Masters of Technique

Including Rembrandt, Vermeer, Bouguereau, and Sargent

Topic List

General Comments

A Facebook reader asked:  Who qualifies as a traditional oil painter? Do the Impressionists qualify? What about WJM Turner?

Virgil’s answers: 

If I’m asked to specify a definite demarcation, it would be the point at which the intent to create images that read realistically failed miserably or was consciously eschewed. So the Impressionists could arguably fit in adequately with “traditional,” but not the Post-Impressionists except for perhaps the best things Van Gogh did, and not the fauves, cubists, abstract expressionists, and other so-called “modern” art movements. The best of the Surrealists deserve respect because the command of realist technique is required to make it work. Photorealism I consider a grey area, but outside of my interest and my intended focus for this group.

A tradition is something that was practiced for a significant period of time, presumably more than one generation, so with that understood, it becomes a question of which tradition we’re referring to. The tradition of using oil paints to create images intended to read realistically is the tradition this group is concerned with. So that would include Turner, Millet, Sargent, and the Impressionists, all of whom were trying to create realistic illusions with oil paints.

Frans Hals is considered traditional, so, therefore, Sargent should be also, since he was much influenced by Hals, and advised aspiring artists and students to study Hals and make copies of his paintings. Among the methods employed by Old Masters (some of them) were alla prima/direct painting for studies and sketches, so that method must also be considered traditional. The fact that the palette was expanded in the 19th century shouldn’t change it from traditional to modern, in my opinion. If, as seems to be true, the Old Masters used the best materials that were available to them in their time, then we’re operating in the same way by using the best that’s available to us in our time in our own attempts at creating realistic illusions on two-dimensional surfaces. Creating realistic illusions was and still is the objective, and that’s the common denominator in traditional oil painting no matter when it was or is done or by whom.
What words mean isn’t necessarily the most important thing to concern ourselves with here, unless someone just wants to understand what is acceptable in this group that has “Traditional” in its name.


Virgil discusses Rembrandt at length in Chapter 6, “Techniques of Painting in Oils” and in particular the subtopic “Innovations of Rembrandt”, p 92-99. 

“As I wrote in my book, Rembrandt was not limited to a single approach. His usual method, however, was to begin in monochrome brown to establish the basic design, with lead white where needed for heightening lights. Color would be brought in after the brown monochrome, and in color, he could either work alla prima or in stages involving impasto underpainting, opaquely modeled passages, and finishing glazes for certain special effects to enhance the illusion of three-dimensional depth.”

A Facebook reader asks: “How did Rembrandt start and develop a painting?” 

Virgil’s reply: “The best indication, gleaned from unfinished paintings, is that Rembrandt generally began in brown monochrome to establish the design of the painting and the patterns of light and dark, then worked in color over that, opaquely in the areas of light, and in varying degrees of opacity, transparency, and translucency in the shadows and other darks, and then in the final stage applied refining touches including glazes and scumbles as he saw fit, to create different optical effects. He also created certain special effects by executing highly textured underpaintings of white or yellow in certain areas, and then glazing over them when dry, and wiping the glazes off the high spots while leaving them in the depressions. In some small works, he appears to have painted directly, alla prima, either from the start or over a brown monochrome underpainting.”

Recommended Reading: 

  • “Rembrandt – The Painter at Work”, by Ernst van de Wetering.
  • “Rembrandt – The Artist Thinking”, by Ernst van de Wetering.
  • “Art in the Making – Rembrandt” by conservation scientists at the National Gallery in London.

Additional Resources: 

A YouTube tutorial on Rembrandt’s working methods. (English subtitles)

A Facebook reader asks how Rembrandt might have approached this character study called “The Laughing Man”. Was it done alla prima?

Virgil’s reply:  “Rembrandt’s general procedure was to begin in monochrome browns heightened with white, then to develop in color beyond that, sometimes in stages, and perhaps sometimes alla prima. I suspect this one was done with the collar and garment on a mannequin, and then the head added afterwards in one or two sessions, judging by the way it looks. In the first session for the head he probably worked in his usual brown monotone, and then either proceeded immediately to color in that same sitting, and finished it alla prima, or let the brown dry and then painted in color in a subsequent session. Rembrandt was perfectly capable of painting alla prima as well as in multiple laters, obviously.”

“… I surmise he used a mannequin for the clothing and arms, and then painted the head in a live sitting or sittings with the subject, whose own proportions were perhaps different from those of the mannequin, thus accounting for the abbreviated shoulders and/or too-short arms.”

Alla prima is often done on a toned canvas or panel. If the tone works as it is, and thus is left bare in places, it’s still alla prima. If a previous painting is painted over entirely in a subsequent session, some people might call that alla prima, but I wouldn’t, because oil paints are not fully opaque, so the influence of the painting being painted over would probably affect the end appearance. (Side notes: Alla prima is painting wet-into-wet; if there is an underpainting, the technique used isn’t alla prima.)

On the subject of glazing:

A glaze is a transparent passage applied over a
lighter underlayer.
Rembrandt used glazes as a final refinement for certain special effects, to add depth to the darkest accents and modify or intensify the color in places, including faces, but the main body of his paintings was done more opaquely in the light areas.  It appears to me, viewing many of Rembrandt’s paintings, that some have suffered from past cleanings, which resulted in some paint being inadvertently removed with the old varnish, and glazes are the most vulnerable to overcleaning. After the most recent treatments of his portrait of Joris de Caullerij, it looks like it lost some of the 3-dimensional depth in the face. I’ve looked at that painting often over the decades it has been at San Francisco’s Legion of Honor Museum. They took it down for a while in order to show some awful modern junk, and when it was hung again afterward, it didn’t read quite the same.
An additional note from Michael Wilcox, author of  “Glazing with an emphasis on the craft of painting”:  “Like so many artists of the time Rembrandt used glazes for specific areas, such as the depiction of clothing and dark backgrounds [as in The Jewish Bride]. Using a very lean combination of (probably), Lead White, chalk and egg, Rembrandt would build up an impasto under-painting using a knife or flat piece of smooth wood to shape the paint. Thin, transparent glazes were then applied, sometimes wiped off, leaving a trace in the indentations, at other times applied as a film. The golden sleeve in this painting, which is often described as ‘glowing’ was built up following this procedure to give an effect impossible in any other way. The same technique was employed in the bride’s clothing with Vermilion used in the under-painting which was glazed over with one or more red lakes which were similarly applied, wiped off and possibly re-applied.”

An example of  Sgraffito, a technique that involves scratching through a layer of still-wet paint to reveal what’s underneath, whether this is a dried layer of paint or the white ground on the support. Any object that will scratch a line into the paint can be used for sgraffito.

Rembrandt apparently used the back of a brush to scratch through wet layers of paint or sgraffito to create detail or texture, hair in this case.   
The scratching with a sharpened brush handle into wet paint was one of his early innovations. 

On the subject of backgrounds:

One thing most or all of the Old Masters had in common was the systematic use of transparent and opaque passages, each for specific optical effects for which they were best suited. The backgrounds seen in Rembrandt’s portraits are composed of transparent paints in the darker parts, with opaque paints worked into them while they were wet, the sequence being apparently that of transparent dark to opaque dark thinly applied, to opaque slightly lighter dark applied less thinly, and lighter opaque in gradations from there. Light on solid forms was rendered opaquely, and the deepest darks in the near planes were rendered with transparent darks. As much as could be done wet-into-wet was done that way, and large brushes were used extensively.

This illustration below is “Rembrandt Reconstruction, Self Portrait 1659”, from the  Conservators at the Univ. of Delaware (MITRA).

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