Rembrandt light explained

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?

I think one of the best examples of portrait lighting ever is this self portrait in the National Gallery in London.

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 close up shows the shadow structure that can be used to determine the lighting design.

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.

In this self portrait from 1668 Rembrandt is much older and nearing the end of his life, the key light is steeper and it fails to get into his eyes. His eyes look lifeless yet the depth of expression is as strong as ever. Notice the proximity of the background. He is in a much smaller space.

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.

Just some of the hundreds of results for the search term 'Rembrandt self portrait'

Please feel free to comment or link to your favourite Rembrandt painting.

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  1. I love wandering around places like the National Gallery and National Portrait Gallery studying lighting and posing. I find it fascinating that the bulk of the Rembrandt images are broad lit and not short lit.

  2. Hello! I had the luck to see the working room of Rembrandt as I was living in the Netherlands, and the source of the light was a little 40cm x 40cm window at about 2m height in a corner of a small room.

  3. Hi Mark,

    That was the fashion then. Broad lighting to reveal more detail. Short lighting to reveal shape. It wasn’t until much later that short lighting became fashionable. It’s great fun, this picture research. More fun still is implementing the findings when shooting.

    Cheers, Damien.