By Ann Witheridge
I had a wonderful day at the Dulwich Picture Gallery on Saturday. We organised a portrait workshop in conjunction with the exhibition Rembrandt’s Light.
I had 16 students and a lot to cover; materials, portraiture, techniques and all in relationship to Rembrandt. Each student got a linen panel, rosemary brushes and oil paints. The workshop was so much easier to teach because we were all working on linen, which is such a lovelier surface to work on. We started with burnt umber, really focussing on values (lights and darks). Ironically though we all talk about Rembrandt’s light; his real skill is in creating the darks and leaving so little space for the light. So, with the students, we started quite dark, and just with the umber so that values were understood to be the most important factor. In finding the likeness of the portrait, I explained the 5 essential darks value which can be found in portraits. As if to clarify my point, Rembrandt offered us a perfect example of this when we went into the exhibition.
Slowly the students added black and red to deepen and enrich the darks.
At lunchtime, we went into the exhibition to see Rembrandt’s Light, or rather his imposition of dark to emphasise the concentrated light.
It was such an amazing experience, having juggled with paint and values, to then go and see his works and look at how he kept the darks thin and built the lights. There were beyond amazing examples of what we had been discussing in the morning, and the simplification of the value patterns, and his purity with form. His utter sophistication and allure are not in the multiple value patterns but in the simplification. His painting of the Entombment of Christ was so modern, more sublime and looser than any 20th century painter.
Freud has often been named the heir to Rembrandt. I met Freud once when selling him books on Rembrandt at Thomas Heneage Art books. At the time I didn’t recognise him, and had to ask him his name. Like me, he couldn’t pronounce his Rs so I still didn’t recognise him when I thought he said Foyd. I did redden quite a bit when he had to spell it for me, and I suddenly realised who I’d been selling the Rembrandt books to. Whilst Freud’s work is very different, it is wonderful to think how much an artist of Freud’s recognition admired and understood Rembrandt and his works. Rodin was also an ardent follower of Rembrandt and believed that Rembrandt was such a god in art that we should all kneel in front of his paintings.
He remains the master of oil paint and a supreme modernist; his sophistication is the perfect balance between the genius of paint handling and simplicity. The complexity is in the paint manipulation, the build-up of paint and the scraping back. The transitions don’t happen in the value patterns, but in the temperatures within the lights or the darks.
Cinematographer Peter Suschitzky worked with the Dulwich Picture Gallery on the lighting and the spaces, and this was a huge success – the lighting absolutely added to the impact of the paintings.
I found it overwhelmingly emotional and powerful. You can get really close to the paintings and really analyse them.
In the second half of the workshop, we went into further details. Something we often have to repeat and convince our students is that the term ‘whites of the eyes” is completely deceptive. The whites of the eyes should be called the muddy half-tones. I had the wonderful example of “A Woman in Bed” to show them. I had bought the postcard and took it around with me.
One of my top favourite painting in the history of art is A Woman Bathing in a Stream. I have often been to visit it at the National Gallery, but here it is at Dulwich Picture Gallery beautifully lit and drawing us in even more. The colour palette is so limited and yet so sophisticated, the hand is so extraordinarily simple, just a block-in, the legs are so dead coloured, and yet the paint handling is so unbelievable. It is many people’s favourite painting. It is hard to put into words why and this is perhaps the reason. Paint handling can also be overwhelming and overtake the necessity for words.
What an incredible privilege to do an art course and discuss portraiture and materials with Rembrandt as an example.