REMBRANDT AND BURNT PLATE OIL

Sarah Belchetz-Swenson and Phoebe Dent Weil
Northern Light Studio, LLC / St. Louis, MO / USA
http://www.northernlightstudio.com

Abstract

Set-up for boiling raw linseed oil

This paper presents our efforts to consider Rembrandt’s painting medium in the light of his artistic activity as both printmaker and painter. Recent scientific investigations of Rembrandt’s pastose paint have resulted in differing conclusions. We propose that Rembrandt used burnt plate oil, a basic ingredient of printing ink, to produce his unique range of impasto effects in painting. Using traditional recipes, we made burnt plate oil, and by adding small amounts to our paint, were able to approximate the full range of Rembrandt’s brushwork effects, thereby lending support to the scientific conclusion of the London National Gallery that Rembrandt used a combination of pigments and linseed oil, sometimes heat-bodied, in an “uncomplicated way.” (Bomford et al. 1988:26) (White and Kirby 1994:64)



burnt plate oil

Introduction

Rembrandt’s painting technique, in particular his unique use of impasto and textured paint has fascinated those who study his work. There have been several recent rigorous studies of Rembrandt’s technique and materials (Bomford et al.1988; White and Kirby 1994; van de Wetering 1997; Groen 1997). These sources agree generally on Rembrandt’s pigments, including his use of chalk to add body and translucency to the paint, but they disagree on the composition and manipulation of his medium for impasto effects. Van de Wetering and Groen, limiting their investigation to white, pastose paint and selected glazes, state that they have found evidence for the use of an oil and egg emulsion in the pastose paint and no evidence of heat treatment, pre-polymerization, accelerated oxidation or thickening of the linseed oil medium. (Groen 1997:212). White and Kirby (1994:68) conclude that, in general, Rembrandt simply used linseed or walnut oil, occasionally “heat-bodied.”

Rembrandt’s studio: painting and printmaking

Fig. 1. Testing for string length

Following a brief apprenticeship with a professional printer in Haarlem in 1626, Rembrandt began his independent experimentation with printmaking and the practice, unusual at the time, of producing and selling his own prints. (Rassieur, 2003:70; Westermann, 2000:258-259) Rembrandt’s intimate involvement with the printmaking process would have made him familiar with the peculiar properties of a standard component of printing ink, namely burnt plate oil. Burnt plate oil is raw linseed (or walnut) oil that has been heated until it ignites spontaneously (approximately 400oC), is reduced to one-half or more of its original volume, becomes very thick and viscous, and can be pulled out in strings of twelve inches or more. Recipes can be found in Bosse (1645); Bloy (1967:101-2), Hayter (1949:33), Peterdi (1971:176). Bloy (1967:101-2) provides a number of early recipes for burnt plate oil most notably Bosse (1645) who describes two types: a “weaker” and a “stronger” sort:

mixing plate oil with chalk

…first, you must take a good quantity of the purest nut-oyle and put it into a large Iron-pot, to which is fitted a cover which must lye exactly close.  Fill it within 4 or 5 Inches, and then apply the cover:  Thus set it or hang it on a good fire, letting it boyle, least it endanger the house, and therefore your eye must be continually upon it, to keepe it in motion and stir it about with some Iron ladle or spatula; soe as being now very hott it may take fire gently of it selfe.  Or be easily inflamed with the blaze of a paper, as wine is burnt:  When thus it has taken fire, remove it from the Trevet, to a corner of the chimney perpetually stirring it, yet soe as the burning may continue above halfe an hower:  and this to make the weaker sort: after it has thus burnt, clapping the cover upon the pot it will be extinguished, provided it be very close, other wise you must cast a cloath upon it, which will immediately suffocate the flame. Then let it coole a little, before you poure it into the vessel, in which you intend to keepe it.

