Learning from Rembrandt

Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn was a dutch painter whose works are well known and extremely valued across the world. His paintings cover a great deal of subjects starting from portraits, self-portraits (selfies?), landscapes and even biblical scenes. There’s a great deal that painters learn from his works. Rembrandt’s works can also be quite useful for photographers.

Rembrandt - Self Portrait

(Rembrandt van Rijn – Self Portrait)

I always recommend visiting museums and admiring various works of arts there. (Common Mistakes in Photography) This can be very very helpful for improving composition skills in photographers.



Rembrandt’s initial work was mostly related to portraits. Some of the key features which seem to make his portraits so life like are –

Use of a light on the face, while keeping the rest of the image dark. Almost all of his portraits are low-key affairs with this formula.

Directional light, especially that lights up the head from up and behind is now rightly called Rembrandt lighting technique in photography! Apart from being low key (Low and High Key), his paintings also use directional lighting.

The lines that separate different hues from each other, appear and disappear from time to time. These discontinuities of the lines gives a surrealistic feel to the portraits. Notice the end of jaw in some of his common portraits, which is towards the shadow side. In photography, the same can be achieved by using a directional light and then ‘not’ boosting up the contrast in post-processing. Let the histogram be concentrated in a small portion. (Understanding Histograms)

The eyes invariably have a twinkle (which may not be visible in the photographs of his paintings that are available on the internet). This twinkle adds life to the portraits. In photography we call it ‘catch lights’. Reflection of flash or some light-source provides similar results. There are some of his paintings which do not have this twinkle and those are the ones that look sad.

The eyes look towards the viewer. One of the common concerns of portrait photographers is where to make the subject look. Rembrandt had an answer. In portraits which conveyed a sense of being specially painted as a portrait, the eyes looked towards the viewer. This is what I recommend to the photographers too. However in his paintings where there was a scene from mythology or religion, the eyes were never directed towards the viewer. The people seem to look as they naturally would, if such a scene was to happen today and captured by a photographer at the same instant.

Overall use of warm colors gives a feeling of class though it just may have been that he painted his paintings while his room was lit by burning lamps and as a result his eyes might have got adapted to the yellow tone. (Color adaptation is an integral part of our eyes – Our Eyes vs Camera). Maybe it is just the natural aging of such old paintings. I am not an art critique so can’t comment on this aspect of this paintings.

Rembrandt - Self Portrait

(Rembrandt – Self Portrait, yet another one! The fact that the eyes look at the viewer was an invariable feature in all self-portraits of that era. The painters used mirrors to look at themselves after all! However he did use this in a lot of his other portrait works too.)



There’s a lot to be learnt from Rembrandt’s landscapes. The era in which he painted his works, the landscapes were still not as popular as portraits of biblical scenes. People paid money for portraits, mythological figures, religious scenes etc. but rarely did they order or purchase any landscapes. It is therefore not a surprise that landscapes from that era are not as common as these other genres. Money has always been one of the major driving forces of art. Here are some striking features of Rembrandt’s landscapes.

His skies have a character. There are always some amount of clouds and a variety of shades in the skies. For photographers, I recommend using a graduated ND filter to retain the information in landscapes. Empty washed out skies reduce the impact of landscapes.

Did he understand the concept of golden hour? The light fell from one side of the scene and lighted the landscape in a plethora of hues. Similar to portraits, his landscapes also use directional light, which painters also refer to as ‘chiaroscuro’. This combined with the time of the day creates the magic. (Further reading – Time of the day)

The Mill

(The Mill – Notice the details in the sky and the directional light from the right end of the painting lighting up the windmill.)

The landscapes frequently have a human element in the frame, doing something. This adds a focal point and a point of interest to the paintings. Quite a simple way to hold a viewer’s attention for a long time! Try this in your landscapes too. Capture photographs that have one or two persons at least in the frame, doing something which adds value to the overall composition. Be careful with this though. Add them to the frame only if their contribution to the overall photograph improves the composition.

The trees also have a range of colors when these are not acting just as the background. The ‘winter landscape’ painting has bare branches which pull a viewer’s attention to themselves. The stone bridge painting shown below has directional light falling on a large tree in the center of the frame, showcasing its light colored leaves. For those of you living in countries where autumn actually has trees shedding their leaves, this is the ideal time for capturing landscapes.

The Stone Bridge

(The Stone Bridge – Notice the sky, directional light, human element in the foreground)


Composition rules ?

Rembrandt was excellent at guiding a viewer’s attention all across his paintings. Leading lines quite frequently appeared in his paintings. So did many other ways to empower the main subject. Even in the painting above, the sun-lit surface of the stone bridge and the road itself forms a strong line that leads a viewer eye to darkness where it comes back to the river below. Even in the painting shown below, the diagonal line of the mast across the frame and the empowerment of the subject using various other subtle signs, pulls a viewer attention towards the it.

The Storm on the Sea of Galilee

(The Storm on the Sea of Galilee)

Rembrandt’s work also shows a balance of elements across the frame. None of the parts are left empty and nothing which does not contribute to the image gets included.

Though a lot of paintings are low key, the use of light adds drama and interest to the overall compositions. Quite frequently frames are also used to highlight the focal points.

(The Philosopher in Meditation. See the spiraling staircase and how effectively the staircase and the darkness around the window frames the philosopher. To balance the image there is another person on the right.)


Street Scenes

Rembrandt was not a street photographer, but if one looks at his paintings of biblical stories or mythological happenings, there are a lot of things to be learnt even as a street photographer.

His paintings show the scene which in reality might well have been at the peak of its dynamic power. The decisive moment! Each and every individual in the paintings has something specific on the face and the overall scene seems to be a final culmination of emotions of what would have built up just prior to that scene.

The Nightwatch

(The Night Watch or The Militia Company of Captain Frans Banning Cocq – The overall scene is full of emotions. The people seem to be at the maximum level of their activity. Notice the use of light to show the lady also, just behind the soldier on the left.)

(The Abduction of Europa – Another great example of the height of emotions that has been captured in this painting. Once again notice the sky with clouds, directional light and expressions on the faces)

For those of you who can’t visit the museums for whatever reason, I recommend buying a good quality replicas or at least coffee-table book of his works and try to study each and every of his paintings. The replicas or posters are better since they have the painting shown in almost the same size as the original work. Coffee tables books are fine as a guide. This short article of mine is just to arouse a curiosity in the reader. Don’t be content just by looking at these photographs of his paintings.


Photographs of the paintings : Public Domain

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