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January 2016

How Paint Quality Impacts Emotional Content - Lessons from Rembrandt's Blood Stain

Lucretia_1666Rembrandt - 1666 version of the Death of Lucretia


Every student of art encounters Art History at some point, and finds himself either overwhelmed or trapped by the tenants of one style compared to another. Perhaps it is inevitable, in that picture making is always influenced by what has been previously produced. But in this modern world, the visual image as a form of communication has been dissected, manipulated, and used to the point where we are eye blind, much like the student on a museum tour who goes in star struck and comes out with a nonchalant shrug saying, “Oh, another Michelangelo.”  Sometimes a work of art translates into a powerful emotional experience, but more often than not, there is a five second glance of disinterest and lack of connection.

So how, then, is the artist to overcome that five second glance? Many competing concepts must be put together to create a successful painting, extending beyond just understanding how to achieve certain results. Throughout my art development I have been guided by a quote attributed to Lee Krasner: “I like a canvas to breathe and be alive. Be alive is the point. And, as the limitations are something called pigment and canvas, let’s see if I can do it.”

Great artists from the past achieved high levels of this sense of “aliveness”, and one of the ways they did it is through paint quality. The temptation to use Rembrandt’s self-portrait as an example of paint quality is a persistent one. With the artist’s thick swirls of paint that appear sculptural, you see basic concepts of thick impasto contrasted with thin layers of delicate color. But using this painting as an example traps the artist in a sweeping generalization. It isn’t only about the contrast in paint thickness, or the differences in the brush stroke.

I recently came across an article by Simon Schama, exploring the idea behind How Rembrandt Dressed Women for Death, which directed me to Rembrandt’s 1666 painting, The Suicide of Lucretia.  The paint quality in this painting jolts the viewer between the sumptuous depictions of fabric and textures in Lucretia’s dress, to the visceral impact of the blood stain on her bodice: edges of the stain, where the plasma has separated with a lighter tinge, highlighting the weave of the delicate fabric that could not protect her body, as the deepening red depression sinks visually into the flesh, turning a dark crimson in a ragged knife blade shape. That, for me, is visual impact achieved by a master of paint quality

Lucretia_1666 copy 1

If painting is more than a flat visual perception, then the artist must find some understanding of what that means. I believe that art should not be limited to what the eye sees but how to depict through the senses what the eye sees. And while I might be a toddler in terms of art, having just learned to walk and now exploring my environment on uncertain legs, I understand that artists mistake generalizations for fact and rework ideas that are worn out. Avoiding generalizations might require the artist to assess his core intentions, what is meaningful to his work, and how his subject and technique addresses both his personal freedom and the impact the work has upon the viewing public. And as a consequence, an artist’s personal style will evolve and change over time as realizations and concepts become internalized and expressed effectively.  We should expect it. Reach for it.

Reach for the understanding and ability to come as close as we can to the perfection of Rembrandt's blood stain.