All the Rembrandts

Rembrandts paintings are such big statements. Last week I was in the Mauritshuis in The Hague showing the pupils I teach The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Tulp. Today I’m in the Rijksmuseum with it’s Syndics of the Drapers’ Guild, the Jewish Bride, the portraits of Maerten Soolmans and Oopjen Coppit and of course also the Nightwatch. All familiar images that I regularly see on my visits to these museums. 


But today it has been slightly different, for alongside the big statements there are images of such delicacy, intimacy and plain and simple smallness.  For its exhibition Alle Rembrandts the Rijksmuseum has pulled everything out of their storage depot, all the paintings, all the drawings and all the prints.

The drawings in the exhibition are often quite limited in their format, a page from a notebook perhaps, but the etchings, peeping out from their little windows cut in the generous mounts are something else. 

Rembrandt captures a look, a glance and a mood, often in little more than a square centimeter of surface on the etching plate given over to the subject’s face. A individual peers out from amongst a tangle of the most finely scratched lines.  Faces lit by the combination of the blackest of black printmakers ink and the raw bloom of the slowly discoloring paper.   Never mind the impressive clothes and stature of the full size, full figure painted portraits, these are openings into the lives and world of emotion, concentration, activity and sometimes, apparent boredom.  

And then after this simplicity and intimacy, you enter the last rooms. These are spaces packed with drama and spectacle. Rembrandt sets to on the big Biblical themes; the crucifixion , the entombment, Christ presented to the people and Christ preaching. They’re bigger prints than earlier in the exhibition. They bristle with action, the handling of tonal work is, well, as you might expect from Rembrandt, dramatic. I haven’t seen some examples of Rembrandt’s crucifixion series for a while, it is spectacular and fascinating to see different stages of the printing process alongside one another.  Having seen Grunewald’s huge crucifixion not so very long ago, I do find myself wondering how a Rembrandt painting of this subject, based on his etchings, and of Nightwatch scale might have been.

Patience and discovery…

When time is short, particularly studio time, it is difficult to remain patient.  The feeling that every second counts as you try to squeeze creative time in amongst other, mostly work related, activities is a challenge.  This is particularly the case when you are learning new skills, skills that you need before interesting results might roll out.  The question of whether you are investing time that in the end will prove fruitless always nagging at the back of your mind.



This is very much the case when it comes to printmaking.  Whilst an art student I spent a little time in the print room learning the basics.  Since then though, well, nothing at all. Earlier in the year I bought myself a small lino press because I suspected that my current  work might offer some possibilities to produce some prints.  I’ve had a few sessions making some initial attempts, with limited success. Today I have been busy again, and for the first time I have looked at the results and thought that there are indeed possibilities to produce some interesting images.  I’m not there yet, but am on the way I feel.  More patience and more experimentation in the weeks ahead, maybe we’ll get there.

Fights round the sink and a good weekend feeling

There are some classes that enjoy a truly creative activity, a painting or drawing assignment with plenty of space for imaginative interpretation of the assignment or a complex collage challenge. Others though respond better to small bursts of creativity and longer sections of process where an artistic task simply has to be worked through in order to achieve results. My second year class (13-14 year olds) is one such group.

It is a relatively small class who don’t always perform as well as we might hope in all their timetable subjects, but when given a practical assignment that involves plenty of physical activity they generally respond well. This year I have produced large scale papiermâché and soft sculpture inspired by pop art with them and more recently have been doing some lino block printing.  I only see the class for sixty minutes a week, so getting them started promptedly has always been important.  They don’t generally like long explanations at the start of the lesson and with only an hour I don’t much either. Again here the more practical ‘making’ things approach seems to work best, materials and tools out on the table and get on.


We’ve spent the last weeks first drawing a pencil drawing of an insect, then transferring the design to a piece of lino, one week doing a first cut, one week printing a first colour, a week cutting again and a week printing a second colour. It seems all to have been so clear in their heads, step by step towards the end result. If we’re honest, several hours of process and more like minutes of real creativity as they plan where exactly to cut with the knife.

Having said though, that the creativity is relatively limited, the pay back of engaging with their materials, carrying out the necessary tasks and the always surprising result as they peel the paper from the block to reveal their print more than makes up for this. This was definitely the case today as the second colour went onto the block to reveal suddenly an unfamiliar complexity in the resulting image. Pupils step back with a ‘wow’ to admire their own work.

Two other results are, firstly that I leave for the weekend with an equally positive feeling. A little later there will be a second moment of pride when we assemble the best prints as a set, then comes the extra layer of achievement, this time as a class and all the positive vibes that brings with it.  One last point though, if anyone can advise on how to get thirteen year olds to clear up after a lino printing session without leaving a soaking wet floor and inky fingerprints everywhere as they squabble round the sink I’d be interested to hear about it.