work with it and hope it will not play tricks on our work too quickly. 


With the developments in modern art and the focus on concept, combined with the avalanche of new pigments and binders like acrylics, it is still uncertain what the next generations will be able to see from what has been made since the 1960’s. Those years in which tradition and craft were condemned to be irrelevant and even a hindrance for the creative process.
But the times, and our thinking, are changing.
Crafts are being rediscovered and with them the historical materials and techniques. The ‘Old Masters’ are studied anew: their painting practice, thinking and works.
Masters like Rembrandt, whose once revolutionary and wilful artworks became icons in art, like his famous painting ‘De Staalmeesters’ (Syndics of Draper’s Guild).

‘ It is an old saying that rules are meant to be broken. No one did this more successfully than Rembrandt. For instance, the rich red in the table cloth in the Syndics is obtained by glazing a translucent red over brown, instead of over a brighter red. Rules are meant to be broken, but it is necessary to know first what the rules are. ‘

The above quotation is an example of the re-appreciation of the grumpy Dutchman’s craft. I encountered this quote in an instructional post offering advice on painting materials and techniques.
Indeed, you have to know the rules before you can break them. But you need to know all the rules involved. In this case the rules of time and colour need to be taken into account.
The author was not familiar with Primo Levi’s observation, which applies to most old art:  paint  is unreliable, ages, deteriorates, changes or even vanishes as a colour. All of these factors are visible in this still brilliant painting, which was radiant when it left the painter’s easel.

Yes, Rembrandt did paint a translucent red lake, but no, not over brown, which would have produced a dull, uninteresting red-brown. Most likely the glaze (some thickly applied parts are still visible) was used to intensify and darken a warm red. originally probably a purplish red, a combination of blue smalt and red lake(s), intended as a darker hue of the bright part of the cloth. This way the deeper and cooler red enhances the light falling through the high window. It opens up and accentuates the space in which the action is taking place. However, both pigments are famously unstable and can loose practically all their original colour.

Obviously my simple photo-shop tool can’t mimic the richness of the original paints, the rich glazes, the  lakes, blues and umbers, the hand of the painter. However, with a partial reconstruction you can get an  idea of the effect this richly coloured, costly, and exotic rug would have had in the composition. 

Nowadays we do not realise how extremely precious, special, and sought after these rugs once were.
In the picture it is a loud, clear, visual social statement, like today’s designer fashions and watches. The  Amsterdam Syndics belonged to the very wealthy and influential of the 17th century Dutch Republic. Expensive housing, furniture, cutlery, clothes, art-collections, and the status of the commissioned artists, were all vehicles to underline the social position of the portrayed.

Looking at the painting in it’s present condition, it is obvious how much the original paint-layers have suffered, losing colour due to the properties of the pigments, Rembrandt’s technique, and the impact of time. Losing an essential part of it’s symbolic meaning.

An antique Persian rug

Using what we know, the familiar, can be very helpful when we are studying a work of art. In this case, we know these rugs. They are commonly available as carpets. Often in red’s with blue, yellow and green decorations. Colourful pieces, so why does the painting show an undefined brown example of textile? 
Combining the practical knowledge of why and how these carpets are made with the awareness of the properties of historical pigments, binders and techniques, we can imagine the painting’s original colour-system.

The two Dutchmen below were portrayed during the same period as the Staalmeesters. And like the ‘Syndics’ these men are displaying who and what they are, using the commonly known symbols of their time to do so. 
These paintings share with Rembrandt’s the similar effects which time has on painted colour, though less obvious. Both have lost their blues, again this tricky smalt-blue and perhaps some indigo, and the red lakes. 
The landscape on the left has transformed into a dull grey background, as has the blue in the man’s costly clothing and that of his servant. The vanished lakes flatten the reds and blacks.

As a result of the tricks of time, Dutch oil-painting of the 16th, 17th and 18th century, seems to be dominated by the stable and sturdy red, brown, and yellow earth-pigments, vermilion, lead-white and blacks.

  It is unstoppable time at work.

Freshly finished rugs.

