Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Turner vs. Rembrandt | Oil Painting Study

Today we bring you a special guest blog from David Dunlop, an artist who you may know from the award-winning PBS series Landscapes Through Time with David Dunlop. His new ArtistsNetworkTV video on painting skies is now available, so click here to preview it today. Enjoy! ~Cherie

Luminous Atmospheres, Turner vs. Rembrandt by David Dunlop
(This post originally appeared at David’s blog,

A bath of light can create the same veil of ambiguity and mystery as a bath of darkness. The difference lies in the evocation of emotion. Darkness presents a bluer mood like a song in a minor key. An abundance of light gives the upbeat feeling of a song in a major key. As diurnal creatures we have a natural attraction to light but, the theatre of light is built from exaggerated contrast whether that contrast is a small sparkle of light in a pool of darkness or a bright flood of soft luminosity. These are the differing qualities of Rembrandt vs. Turner.

Rembrandt celebrates 17th century chiaroscuro effects. His palette, limited by contemporary chemistry, scarcity and cost compelled him to rely on a tonal palette rich in darks and reliant on black. An artist relying on black must consider the dulling effects of black when mixing colors. Therefore, Rembrandt severely limited his palette to just a few colors like cochineal (known as carmine lake), smalt (an inexpensive translucent blue), yellow ochres and iron oxide browns. As a printmaker he learned to look into darkness and extracted only enough light to allow the viewer’s imagination to unfold.

Following are two examples of Rembrandt’s chiaroscuro lighting. One brings atmospheric effects to an interior (example 1). The other example demonstrates his localized theatrical lighting with a landscape (example 2).

Adoration of the Shepherds by Rembrandt |

Example 1. Rembrandt interior, ‘Adoration of the Shepherds’ (oil painting)         PIN THIS

John the Baptist Preaching by Rembrandt |

Example 2. Rembrandt landscape, ‘John the Baptist Preaching’ (oil painting)

J.M.W. Turner turns the chiaroscuro tradition of light popping through darkness upside down. He takes Rembrandt’s unifying darkness and substitutes light. This revolutionary substitution does not happen at once. He develops his bath of light slowly through experiments in watercolor, which he transfers to his oils. His revolution extends to our taste preferences today. For example, Monet will adopt his program of light dominating darkness.

Turner discovers he can evoke the theatre of sunlight with an all-consuming yellow light complemented by blue. Turner’s chrome yellow and cobalt blue were unavailable to Rembrandt. Below are two examples of Turner building bright atmosphere in both an interior (example 3, below) and a landscape (example 4). Observe how he uses light complementary colors with dissolved edges to effect a feeling of luminous space.

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Turner’s Bedroom in the Palazzo Giustinian (the Hotel Europa), Venice by JMW Turner |

Example 3. Turner interior, ‘Turner’s Bedroom in the Palazzo Giustinian (the Hotel Europa), Venice’ (watercolor painting)

'Norham Castle, Sunrise' by JMW Turner |

Example 4. Turner landscape, ‘Norham Castle, Sunrise’ (oil painting)

Following Turner’s and Rembrandt’s examples, here are samples of my work. First, I invest a feeling of luminous atmosphere into an interior space (example 5) using the Turner’s blue/yellow complementary contrast with atmospheric dissolution of edges.

Oil painting lesson with David Dunlop |

Example 5. ‘Grand Central Station, NYC’ (oil painting on anodized aluminum, 48×36) by David Dunlop

The landscape (example 6) again uses dissolution of edges in the distance as well as a ratio of diminishing contrasts in the distance.

Oil painting lesson with David Dunlop |

Example 6. ‘Labyrinthine Meander’ (oil painting on aluminum, 36×36) by David Dunlop

This same principle of a brightening, diminishing contrast over distance versus a darker foreground can be observed in my third example, an urban landscape (example 7).

Oil painting lesson with David Dunlop |

Example 7. Luminous Horizon (oil painting on anodized aluminum, 36×36) by David Dunlop

Similarly, when presenting a darker, more saturated foreground in a cityscape or a landscape I find the feeling of luminous space is more amplified when joined to dissolving distant atmospheric perspective. Luminosity can further amplify the feeling of space when coupled to exaggerated linear perspective (example 8).

Oil painting lesson with David Dunlop |

Example 8. ‘Luminous Air’ (oil painting on anodized aluminum, 36×36) by David Dunlop

Click here to learn about and preview the Painting Skies Workshop with David Dunlop, Part 2: Turner Cloud Study. Miss part one of the series? Check out Painting Skies Workshop with David Dunlop, Part 1: Ruisdael Cloud Study here for painting tips on design, shape making, and placing figures in your landscape painting.

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