Impasto with Rembrandt
Rembrandt was a Dutch draughtsman, painter, and printmaker. He is generally considered one of the greatest visual artists in the history of art and the most important in Dutch art history. He was Incredibly gifted as an artist from a very young age . His supreme mastery of light and texture to emphasize emotional depth weaved a common theme through all of his creations, cementing his status as one of art’s greatest, innovative masters. These qualities are evident from his large, ambitious early history paintings to his more intimate and glowing later style.
Rembrandt is also known for his dramatic self portraits. He created approaching one hundred self-portraits including over forty paintings, thirty-one etchings and about seven drawings. He painted most of his portraits in a technique called Impasto in which paint is laid on an area of the surface in very thick layers, usually thick enough that the brush or painting-knife strokes are visible. Paint can also be mixed right on the canvas. When dry, impasto provides texture; the paint appears to be coming out of the canvas.
The combination of chiaroscuro and impasto in Rembrandt’s paintings shows an affinity with the method of Titian, who was the first to use thickly applied and dragged impasto. This marked the innovation of replacing the painterly means of direct representation with a method of suggestion and illusion.
Rembrandt used impastos to emphasize highlights by the increased illumination of surfaces facing the light source and the exaggeration of shadows on surfaces facing away from the light source. Rembrandt mastered impasto technique of applying paint and it gave his portraits illusion of additional dimension. It is not certain how Rembrandt created the textures encountered in the lights of his portraits, most notably the skin textures of male subjects. It may be reproduced by building up thick layers of opaque paint then dragging a soft brush over the surface while it is still wet. It is believed that in most cases, after executing highlights in thick layers, Rembrandt wholly or partially covered these with thin paint as glazes.
As Rembrandt developed this technique of glazing over impastos, he employed a fast drying white, consisting of lead white, chalk, leaded crystal glass or metal salts.
Impastos can be obtained by using a high proportion of pigment combined with unmodified oil, which, over a period of time, results in a dry, hard paint. The relatively stiff paint needed for impastos can also be obtained by using a heat-bodied thickened with metal salts, such as lead, which gives a soft appearance and a relatively yielding paint. Analysis suggests that Rembrandt used both heat-bodied and unmodified oils with a larger proportion of pigments in his impastos.
Heat polymerization has several effects on the oil. Drying properties are improved and are further enhanced by the addition of metal salts during the heat-bodying process. The refractive index of the oil is increased, thereby increasing the saturation of the pigment color. The high molecular weight of polymerized oils increases the flow out and leveling of the oil giving the paint film a glossier appearance. The pigment is less liable to sink in the oil film, which itself changes less in volume than an unmodified oil film, reducing the amount of wrinkling that may occur. White paints are less susceptible to yellowing because, as the polyunsaturated fatty acids initially present in the paint film are destroyed by the formation of carbon-carbon single bonds, there is less possibility for the formation of colored organic compounds, the presence of which give the yellow appearance to the film.
The character of impastos achieved by freshly applied paint consisting of a larger proportion of pigment to oil, and especially with such pigments as lead white and lead-tin yellow, is different to that provided by heat-bodied oil. The highly varying and often commented appearance of Rembrandt’s brushwork in his thickly-applied passages could have been obtained by the juxtaposition of paint consisting of heat-bodied oil and unmodified oil containing a high proportion of pigment.
Much of the thickest impastos in Rembrandt’s paintings are formed of lead white sometimes with lead-tin yellow. Where lead white is used in thick passages it does not produce excessive cracking as the paint film dries and ages, because prevalent with all lead-containing pigments, lead white enhances the drying of oil paint, forming a particularly tough and flexible film.
Rembrandt also used chalk both as a pigment in its own right and an extender in impastos, where bulk without the density is required in the paint. When mixed in oil, chalk is virtually transparent making it suitable as a modifying agent for glazing paints that also contain translucent colored pigments. The effect of adding chalk to oil paint is to add body and translucency to glazes without inducing a great change in color.
The complexity and variety of technique in Rembrandt’s paintings set him apart from his contemporaries. The thickly-applied paint often consists of distinct hues and values forming passages of broken color. Separately applied color remains clean and distinct and can be seen from a normal viewing distance.
Thick passages of paint can serve a number of functions in paintings. First, the relief of impastos can intensify highlights by increasing the light-reflecting properties of the paint. This effect extends the tonal range of the painting by making highlights appear more brilliant. Second, skillfully and minutely worked impastos can depict wrinkled skin or the texture of intricately crafted surfaces of jewelry and fabrics such as in the works of Rembrandt, Frans Hals and Diego Velázquez. The nineteenth-century painter Vincent van Gogh used impastos to build up and define the forms in his paintings with thick daubs of paint, so that the viewer can see the strength and speed by which the artist applied the paint, giving them added expressiveness. Fourth, impastos can emphasize the physical qualities of the paint itself as can be seen in the works of such twentieth-century painters as Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning.