Thoughts on Rembrandt’s Drawing “Christ Walking on the Water”

As we wade into this topic, you should know that I love Rembrandt’s drawings and look at them often…for both pleasure and for learning purposes. You should also know that I’m not a Rembrandt scholar.  I’m simply an artist eager to look at Rembrandt drawings to learn about composition…and whatever else great painters such as Rembrandt might have used to put their pictures together.

The Miracle on the Water

The drawing we’re looking at here is one of many Rembrandt drew around New Testament Biblical accounts.  In this case, the telling of Christ’s miracle of walking on the water, and specifically the Gospel of  Matthew account, which is the only one to mention Peter’s attempt to walk on the water himself. For those interested or unfamiliar, you can read the  biblical accounts here.

Rembrandt’s purpose in making the drawing was likely to work out how he might present the story visually in a painting.  Whether he intended this drawing to be viewed by the public or drew it as a private expedition, I can’t say…the scholars might know. But either way, it’s likely a compositional drawing…concerned with deciding on the viewer’s (that’s us) point of view, choosing the characters involved, and pinning down the precise point of action to be depicted.

 

Rembrandt’s “Christ Walking on the Water”  1638,  from the British Museum

It’s such a curious drawing… delicate and refined in some portions and  heavier in line and rougher in effect in others. Compare the refinement of the figures of Christ and Peter to the boxier character climbing out of the boat. You can easily imagine that his legs, simply drawn, are an afterthought and his figure originally ended at the railing of the boat as his smaller companions does.  That difference contributes to my idea that it was a working sketch, with choices and changes evolving along the way.

 An organized sketch 

Though sketch like, the  drawing is a clearly organized arrangement. You can always look to Rembrandt for wonderful lessons in organization and leading the eye. There’s a sweep from Christ’s figure on the left to the boat’s hull and back, which provides a sort of rocking feeling that is appropriate to the conditions of the sea. But I also find that after we step inside the drawing, there’s a particular path our attention wants to follow. As with many Rembrandt drawings, this is arranged deliberately.

Here’s a  diagram of the triangular relationship that’s at the heart of the drawing. Thoughtfully considered, one will notice a sequential arrangement of not only the actions but the intentions of the characters involved.

Triangular relationship of key actions 

As the Gospel story indicates, only Peter asked the he might leave the boat. So what is interesting is how the characters are illustrating, and I’d say animating,  an entire sequence of action.

A sequential animation?

Due to placement, Christ’s figure attracts our attention from the start, and we easily follow His arm to poor, foundering Peter, angled so powerfully in Jesus’ direction.  From there, our attention most easily moves up and to the third corner of the triangle with the boldly drawn (and unidentifiable) character just leaving the boat. Look at that figure’s elbow forming the right corner of our triangle. Does he even seem aware of what’s going on beneath him?  And to the left of him, we see the young-looking fellow tucked away behind.  He’s only observing…but an important element, bridging the space from the boat over to the head of Christ reaching down to rescue Peter, their hands almost, but just not quite, touching (a wonderful choice).  And the animation repeats itself…a cycle of questioning, deciding, acting, failing, and finally rescuing. A profound statement of the faith process.

A subtle, interesting light source

Another surprising  feature of this drawing started with my questioning the indications of light and shade in the drawing. Often Rembrandt’s more complete drawings utilized tones of wash to indicate light and shade, but not in this case. This is a line drawing only; though somewhat rough in the application, there are (what artist’s call) cast shadows on the hull of the boat, and correspondingly on the ocean.  A cast shadow occurs when an object, in this instance the boat, is completely blocking the light source…(the darker the shadow, the brighter the light) and the figure of Christ and of Peter are very carefully shaded with even hatching lines, exactly as if backlit. I wondered about the intention of this, but the reason gradually became clear. The oval behind Christ is a  representation of the moon, and we then remember (from the biblical account) that this drawing represents a nighttime event.

 

I invite you to try and view the drawing in that sense…do you agree that the drawing becomes a much richer experience?  Hopefully you can imagine and admire the thinking and visualization necessary to put this together, and yet we should not be surprised.  Rembrandt’s drawings are like that.

I’d love to hear your comments and thoughts!

(And, as sometimes is the case, there’s been recent suspicion that the drawing is not by Rembrandt! You can find British Museum information concerning that here).

If you’d like to read my post of another Rembrandt analysis, it’s found here.

 

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John Carlson’s Theory of Angles and Consequent Values-A Model

“Every good picture is fundamentally an arrangement of three or four large masses-“

So begins Chapter 1 in my aged copy of “Elementary Principles of Landscape Painting”, by John F. Carlson (now revised and available as Carlson’s Guide to Landscape Painting).

Like many others, I really admire John Carlson’s landscape paintings. I first encountered them face-to-face at the Grand Central Art Gallery in NYC.  And this was about the time I’d heard about his book, “Carlson’s Guide to Landscape Painting”.  But I have to say that when you see his work on a wall… it’s deep and it’s impressive. You know it’s the work of a painter who valued his craft and was genuinely responding to nature in a powerful way.  And that leads to paying much closer attention to what he had to say back in 1928, when his book was first published.  I can only hope that everyone who has read it might also, someday, have the chance to see his work personally.

John F. Carlson “Snow Lyric”, undated, oil on canvas 16.25 x 20.25″        Image courtesy of The Athenaeum

Carlson’s Theory of Angles and Consequent Values

One of the great practical lessons from the book is Carlson’s summation of how light affects the elements of the landscape.

He refers to it as the “Theory of Angles and Consequent Values”.  Carlson recognized that any landscape typically possesses four groups of values (degrees of light and dark) affecting three major planes… the horizontal ground plane, the angle plane represented by mountain slopes, rooftops, etc., and finally an upright plane, perpendicular to the ground plane, which can include anything from trees and walls to a standing human.

In order to interpret the landscape in a painting successfully,  an artist needs to simplify and organize nature.  Values are that which make form visible. Translating nature into value patterns,(i.e. grouping of lights and darks into shapes), are one of the ways of doing so.  Applying Carlson’s theory makes that much easier.

“The first two things to study are form and values. For me, these are the bases of what is serious art.” -Camille Corot

When daylight is overhead, as it would be at noon for example, the sky is the source of light and  therefore occupies the highest values on the gray scale. The ground plane receives the largest amount of light, and accordingly is the next lightest value plane. The slanted/angular planes receive  less exposure to direct light than the ground plane and so rest within a middle-value range. This  leaves everything in the upright plane to become the darkest value element.

While this is a wonderful help in creating order, it’s also a little abstract when read on the printed page alone.

A Model 

Because of this, I decided it would be easier to understand if I had a physical model, and over time I’ve built several. Most recently a student and I assembled one out of white foam core, which makes Carlson’s theory much more tangible.  I thought it would be fun to share with others who may want to repeat the exercise themselves.

The Carlson model assembled and drying

We added a small structure at an angle for additional interest, which isn’t from Carlson’s original description.

When finished and assembled ( using a steel ruler, an X-acto knife, acid-free Foamcore, and Lineco PVA glue), we put the model outdoors in daylight with the sun directly overhead.   The results are shown below.

 

The model outdoors in noonday light. The cast shadow is the darkest value, the ground plane the lightest.

 

Studio Use of Plein Air Sketches

On many occasions,  I’ll find a subject that requires an immediate response, so I take the plunge.  But either weather, the poor quality of the light, or other circumstances make an in-depth plein air study hard to manage.

So, oftentimes I’m disappointed. The results of these plein air sketches are not as effective as they would be if they were more fully developed.  And almost always the main weakness is in the composition. Either nature didn’t provide (or I didn’t recognize) a suitable arrangement of elements to make viewing the painting a fully satisfying experience.

Waimanalo plein air

This sketch (above) is a 7 x 11″ watercolor that is our case-in-point.  It was sufficient in a no-frills way to capture the general effects. But the sunlight was on again/off again, I had interruptions from rain, and the composition now seems crowded into the rectangular format.

A Reminder and a Reference

The sketch’s  real value to me is only this: when reviewed  later, after I’ve moved on to other work, I’m reminded of visual/sensual experiences ( I mean sounds, smells, circumstances) that are now part of my memory.  It conjures recollections much more like a movie than a snapshot. The sketch has become a reminder and a reference.

What artists know is that sketching something plants the entire experience of being somewhere much more firmly in the mind than passive observation or photography. The information from sketching is sifted.  More personal as well as visual, gathered  through the lens of our own personal temperament. And this added dimension ultimately enriches the final painting.

From this stage, I’m then able to deal with the composition.

As mentioned, the first sketch doesn’t suggest the grandness of the place.  It’s hemmed in by the rectangle and lacks clear areas of interest. So I  put together this second study (below) in my studio, making better use of the elements that nature provided  as well as altering the composition to suit my desire for a better eyepatch and more interest.

Waimanalo studies 2
Waimanalo watercolor study, 6 x 14″

This small study is still “the place”, but is now better organized to lead the eye in an interesting way. The addition of figures and refining and simplifying the shapes now give me something with more pictorial interest.

A Point of Departure

From here the watercolor can serve as a basis for many possibilities… an oil painting, a larger watercolor, or a pastel.  In this instance I thought a larger painting in pastel would be a good response, to be worked up in my studio.  So I used both the first sketch and study to refer to as I worked.  I think I developed a better painting than I might have had otherwise…while making it much more “my own” in the process.

watercolor to pastel

Here’s the easel setup with the watercolor study positioned so I can see it directly with the pastel painting.  After several sessions I was able to complete the pastel.

And below is the final painting, now framed and in a private collection.

Makapu'u Head from Waimanalo, 10" x 24"  Pastel
Makapu’u Head from Waimanalo, 10″ x 24″ Pastel. Private collection

One Final Thought

We obviously live in a time of technology, and the option of photography as a useful reference tool has been available and used by many painters for a long time. And undeniably, many beautiful works have resulted from this.

For my own efforts I have decided to invest in drawing and painting without the advantages/disadvantages of photography as much as possible. And I recommend that my students, while they are my students, try and do the same.

Art-making and life-living in our modern world have increasingly become solely results oriented. Labor saving devices are a wonderful blessing for the many people occupied in endlessly routine and stifling or tedious work. We’re thankful for labor saving devices whenever the labor is unpleasant, dangerous, or unprofitable. 

But artworks are different.  We are richer for the experience of interfacing with our subject over time, watching the many variations and possibilities, getting to know the subject in many moods.

On that subject, we’re well served by painter Joseph Paquet’s recently published forward to the Plein Air Painters’ of America exhibition catalog.  He eloquently states the whole idea better than I’m able to.

It’s well worth the click!

Lanikai Beach: Moving Targets, Straight Paint

It seems that this time of year I regularly find myself scouting for interesting subject matter in Lanikai, a beach spot not far from home. I begin early and drive the main road past Kailua Beach which then rises to the splendid overlook.  I slow down to glance North, across the bay towards Mokapu, and then bend around to follow the one-way loop into the community of Lanikai.

Lanikai, like most other now-famous beaches, was once an isolated and rather barren spot populated by families of Hawai’ian and Asian descent.  I’ve heard folks who lived here during the 1930’s speak about how farmers raised melons to trade for rice with farmers back in the mountains. Cash money was rare. Fresh water could come from holes dug in the sand, there was no electricity, and people birthed their babies at home.  During the war, barbed wire was stretched along the beach.

Nowadays Lanikai is known, and it’s a different deal. Populated by part-timers and foreign visitors as well as locals, it’s become increasingly affluent and crowded.  Sniffy, expensive California styled residences are on the rise and crowding the view. But there still are tiny slices of the old tucked away in corners and unexpected places, and it’s to these that I’m attracted.

Scouring and squinting, I often think that I must appear suspicious to residents as I slowly creep along in my chang-a-lang Rav 4,  peering into yards and empty lots.  I’m checking my rear view mirror for a view of how things appear behind me.  I climb out of my car at odd intervals to study combinations of buildings and flora, dark and light patterns, or spots of color…anything that might hold some promise of becoming an interesting composition.

And so as I went ’round the loop (it’s a single lane, one road in and one road out), I was able gradually to narrow my search to a few possibilities.  Though it was early in the day yet, the sunlight was strong and the sky clear. Streets were already filling with people hitting the beach or doing the holiday yard sales.

Then, out of the corner of my eye, I caught a glimpse of something good.  Dark and light foliage, a flash of  white wall/blue sea on the Makai (ocean) side of the street.  It was a small beachfront property I’d somehow never noticed before. Big modern places had been built closely on either side. Yellow sunlight cut across the darkened entry road  and there were hints of ’20’s-era architecture silhouetted in the dark overgrowth of palms and hedges.

 A Friend Indeed

“No way I am going to get to do this”,  I told myself as I skeptically considered the odds of obtaining permission to paint here. It’s no fun knocking on doors and explaining to people you’re a painter. Try it if you haven’t. And Lanikai has it’s guard up these days… understandably so.  The normally friendly residents have already been tested by the abundant supply of tourists errantly drifting through their yards, as well as out-and-out thieves.

But I was about to be surprised.  As I poked around across the street looking for a vantage point that might allow a shot at this, I saw a big contractor’s truck parked where I hadn’t noticed it on the lot.  And the name on the truck was the company that my pal Brian builds for.

What do you know about that?

And as I’m taking all this in, my feet have me automatically walking across the street.  Hope is like that, I’ve noticed.  Your body just responds to it before your brain has weighed the matter entirely.  But no matter, because at that moment my friend Brian has emerged from a dark doorway, his mind on 20 different things to do with his project.  He then sees me, looking dumbfounded at him.  What are the odds of this? We greet each other.

Yes, Mark, you can have the run of the place if you stay safely out of the way.

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Well, I’ve gone from mild despair to elation in a few minutes.  I thank Brian ( I’m STILL thanking him!), grab my trusty & rusty Julian 1/2 box, and after some deliberation regarding what to paint ( so many choices and so little time) I decide to jump on a rare opportunity to paint the beach from about 15 feet above it.  Looking East, from this incredibly well shaded perch,  Molokai is beautifully silhouetted and the sky and sea are dazzling. Visitors are walking the beach and the colors are beautiful.  Everything is moving, and it is as strikingly clear as one could ever ask for.

Straight Paint  

Unlike many oil painters, I received a lot of practice working with oil paint that is straight from the tube.  This is a hard sell to some painters because we mostly receive the idea that things have to be done to oil paint, added to it,  to make it manageable .  While this is desirable in some instances, it’s not necessary in many cases…and certainly not in this case.  I’d been working with an addition of some linseed oil lately, and also using a traditional 3 part medium for a change after years of straight paint.  On this occasion I left the turpentine (Gamsol actually) at home,  and worked with straight paint on a white oil primed linen panel. I’m happy I did.

It was delicious. Starting with the large masses of sand, sea, and sky I dropped in the large blocks of color with “tiles”, brush strokes of pure paint laid side to side, each mixed to directly capture the color and value needed.  They can be fused and modeled later. This was referred to as “Bunkering” for  the 19th century American painter Dennis Bunker by one of my teachers, James Childs. It’s work at the beginning, especially if one is accustomed to beginning with a thin wash of color that hides the white of the canvas.  But the pay off comes later, because once the painting is covered, the second round of adjusting the shapes and values in this rich lay-in is a real pleasure.  The right amount of paint is in place to model forms and the work almost becomes easier…certainly for me more enjoyable.

And so the morning went….figures briefly appeared that were desirable, though fleeting. The woman with the umbrella was only present for a minute at most…so I have developed the habit of notating the figure on a clean area of my palette, a quick gesture with color, enouch to recall the effect and place it into the painting wet into wet after the general effects of the painting are painted. Her companion was added from a memory sketch the following day.

Lanikai

Making Great Use of Leftover Paint

I’ve got a great way to make use of leftover paint for artists…and it’s something I wish I’d begun doing years ago.

At the end of a session, when it’s time to clean and prep my palette for the next session, I often have leftover pigments that might dry unusably by the time I next get back to work. I’m not one to put fresh paint over dry on my palette; though many painters do this.  Instead, I take the palette down to a clean working surface by removing  piles of unused paint with a palette knife and then rubbing the entire surface with a rag and a bit of solvent. This creates a slight and sympathetic gray (over time) that I enjoy working on.  After that I might rub on a bit of linseed oil if the palette has been left unused for a couple days, and that’s how I like to prepare my palette for the next round.

But in the past I simply (and sadly) wrote off the paint I was removing with the knife…until  I realized this was a lost opportunity.  I saw that I  could use this paint to to create a record of informal experiments.

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There are some elementary principles to applying oil paint…you can’t just pile it on randomly and expect it to remain stable over time without considering such things as the oil content of layers, the adhesion of the paint, or whether a light can go over a dark without cracking or showing through later.

Most all of what I’ve learned about artist’s pigments and mediums comes from two sources …what I’ve been told and what I’ve read. And I’m admittedly careful and conservative in my use/application of oil paint for the long term benefit of my paintings. I generally paint with either straight paint from the tube or with the most basic of two and three parts oil mediums (linseed and turpentine, for example).

But I’ve seen techniques in paintings by artists of the past that I’d like to try…glazes over palette-knife impasto, for instance. I’ve seen some beautiful effects achieved this way more than once.  Or the black glaze rubbed in over some of the landscapes of painters in the 19th century, something that I’ve read about but haven’t actually seen yet.  How about drying times of pigments, or what varnishing prematurely can do?  I’ve used a lead priming from a recipe offered in an old book by Frederic Taubes…how does it dry and adhere?

The Big, Smart Idea

So, I have an 18 x 24″ cradled wooden panel primed with two coats of Gamblin’s white oil primer that receives all the ideas I can throw at it using my leftover paint.  Impastos, glazes, mixtures,…all are noted and dated with a black sharpie, because “long term effects” are a big concern.  I’m not inventing anything, but trying things already out there in the cloud of responsible knowledge in order to learn for myself what’s what.

It’s been about two years now, and it’s really nice to be able to draw my own conclusions from my own personal experience.  There are some nice possibilities for extending the range of what I know how to do. And I throw away much less nice paint.

I wish I’d started ten years ago.

 

Pinterest Piques My Interest

In the last few months, I’ve really discovered the value of Pinterest as a very helpful teaching tool. Considering my mild-to-moderate  aversion to technology as the answer to everything, this is a concession that I happily make.

Students in my Plein Air, Life Drawing and Portraiture classes are constantly encouraged to look at really good examples of the work of accomplished artists.  The difficulty is that they often don’t find the time, recall the names,  or know the best ways to investigate the artist’s I’ve suggested.  So up to this point, it’s  been up to me to bring in examples from books from my personal library or reference files I’ve accumulated. Lot’s of lugging around  (and plenty of wear and tear) on out-of-print art books and catalogs that are pretty precious to me.

Then along comes Pinterest.

Using it as a resource, I’ve created boards for each group I teach. Students are reminded, often, to check the Pinterest boards I have up on my page, especially when I’m involved in a one-to-one critique and see a problem that would benefit from an illustration.

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For example, ” Composition” is  helpful for every student, but especially the Plein Air and Portrait folks.  They are usually fully occupied with making things look like what they’re seeing, and of course need to consider the design of the elements as an important factor.  With the examples I’ve collected on Pinterest they can see some really interesting uses of pattern and placement that might spark their interest and encourage spending more time on design.

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For Life Drawing, there are many beautiful and compelling images of fine drawings available. Beautiful touches, line variety, pieces that reveal construction (The Carravaggio is full of lessons) all to show the tremendous possibilities. Ingres’ drawing of his house cat reminds that there are worthy  subjects everywhere, even to the most sophisticated talent.

The “Portrait” group is equally filled with great things, featuring artist’s that are both famous as well as those often overlooked today.  And finally,  “Technique” is a broadly based collection of interesting and masterful uses of various mediums.

If you are interested in seeing the boards I’ve assembled,  just follow the link.

Norseth on Pinterest

And if I may encourage you, please feel free to grab whatever you like and start your own boards. Great fun and very valuable.

Gems of Wisdom-Painters On Painting

 

“The landscape painter is of necessity, an outdoors man….For vitality and convincing quality only come to the man who serves, not in the studio, but out in the open where even the things he fights against strengthen him, because you see, nature is always vital, even in her implicit moods and never denies a vision to the real lover.”

-Walter Elmer Schofield

 

Nature deals in broken color everywhere, but she never deals in broken values. The color dances but the values stay put.”
-Birge Harrison

You must sacrifice as many details as possible. Keep your masses flat, simple and undisturbed. And it is the impression of the thing you want.”

-William Morris Hunt