I’ve chosen to study a couple of Rembrandt’s self portraits to reveal the strategies and tools he used to light his subjects. He painted these masterpieces at different ends of his career. Rembrandt was a Dutch painter in the Baroque period influenced by the Renaissance painters that went before him. He painted many self portraits, perhaps he was practicing or maybe he was vain.
We have all heard of Rembrandt light but what exactly is Rembrandt light?
Rembrandt’s self portrait of 1635 exhibits a soft pool of directional light that just enters his eyes to bring them alive. The light is intimate, what I mean by that is it is fairly close to him just out of the painting view. I can determine this by looking at the fall off on his hands and the brighter portion of his cheek. The intimacy of light is crucial to the look he portrays in his paintings.
The light is a soft diffused source about 30cm in size. Maybe it is a smoked glass sphere enveloping a large oil lamp. I’d say to create this look in the studio we need to use a beauty dish with a shower cap type diffuser. We can tell the background is some distance away because Rembrandt’s shadow drops out of sight behind him.
This painting exhibits a narrow colour palate of yellows, ochres, browns and fabulous near black shades. There are several reasons for this choice of hues. Cool paint shades were very expensive at the time and exhibited little permanence. The warm tones deliver an endearing rich and pleasing view of a confident man. Rembrandt’s eyes draw you in. It is quite possible to have a conversation with this painting. Rembrandt speaks to me in a way that I want to capture in my portraits. There is an openness and approachability in his look that I find captivating. I’d have loved to have a beer with the man himself.
There are many fabulous self portraits by Rembrandt. Just Google him to see the varied styles of lighting he employed in his work. If there’s one influence in classical portrait photography that hear referred to often it is Rembrandt.
Please feel free to comment or link to your favourite Rembrandt painting.