Behind the Painted Surface – M-Classes

 7Colours Project

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Light and the Painter’s Studio

The studio of Francis Bacon
When we think of a  painter’s studio we imagine a space filled with an abundance of all kinds of materials: essential tools for the creative mind. Paints and brushes, easels, canvasses, sketches, computers, curiosities and much more, all arranged to suit the painter’s needs and method.
Of the same importance is the studio’s lighting.
I clearly remember from my study at the State Academy in Amsterdam (in it’s original building) the huge difference in light-temperature between the class-rooms. My first year was in warm sunshine flooding in through big windows situated in a south-west wall. Moving on further with my studies meant moving up into the professional studios situated in the northern part of the building. The years spent here are dominated by the cool, grey light coming in through huge windows. Flat northern light causing flat colours, colouring our palettes, painting(s) and energy.
The available light in which art works are created has a profound and underestimated effect on every painter’s work.

Bacon’s studio, or rather his cage as depicted above, receives concentrated light from a high and narrow roof window fixed overhead in brown wood.

Johannes Vermeer ( 1632 – 1675)

A huge difference with the organised and richly decorated studio depicted by Vermeer around 1667, lighted by a window to the painter’s left side. For a right handed person the ideal position to avoid the disturbance of casting shadows while working the canvas. When we observe the intensity of the entering light it is clear that the lower part of the window is covered by a panel to enhance contrasts of the model and the scene. The situation is comparable with the studio painted by Jan Miense Molenaar around the same period, where only the top of the window, on the left, is uncovered.

Jan Miense Molenaar ( ca 1610 – 1668)
 
Pablo Picasso (1881 – 1973) France
The photo with Picasso posing in his studio next to a newly finished painting resembles Vermeer’s, with the controlled daylight entering from the left.
Picasso has used the powerful, abstract effects of the strong sunlight of a French summer in his work, creating bright squares in shady rooms.
Reliable light is essential when painting indoors. Overcast skies and the position of the sun alter the quality of daylight and make it, at various times, impossible to continue painting. Just as happened today, when I started writing this blog, heavy overcast skies turned my studio into a gloomy space.

In the past, artificial light like candles and oil-lamps were not a solution because the yellowish light distorts the original colours of paints. With the 20th century invention of the so called daylight fluorescent tube lighting, and the modern LED, lamps could be used to replace natural daylight.
Personally, and for many of my colleagues, no lamp can replace the vividness of natural light.

Out of doors

Willem Roelofsz (1822-1879) painting  a cool Dutch summer
The ultimate daylight painting method is, of course, done outdoors. 
Each landscape presents it’s specific energies, light, and colour-temperature. 
Confronted by an ever changing atmosphere enforces intense observation and quick, direct work. A passing cloud, the slow but steady movement of the sun, constantly alter the subject. This is ‘no bullshit’ painting at its finest. 
Struggling with winds, heat or cold, with aching shoulders and back, and limited tools; or sore eyes and so called snow blindness caused by looking too long at a sun blazed white canvas. Exactly as happened to Van Gogh during his outdoors painting sessions. 

John Singer Sargent (1856 – 1925) painting the Alps
David Roberts (1796 – 18640), painting ruins in Egypt
Based on this richness and variation in light a painter makes a choice of the colours and paints she or he thinks will be the best to translate an image, an idea into two-dimensions. It is an essential part of the finished work of art.

Thus, when visiting a museum where the atmosphere is strictly controlled to protect the art on show, we don’t see and  experience the works as intended by their creators. Sunlight is banned, the light, the colouring of the walls, the height of the ceiling, the size of the room, are all different than the artist’s studio and the original place for hanging.
Another factor, especially in popular museums, is that you are never on your own.

 Rembrandt’s ‘Nightwatch’ in the Rijksmuseum Amsterdam

Works of art in museums are always out of context. They have lost their intended function, and meaning, and are mixed together with other works of the same period or other eras, according to the opinions and preferences of the curators.

Reconstruction of Rembrandt’s studio in the Rembrandt-house in Amsterdam

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Colour and Theories


Colour Theory  versus  Painting Practice

 

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What is colour? 