When this is don, fill the pott againe with more raw nut-oyle, as you did before: To make a stronger sort boyling it in the same manner, with this onely difference, that it is to be suffered to burne a great deale longer, moving and stirring it till it become very thick and glewy, filing and drawing into threads like a syrupe, which you may essay from tyme to tyme, by letting a few droops cool upon the plate. There are some who boyle an onion, or a crust of bread in the oyle, to render it (as they thinke) less greasie.

Rembrandt, Portrait of a Man,
(Melbourne, National
Gallery of Victoria) detail
[from Ernst van de Wetering,
Rembrandt:the Painter at Work
(Amsterdam:Amsterdam
University Press)2000, fig. 297b]

Here it is necessary to note that evidence for modification of the properties of linseed oil by heating, with or without a dryer such as litharge, to achieve a variety of optical and drying properties extends back at least to the early 14th century. See, for example: (Massing: 2003) (Cennini: 1390, 1933:58) (Dunkerton: 2000) (Keller: 1973) (DeMayerne: 1620) (Volpato: c.1670) (White and Kirby: 1994:68-69).

It is useful to consider the differing working properties of stand oil, sun-thickened oil, and boiled oil, which are often referred to as simply “heat-bodied” or “heat-treated oil”. The primary characteristic of modern stand oil and the older sun-thickened oils is a self-leveling property that makes paint flow. Stand oil is most useful for glazing as it creates a glossy enamel-like finish that does not show brushstrokes. So-called “boiled oils” are oils heated with metallic dryers, such as litharge, that speed the drying of paint. Properly made, “boiled oil” resembles thin syrup and imparts a glossy, durable finish. (DeMayerne: 1620:33,112, 115, 141) (Keller: 1973) (Mayer: 1970:130-133) (Stephenson: 1993:41, 46-48) (White and Kirby: 1994:68-71) (Groen: 1997:212-213)

In general, heated oils have a smoothing, leveling tendency in paint that is contrary to what is sought in impasto effects. Although burnt plate oil is similar to stand oil, the process of burning produces a material designed for printing that behaves quite differently, and that we found can be used to create a variety of impasto effects in paint.



Fig. 2. Detail of a reconstruction by Sarah Belchetz-Swenson, using burnt plate oil,
drying linseed oil, lead white and chalk (top- in raking light, bottom- in normal light)

Experimental tests and reconstructions

To test our hypothesis we made three batches of burnt plate oil using recipes from Bosse (1645), Peterdi (1971), and Hayter (1949). In each case we started with one liter of Swedish raw linseed oil (Kremer Pigments). Our first batch was made using a conventional hot plate and without accurate temperature measurement. Our second and third batches were made using a Mirak hot plate (Barnstead/Thermolyne) with a range of 40o – 540o C., and a digital probe thermometer (Fluke). In our second batch we reached a maximum temperature of 388oC at combustion. In our third batch we reached a maximum temperature of 425o C. The working characteristics of all three batches were more or less the same.

In practice the burnt plate oil can be added in varying amounts to either ordinary unmodified linseed oil or to drying linseed oil to produce a wide range of results, as suggested by the scientific findings of White and Kirby (1994:70-71) By combining a small quantity of our burnt plate oil (Fig. 1) with Cremnitz white, drying linseed oil, and small amounts of chalk, we produced paint with properties ranging from long and viscous to short and stiff. In reconstructions we were then able to approximate essentially the whole range of Rembrandt’s impasto effects, from the delicate strands of Delilah’s necklace, as seen in Samson and Delilah (Gemäldegalerie, Berlin) to the built-up passages of stiff paint in The Jewish Bride (Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam) and elsewhere. (Fig. 2)

In practice the burnt plate oil can be added in varying amounts to either ordinary unmodified linseed oil or to drying linseed oil to produce a wide range of results, as suggested by the scientific findings of White and Kirby (1994:70-71) By combining a small quantity of our burnt plate oil (Fig. 1) with Cremnitz white, drying linseed oil, and small amounts of chalk, we produced paint with properties ranging from long and viscous to short and stiff. In reconstructions we were then able to approximate essentially the whole range of Rembrandt’s impasto effects, from the delicate strands of Delilah’s necklace, as seen in Samson and Delilah (Gemäldegalerie, Berlin) to the built-up passages of stiff paint in The Jewish Bride (Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam) and elsewhere. (Fig. 2)

