Rembrandt’s Earths

Without atmosphere a painting is nothing.” Rembrandt.

Old Master Rembrandt Van Rijn (1606-1669), during the Dutch Golden Age was a genius of “Chiaroscuro” (a technique developed during Renaissance, with high contrast between the light and dark areas on a painting to create depth), and used a very limited but stable palette, mostly based on earth tones with warm and golden highlights.

You can find on my Instagram Highlight Story titled “Masters” some of the best works of Rembrandt and other old masters.

Rembrandt generally made tricky mixtures of colours, than using them pure. Golden Ochres, Burnt Sienna with its rich and transparent brown, Raw and Burnt Umber, Lead White are always present in his palette.

Lead White is made by Lead Carbonate and Sulfate, highly toxic. Also named Biacca, Cremnitz White, Flake White, Silver White. Opaque, is a bright and luminous particular white, largely used by old masters since antiquity although it tends to darken. In 1800, to replace it, were introduced Zinc and Titanium White. Titanium White is an inorganic pigment made by Titanium Dioxide TiO2, opaque, with a slight blue undertone. Zinc White PW4 instead is more transparent, semi-opaque with a warm undertone, good lightfastness, perfect for dilution and glazing.

For what concerns Black, Rembrandt used a lot Ivory Black and Charcoal.

Ivory Black was originally made from roasting elephant tusks, obviously being today illegal is made from animal bones, it has a brown velvety undertone, is highly stable, with excellent tinting properties. Charcoal Black is made from carbonized willows, while Vine black is made from grapevine, a cool bluish black, both made from vegetable matter, very stable and useful pigments.

Occasionally he used Vermillion (Sulfur+Mercury), but he preferred a mixture of Red Ochres and Cochineal Lakes and Madder for red.

He was a master of glazing with his translucent Ochres and Red Earths mixed with Ivory Black, sometimes Asphaltum-Bitumen or Vandyke Brown and glazed with Smalt (made from Cobalt glass, considered a good dryer).

Vandyke brown (NBr8, named after the artist Van Dyke) is made by Iron Oxides-Lignite-Peat-Bitumen, is stable, non toxic, useful for greys and glazing, even if it tends to darken. It’s also known as Cassel Earth or Cologne Earth. Painter Van Dyke also glazed his works with another dark brown pigment called Bistre, made from wood soot of beech wood or birch bark. In 1800 it was replaced by Sepia. True Sepia was originally made from ink sacs of cuttlefish, today is commonly made with Burnt Umber and Carbon Black hues.

A lot of Rembrandt’s earths were from Italy, like Siena or Umbria. Other beautiful earths are Terra Rosa, Venetian Red, Pompeian Red, Pozzuoli Earth; some with range from violet reds to yellow hues, all originally natural earths but often replaced today by synthetic Iron Oxides due to the exhaustion of many quarries. It’s better not mixing some earths with colours like Cinnabar, Prussian Blue, Chrome and Cadmium Yellow.

And a couple of quotes from two great masters with whom we can only fully agree:

I would have liked to be-indeed, I should have been- a second Rembrandt.” Victor Hugo.

Rembrandt goes so deep into the mysterious that he says things for wich there are no words in any language. It is with justice that they call Rembrandt-magician- that’s no easy occupation.” Vincent Van Gogh.

To be continued…