Emulating A Dutch Master


The Cocoa Lady

 Baracoa, Cuba

(Click on image to enlarge)

Pricing & Presentation Options

If you are trying to emulate a master painter, it might as well be someone like Rembrandt. He was born Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijin, in Lieden, Netherlands, on July 15, 1606, and died on October 4, 1669 in Amsterdam, Netherlands.  I love the impressionists: Vincent Willem van Gogh (1853 – 1890), Oscar-Claude Monet (1840 – 1926) and Édouard Manet (1832 – 1883), but for portraits I’ll go with Rembrandt every time.

I’ve mentioned before, on this blog, that I come to photography as an artist and not as a technician.  The technical aspects of photography, especially the computer-stuff, don’t always come easy to me—whereas my intrinsic artistic instincts for lighting, color, texture and composition are pretty solid.  Look at any old Rembrandt portrait, and you will quickly see that he was all about the light—one directional and golden.

It’s that look that I wanted to replicate in Photoshop.  Photoshop is hard for me, and what little I’ve learned over the past five years has been self-taught and hard-won. The image pictured above is a case in point, I’ve literally spent hours trying to achieve this final result. This image was produced entirely in Photoshop, and I didn’t use my Corel Painter Essentials software at all to create this look.  The little thumbnail below is what the original digital image looked like (click on the image to get a closer look).

Cocoa Lady WEB

Original Image

Not very impressive is it?  I liked the pose, and the patina on the background wall, but the lighting was pretty contrasty and the color was nothing to write home about.  The key to Rembrandt’s portraits is his use of lighting:  it is one-directional (usually placed at about 45 degrees from center), and comes from an elevated height.  His light is soft and golden, what you would see at dusk filtering in through a dirty window.  His subjects are usually cast in deep shadow, with only about half of the face being fully lit.  The rest of the background is also in deep shadow, with no discernible details to distract.  His paintings are dark, rich and moody—and with age have developed an even darker patina complete with craquelure (tiny age-cracks in the old oil paint).

To create the Rembrandt-like look, I first added a texture layer overlay with the soft light adjustment.  The small thumbnail below is the actual texture I used for the overlay (click on the image to see it in more detail).  Adding textures to some of my images is a recent experiment for me—sometimes it works, and at other times it looks lousy.  But the more I do, the more I learn.


Texture Image

In this particular case the texture overlay looked great, and was exactly what I was looking for.  It muted the colors, and provided the graininess I wanted.  Next I wanted to warm the entire image up with that golden light that Rembrandt is so famous for.  I applied the warming filter at about 25% and it warmed up the subject’s skin tone just the way I wanted it to.  I next added a heavy vignette to further isolate her face, and began to burn areas that I wanted darker.  Finally, I added a craquelure filter to replicate the finely cracked appearance of old oil paint and shellac.  Some further adjustments to exposure, contrast and color saturation, coupled with minor burning and dodging completed the look.

I know this procedure doesn’t sound very complicated, but it was trial and error all the way. That’s what took so long—doing it, and undoing it.  And repeating the process over and over until I got it just right.  I really like the result, and will try it again with suitable subject matter.  The thumbnails below represent the before and after images (click on images to enlarge and compare).

Before and After

For those of you who might not be familiar with Rembrandt’s work, I have included one of his typical paintings below (a self-portrait).  As mentioned above, they tend to be dark (almost moody), with a lot of texture, and of course they exhibit that beautiful warm golden light he is so famous for.

Self-Portrait with Beret and Turned-Up Collar – 1659


Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rigin

Photographer’s note:  The original image was captured as a JPG-file using my Canon PowerShot G15 digital pocket camera (my small backup shooter for my Canon EOS 5D Mark II full frame digital camera).  All post-edit work was completed in Photoshop Essentials 11 as outlined in the tutorial above.  Camera settings:  1/25s @ f/2.5, ISO 800, FL/70mm, shot handheld, indoors with existing natural light.  Subject:  The woman in the photo was demonstrating how natural cocoa is prepared, on the stove top, at a cocoa plantation in Baracoa, Cuba.

2 responses to “Emulating A Dutch Master

  1. I was interested that you said “the finely cracked appearance of old oil paint and shellac” … Do you know if the old masters used shellac varnish on their works? has this been documented somewhere? I have never heard of this… Thank you

    • Indeed they did and the practice is still used today by many contemporary painters and for the same reason. It helps to protect the finished painting from elements like smoke, dust and superficial damage. As the varnish ages, however, it darkens and cracks (craquelure). I love the look. But it’s amazing when a competent art restorer removes the old varnish (after hundreds of years) to reveal a vibrant painting underneath, it almost looks fake. Many people think the masters just painted dark and gloomy pictures but that’s not the case at all … it’s just that the varnish has aged. Thanks for your question.

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