A simple question that is so very difficult to answer. Colour is light, colour is mood, structure, matter, elusive…..many theories  offer a range of explanations. This range of explanations are the cause of deep misunderstandings when it comes to colour as matter.
I remember vividly an incomprehensible event during drawing lessons when I was at Primary School. The teacher had told us about light, the rainbow, about colours,  their names and how to mix them to create new ones. And, a miracle, how a mixture of all the bright colours turned into white! Well, I tried hard but after an hour working my colour-pencils I never got anything other then a drab brown. And no explanation from my teacher.

Here we encounter one of the big pitfalls in the thinking about colour: colour is light but paint is matter. White light is the sum of 7 bright colours but white paint is not made by mixing these 7 colours. Nevertheless, this unworkable theory for painting is still taught at schools and universities today as an integral part of colour in art. But the artist’s colour systems and schemes are based on other principles and characteristics. On opaque versus transparent, warm versus cool, dark versus light, complemented with the interactions of various groups of colours. In western thinking known as primary and secondary colours.

Isaac Newton’s (1642-1727) prism on top of his manuscript on the properties of light.
Photo Lessing Images
Therefore, using colour as paint requires a different approach.
Firstly, the three so-called primary colours don’t exist as such. These colours offered in basic sets of paint are also not the base for mixing ‘all’ colours, as suggested. More than once I have heard a customer in an art supply shop inquire about these basic sets, whether they would provide the whole range of mixed colours. They would get the answer ‘yes’ ……………….this scenario takes me back to my fruitless struggles with the colour pencils.
A basic set like the one below is a nightmare to work with because these colours don’t work together. The only possible mixture to be made with this particular set is a rather opaque orange. Other combinations will turn out dull or brownish.
The reason is it’s lack of cool colours, which leads us to the often underestimated effect of the Temperature of Colour.
Basic paint set, with mostly warm and too opaque colours

 

Warm Blue and Cool Red

 Knowing the temperature of colour is an essential part in the handling of one’s palette. 

 

The art-historic interpretation of a colour-wheel, however, useless in painting

For anyone working with paints and inks, a workable set of primary colours contains a warm and cool variety of each colour. The colour wheel above is used on a website by a blogging art-historian explaining it’s use in painting to create perspective by using cold colours, the blues, in the back-ground. Hence it’s division in cold and warm colours. This highly popular theory is based on the misunderstanding that blue is cold and red and yellow are warm.  Anyone familiar with paint knows differently.  The vibrant warm ultramarines, the cold reds and  yellows, and warm and cool emeralds do not fit into this theoretical thinking. Ergo, this colour wheel is useless as a tool to understand the temperature of colour in paint, in matter.

Talking paint the wheel is divided  as seen below, with warm and cool (cold)  distributed in both sections. I prefer to add the neutral colours which are neither specifically warm or cool(cold), like the original cobalt blue or a regular yellow ochre.
In colour wheels like this one the broad range of natural earth-colours is absent, although they are the backbone of painting.

As well are black and white, which for a painter are not the simple two (non-)colours as generally presented, but who in itself cover a wide range from warm to cool.    

   

The colour-wheel as seen by painters.
To make the matter even more complicated, each colour is defined by surrounding colours. Thus a cold blue indigo seems warmer when it’s neighbour is the even colder Prussian blue. This effect is called the relative colour temperature.

 

  Temperature and Meaning 

Colour temperature in it’s original historic sense plays an essential part in the use of pigments and dyes throughout history.
The temperature of a colour had (and still has)  a symbolic value and played an important role in signalling the good or the evil.
As an example we can look at the temperatures of two historic blue pigments, lapis lazuli ultramarine and indigo which were both available in southern Eurasia. The first is in it’s purest form a brilliant, vibrating warm blue, the second a deep, cold night-blue. Both were associated with the powers beyond, ultramarine with the heavenly powers, indigo with those connected to the darkness of after-life and the underworld, with grieve. Each was used in this specific way to emphasize the role and meaning of the deities depicted.

