Almost exactly one year ago I paid a visit to Amsterdam, taking the opportunity while still living a stone’s throw from the Netherlands, and just before moving to faraway Leipzig. A working trip, as usual, dedicating to checking out all the Rembrandts and Vincents. Of course I had planned to write extensive blogposts at the time; of course I failed to, amidst all the adventures of moving.
Of all the hundreds of paintings I had seen on my Dutch trip there was one that interested me in a particular way. Not that it would have been the most fascinating per se – how could it, with such formidable competition around! –, but it struck me as potentially the most interesting too copy: A Landscape with Stone Bridge by Rembrandt.
The most difficult thing about attempting any copy is for me to find time to do a copy at all instead of all the innumerable original works waiting to be executed. Fortunately there came a time, around May and June, when I was explicitly encouraged to practically consult my role models – my prof suggested a copy exercise –, and promptly I went back to the stone bridge.
What about it? First, it’s done in a rather particular technique, representative for a way of thinking I’m fond of anyway. Second, it’s not too complex to reproduce relatively quickly.
Strip away all the romantic mood, the feverish, electric light of the last sunbeams beneath heavy clouds of a summer storm just about to break loose, look at the bare colour, and you’ll find there’s almost nothing of it. Look at the orange, brown and black areas: All that is the underpainting that contains no information but brightness (and a generous lot of graphical structures). In accord with the original I’ve used a wood panel covered in chalk ground, a hard primer easy to polish, yielding a surface as smooth as plastic. Having done a very quick charcoal sketch I applied a thin imprimatura in burnt siena. All the brush marks enlivening the cloud surface in the upper right have zero relief, the paint there was as liquid as ink when fresh. Now the black parts would have been added, still as dilute as possible – the step taking longest and most work. Afterwards I’m there with a fully fleshed-out monochrome version as I’ve described it so often.
The unusual idea now is how much of it to leave open. Usually I’d glaze over the dark parts and highlight the lighter ones with opaque and more saturated colours. Here, almost the entire picture is left in its underpainting stage, save for the few highlights in the trees, the grassy slope seen through the bridge, fences and rooves and the receding open sky. Altogether, scarce more than a quarter of the total area gets “proper” execution.
The finished painting works nevertheless: The areas of sheer underpainting completely fulfil their function and need no colouration. In fact, they distract less from the highlights that here draw much more initial attention than in a hypothetical full-colour version. This technique isn’t restricted to landscape, no, Rembrandt (the old more than the younger) and others give us plenty of examples in all sorts of genres.
The stone bridge wasn’t the only result of that copy exercise. Actually, calling it that is a bit misleading. The term that our professor Ernert coined for those things he likes to do is “Nachbilder”, “afterimages”, as opposed to “Vorbilder”, “(role) models” or “prototypes”.
How should [the expression „afterimages“] be understood? In perceptual psychology the phantom images still perceived when the original light stimulation of the eye’s retina has subsided are known as afterimages. Transferred to the case of painter Jörg Ernert, we could say that the afterimages are traces of his own viewing as he takes a look around in recent and more distant art history. This is about a balance of personal visual experiences, really.
— Jan Nicolaisen in the catalogue “Nachbilder”, Leipzig 2017, transl. Dr. Lucinda Rennison
I ended up really liking the term – the idea behind it is of course nothing original, it’s exactly what painters have been doing for the entire history of painting. But “afterimage” nails it, gives it a notion like “cover” in music, perhaps. There’s the close copy – see above –, often for a technical motivation, for sheer reverse engineering; and there’s adaptations of a certain composition done in a different personal style (see Ernert, here or there).
Having started to do any afterimages, naturally at some point I had to pay homage to my hero Grützke, for which I started with a lithograph, Bei den Edlen (“With the Noblemen”), and simply replaced his likenesses with mine.
Generally, painting what was originally a black/white print or drawing is a wonderful exercise. Of course there’s Ernert examples, and there’s examples in any period of art history where printed reproductions were abundant while original paintings were difficult to visit (prime examples are Titian and Rubens, both of which commanded a huge publishing business to widely disseminate woodcuts and engravings of their paintings). Rembrandt tried to outdo Rubens, especially as Rubens was the then-current champion in painting.
Finally, like some of the most famous covers in music, an afterimage could concern itself with just one particular aspect of its forebear. This is something I and so many others do all the time, often so that it’s scarce worth anymore to declare it an afterimage. Here follow two examples which at least started with the clear determination to quote a Vorbild.
First, a view in a manner of Schiele. As with Rembrandt’s Stone Bridge, seeing Schiele’s Small Town V in person, I was captivated by a particular technical aspect. How to create these black outlines bleeding into their surroundings? In the end, the solution turned out to be a choice of material, provided in a catalogue’s small print. I succesfully replicated technique and look, but with a drawing completely of my own, of a place Schiele had nothing to do with.
Second, a scene in a manner of Whistler. Like Schiele, Whistler had not his one style, but a lot of very different means at his disposal – one feature, though, that occurs repeatedly in his works is what I’d describe as an imbalance in the colour spectrum, providing one very strong cue of colour not with a counterweight of equally strong saturation, but framing it with vast greys. Something similar I did after another drawing by me, though other than with Schiele here at least I used a view Whistler will have been familiar with: The belltower of the church of Santo Stefano in Venice.