Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn does not need an introduction. When you google the name Rembrandt, you get more than 37 million results and almost every result refers to the master himself; his birthplace, the streets where he lived, the city of Amsterdam, his country, museums, schools, walks, cafés and so on. Remarkably, unlike other artists, Rembrandt is primarily known by his first name. Rembrandt’s oeuvre consists of approximately three hundred oil paintings, three hundred etchings and two thousand drawings, including many landscape sceneries. But, unfortunately, he never made scenes in watercolour. Why not?
The use of watercolour has a long tradition that goes back to the cave drawings of Lascaux and Altamira, approximately 15,000 B.C. Many centuries later watercolours were used by the German artist Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528) who alternately painted in oil as well as watercolour. Dürer is often regarded as the father of modern watercolours because of his refined technique; the application of thin transparent washes, the careful construction of details and the painting of the highlights with white gouache. A contemporary of Rembrandt, the Flemish artist Anthony van Dyck (1599-1641), also skillfully painted landscapes in watercolour. These were used as studies and background for his oil paintings and portraits. Rembrandt used his landscape studies mainly as inspirations for the backgrounds in his oil paintings. These were often supplemented with an Italian mountain landscape which in Rembrandt’s days was seen as the ‘ideal’ landscape.
In the 17th century landscape painting developed into a subject in itself. Before that time, the landscape sceneries had no aesthetic function and therefore no commercial value for Rembrandt. In addition, a watercolour is vulnerable to light and moisture and does not stand out as much as oil paintings. His landscape studies are open-air life drawings. Painting in colour was not an option at the time. This tradition was only introduced after John Goffe Rand invented the paint tube in the middle of the 19th century and which set the way for the Impressionists.
One may conclude that Rembrandt was aware of watercolour as a medium for painting. But he never worked with it. He limited himself to sepia and bister, using a reed pen and/or brush. This allowed him to suggest volume, light and shadow. Apparently, he did not need more. The question remains: what would his drawings have looked like if he had used watercolours rather than brown sepia?
In this project I challenge myself to use Rembrandt’s landscape sketches to make watercolours as Rembrandt might have made them. With which I absolutely do not want to compare my skills to those of the master himself – it is only my personal interpretation. A word of thanks goes to Harry G. de Vries who suggested this project.
All Rembrandt’s drawings used in this project come from the book ‘Rembrandt’s Landscapes – Walks in and around Amsterdam’ written by: Boudewijn Bakker, Mària van Berge-Gerbaud, Erik Schmitz and Jan Peeters. THOTH Publishers, Bussum
My good friend Arie Jekel made a project making watercolours from Rembrandts sketches!
He made wonderful watercolours from those tiny sketches!
Have a look on his channels.
Arie’s you Tube Channel https://youtu.be/146VuQW1X5A
Arie’s website. https://www.ariejekelart.nl/