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

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The Paint under our Feet

 RED

Ochre Point Soth Australia, where land meets the ocean

Standing on reds, yellows, whites, and purple by simply taking a walk, effectively walking on pigments, is a strange experience for someone like me; I was raised in Holland, a rather colourless country below sea-level, dominated by the greys of clay and clouds.
Other countries offer quite a different palette, full of flamboyant oxides in a range of hues from deep red to brilliant yellow.
Colours which are the Cradle of Art.

The colours of the earth were the first pigments handled by humans to recreate and create. Recreating the game they hunted and creating symbols which still hold their hidden meanings from us. The impressive wisents, wild horses and sheep, lions, rhinos and even elephants in the prehistoric European paintings we know today, were painted with the effective limited palette based on earth-pigments. It is a palette uniting mankind. 

http://www.abc.net.au/science/articles/2014/10/09/4102672.htm

http://archeologie.culture.fr/chauvet/frThe hand stencils depicted here were found on three different continents: Europe, America and Asia. The oldest have been created around 40.000 years ago. They are evidence of the creative drive of the oldest of what we call humankind. Some may even have been made by Neanderthals, as more scientists are now willing to conclude. 
These images were all made using the same technique: by spitting a mouthful of a watery mix with red earth over the hand. The oldest form of spray-painting. 

The dominant role of red in all of them is no coincidence, and is not connected to an abundance of the pigment in the surroundings of the caves. Red was, and still is in some ways, synonymous to blood, to life. A sacred colour connecting man with ancestors and the after-life.

Blood varies in colour. Fresh blood coming directly  from the body, is a light red, bubbling with energy. Dead blood is dark, almost black, and in thin layers brown. 
Red ochres come in a richer variety of hues: from a light pink, to a full tomato red, a shy brown, and modest violet. 
The pigment-box below is a collection of ochres  (and at the right some charcoal) which I gathered on the Fleurieu Peninsula in South Australia, complemented with one warm Outback ochre (centre).

 Paint, the Story of Art

Despite this range of hues, the reds commonly used in prehistoric painting are of a similar tone, a strong, often bright, red earth.
Research on the reds in various caves showed they were rarely locally found, but brought in from specific, often distant deposits. Hues which must therefore have had a special, symbolic function in the palette used to decorate the caves and sacred objects. 

The tradition of selecting  pigments for their specific colour and attributing a symbolic meaning to them, is universal. In this case of red earth, the seemingly archaic tradition has survived unchanged into 21st-century Australia. 
For more then 40.000 years the Australian Aborigines have been mining ochre deposits such as those of Wilga Mia, ochres of a particularly high quality. High quality meaning a strong, brilliant red, distinctly different from the red earth covering most of the continent.  
Ochres, red and yellow, were and are a vital ingredient in Aboriginal religious practices. The higher the quality of the red earth, the greater the distance it was traded. The mining of the quarries was restricted to a small group of experts of the tribe on whose land the ochres were found.
Red earth was traded with other clans and transported over distances of more then a 1500 kilometres to serve in rituals and to be transformed into paint.
 

Ochre Cliffs, SA. an ancient and deserted aboriginal ochre quarry

Unfortunately the aggressive attitude of modern man’s mining companies has little respect for ancient traditions. During the last two centuries many of these prehistoric quarries have been mutilated to extract the ochres and accompanying minerals like copper and gold in large quantities for commercial and industrial purposes. 
The majority of historical pigments used by humans, share a similar history of mining and long-distance transports. With a growing demand, and loss of ancient symbolic values, the impact of mining on the environment has become, and remains, enormous. 
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