Doing the research topic on Chiaroscuro earlier, I read that examinations of Rembrandt’s paintings show that the artist used middle-tone grounds, which allowed rapid painting. He only applied dark and light tones, leaving the mid-tones of the ground. Most of his canvases are primed with a double ground, the first layer of which is a red-orange ochre, (to fill the texture of the canvas) and then again overlaid with a light, warm grey made from lead white (lead white with chalk, ground in linseed oil) Raw Umber, and various other earth colours. The paintings I saw in the Russia Pavilion motivated me to look into his methods. Using the painting of Rembrandt, The Return of the Prodigal Son as my reference, I find that he did at least three works, an Etching in 1636, a drawing with pen and brush in 1642 and an oil painting in 1668.

It seems that the oil painting techniques up to the 15th century in Flanders took advantage of transparency and viscosity which one did not find in fresco or tempera paints. Their work therefor resulted in getting a subtle tone control in the transitions between light and shadow. They also achieved spatial depth by multi-layered glazing. Luminosity in the time of the Venetian painters was achieved by exploiting the whites of the underpainting. Rubens and Rembrandt re instated these methods by applying trasparent colours on top of a vivid ground and using opaque and thick paint for increased contrast. It seems that lead white, a fast drying oil pigment, was used for the viscous bulky effect he achieved – lots of plasticity could also be achieved by using white chalk or egg yolk and linseed oil with his lead white. It seems that in his work he painted lower layers opaque and upper layers transparent – still the ‘fat over lean’ principle. On Wikipedia I read the following: “Technical investigation of Rembrandt’s paintings in the possession of the Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister[87] and in the Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister (Kassel)[88] has been conducted by Hermann Kühn in 1977. The pigment analyses of some thirty paintings have shown that Rembrandt’s palette consisted of the following pigments: lead white, various ochres, Vandyke brown, bone black, charcoal black, lamp black, vermilion, madder lake, azurite, ultramarine, yellow lake and lead-tin-yellow.”

So the painting technique would include:

  • Imprimatura layer to create a coloured ground
  • Dead layer – monochrome with earth pigments (not grisaille) as a foundation for glazing. Here warm colours would work best
  • Glazing the underpainting

I also looked at his drawings – oil sketches, which he apparently completed in a short time.

  • Brown imprimatura
  • sketch with diluted brown paint
  • without waiting for the sketch to dry, apply lead white paint/mixed with drying oil in lighted areas thickly and in the dark areas paint transparent paint to let the underpainting show through.
  • Express contrast between lights and darks by applying transparent paint over an opaque layer.

For drawing Rembrandt used red and black chalk, as well as white – the paper was pale yellow in colour. He used a washed over the drawing to shade and to describe form. (Ryoalton-Kisch:128 -139) He also drew with pen and ink.


Royalton-Kisch, M. (1989). Rembrandt’s Sketches for His Paintings. Master Drawings, 27(2), 128-145. Retrieved from

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