Dürer’s (1471-1528) unfinished Christ and the slightly older 14th century Tibetan Buddha share the  warm blue as the symbol of divine, positive power. The Tibetan creator of the Buddha lived much closer to the source of the rare and extremely expensive lapis lazuli then Dürer, which explains why Dürer modelled Christ’s tunic first with the slightly cooler, more available and cheaper, azurite before he would finish with a glacis of lazurite, the purest ultramarine.

These two works of art show us as well that the availability of  pigments determines the possibilities of it’s creators. Uncountable are the Buddha’s and Christ’s which have to do with lesser or substitute colours and pigments. Or even completely lack colour due to the poverty of the community they were made for.

Summarizing, understanding the temperature of colours in painting is much more complicated than cutting a colour-wheel in half.      
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Paint & Pixels, the battle

Discolouration and the Public Eye

 

Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665) The finding of Moses, 1651, 116 x 175 cm.,
oil on canvas, National Gallery, London.                 Photo by author

An idyllic representation of the finding of baby Moses by the daughter of the Egyptian Pharaoh. It’s Poussin’s third and last version of the topic, and a painting displaying an abundant use of exclusive pigments, especially the warm blue of natural ultramarine (from lapis lazuli). A rare blue,for many centuries more sought after and more valued than gold. It’s specific colour-temperature in combination with the special way it has to be applied in oil-painting, makes it stand out even more than was intended by the painter.
Poussin would not be pleased at all seeing his work in its present state, with the isolated red, yellow and blues, dominating and dis-balancing the composition.
One of the main colours that went missing is green: the warm, vibrant greens. We see some greenish foliage and a cool blueish green in some of the women’s clothing, they are too cool and too weak to stand their ground. The cause is discolouration. A combination of fading yellow lakes and the browning of copper-greens such as verdigris.
Until the 19th century the painter’s palette was limited to greens that were made by mixing blues and yellows, or the cool, blueish copper-greens (including malachite). These could be turned into warm greens using yellow lakes. Simple, bright, and warm green pigments were unavailable until the 19th century.
The result of the then available limited palette and the tricks of paint, is a not very attractive, unharmonious painting.

However, this problem may be more or less solved by reproducing the painting in pixels or prints.

The Poussin on the website of the National Gallery

To achieve an optical balance, the image on the website of the National Gallery has been markedly darkened, reducing its contrast and brightness. The difference between my photo taken in the museum, and the image from the website, is more than remarkable.
This demonstrates one of the many problems we are confronted with when looking at a painting in reproduction, whether it be in pixels or print.

We may conclude that a confrontation with a real work of art can never be replicated by viewing a reproduction, regardless of the medium.

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Indigo

 

P.P. Rubens, Desecend of the Cross, oil on panel, 209 x 148 cm., Antwerp Cathedral.

When Rubens painted this large altar-piece in the beginning of the 17th-century, he was using the same blue pigment as his colleagues in Asia and South-America: dried indigo, mixed with a binder. 
Antwerp, Rubens’ home-town, was at the time one of the main-ports in the booming global trade between Eurasia and the America’s. Transshipping anything from spices to gems, from delicate textiles to commodities. The unique position of Antwerp enabled Rubens to use a new, powerful, dark-blue pigment, shipped from today’s Mexico to Europe: indigo. 
Indigo is a cool, blackish blue, which accounts for the rather gloomy appearance of the triptych. Despite the disadvantage of a cool colour-temperature, it became a welcome substitute for the costly lazurite (ultramarine) from lapis lazuli, frequently unobtainable for painters outside Asia. This precious and heavenly stone  was mined in the Afghan mountains of the Hindu Kush, due to  grimm weather conditions only accessible in summer.

 Bonampak, Maya-mural, ca. 650, with Maya-blue, made of indigo and polygorskite. 

Nowadays we know indigo mainly from the multicultural ‘jeans’. Originally a sturdy working outfit for Californian miners, now a globally accepted uni-sex piece of clothing.

www.monicarotgans.nl/lectures
The oldest surviving pair of jeans, a Levi’s from ca. 1890. Indigo-dyed cotton.

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