Learning from the Old Masters

Copy of a Rembrandt Self Portrait

While normally strongly discouraging my students from copying directly from published copies of other artists’ work without purpose, I do encourage them to experiment with approaches to painting. Practical, directed learning is beneficial if it provides illumination into alternative ways of working. A study of the work of an Old Master painter offers this opportunity.

To this end, earlier this year my class and I studied the working methods of Rembrandt, setting ourselves the not-altogether-easy task of attempting a copy of his (cropped) 1652 self portrait. Without access to the portrait, currently and inconveniently housed at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, we were of course reliant on printed copies and therefore subject to the vagaries of colour reproduction.

My modus operandi regarding these briefs is to perform as much research as feasible into the artist’s working method and to then attempt my own, simplified version. My version is photographed at each stage of the process, with photographs then being printed and annotated for use at the classes.

Reproduction of a Rembrandt Self Portrait

All of my students are ‘leisure’ painters, a good number of whom are now retired, and what I am really seeking with these briefs is a shorthand take on the artist’s technique that may be understood and put into practice with relative ease. The aim of the exercise is not to produce a replica of the original painting but to attain a deeper understanding of an alternative working procedure with which we were previously unfamiliar and which we may subsequently feel inclined to introduce elements of into our own work.

We normally spend around 3 classes on this type of brief, which amounts to around 6 hours working time. I therefore tend to set myself a time limit of 6 hours or so in which to complete my versions. While this restriction (amongst other skill-related causes) generally results in a far from perfect painting, it provides me with ample opportunity to try for myself a technique with which I was also relatively unfamiliar before passing on my findings.

My take on the Rembrandt self portrait is pictured here. It is pictured before varnishing, which I intend on doing in a couple of months. I wouldn’t normally varnish a painting but I’m keen to see here what effect it has on the paint finish. I made my effort in a combination of Daler-Rowney Georgian oils and Winsor & Newton alkyd white on a 24” x 18” canvas.

Copying a Rembrandt Self Portrait

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