Burnt plate oil is dark, and it may be asked whether its use alters white or light colours. Rembrandt’s light pigments, principally lead white, lead-tin yellow and yellow ochre, are opaque and have good covering power. We conclude from our observations that neither the subtle colour variations between types of oil nor the inclusion of a small amount of burnt plate oil make any noticeable difference to the overall colour.

When we added chalk in combination with burnt plate oil, it enhanced the oil’s effectiveness in creating textures.

Rembrandt, The Jewish Bride (c.1665) detail, sleeve (Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum)
[from E. van de Wetering, Rembrandt: the Painter at Work, fig. 192]

Detail of above [from E. van de Wetering, Rembrandt: the Painter at Work, fig.192]

Warning:

Danger of fire, very high temperature and smoky fumes. You must not undertake this operation without adequate protection and ventilation, preferably out of doors and with safeguards against exposure to high temperatures.

References

Rembrandt, The Night Watch (1642), detail (Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum)
[from Ernst van de Weering, Rembrandt: the Painter at Work, fig. 249]

Rembrandt, Jeremiah Lamenting...(1630),
detail (Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum)
[from Ernst van de Weering,
Rembrandt: the Painter at Work, fig. 238]

Bomford, D., Brown, C., and Roy, A. 1988. Art in the Making: Rembrandt. London: National Gallery.

Bloy, C. 1967. A History of Printing Ink, Balls and Rollers 1440-1850. London: Evelyn Adams and Mackay.

Bosse, A. 1645. Traicté des Manières de Graver en Taille-Douce sur l’Airin… ., tr. John Evelyn and read to the Royal Society in 1662, published in Bloy (1967)

Cennini, C. 1390. Il Libro dell;Arte (c. 1390) tr. D. Thompson, The Craftsman’s Handbook. New York: Dover.

DeMayerne, T. 1620. Pictoria, Sculptoria & quae subalternarum atrium. M. Faidutti and C. Versini, eds. 1974. Lyon: Audin Imprimeurs.

Dunkerton, J. 2000. “Observations on the Handling Properties of Binding Media Identified in European Painting from the Fifteenth to the Seventeenth Centuries” in Institut Royal du Patrimoine Artistique Bulletin, 1996-98. Brussels

Groen, K. 1997. ‘Investigation of the use of the binding medium by Rembrandt’, Zeitschrift für Konservierung und Kunsttechnologie 11(2): 207-227.

Hayter, S. 1949. New Ways of Gravure. New York: Pantheon Books Inc.

Keller, R. 1973. “Leinöl als Malmittel”, Maltechnik, 2, 74-105.

Massing, A., ed., 2003. The Thornham Parva Retable: Technique, conservation and context of an English medieval painting. London and Cambridge: Harvey Miller and the Hamilton Kerr Institute, University of Cambridge.

Mayer, R. 1970. The Artist’s Handbook of Materials and Techniques. New York: Viking Press.

Peterdi, G. 1971. Printmaking Methods Old and New. New York: Macmillan.

Rassieur, T., 2003. “Beginnings as Etcher”, 70-75; and “Looking over Rembrandt’s Shoulder: the Printmaker at Work”, 45-60, in C. Ackley, ed., Rembrandt’s Journey: Painter, Draftsman, Etcher, Boston: MFA Publications.

Stephenson, J. 1993. Materials and Techniques of Painting. New York: Thames & Hudson, Inc.

Van de Wetering, E. 1997. Rembrandt: the Painter at Work. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press.

Volpato, 1670. “Modo da Tener nel Dipinger”, in M. Merrifield, 1967. Original Treatises on the Arts of Painting, vol. 2. New York: Dover. 740-41.

Westermann, M. 2000. Rembrandt, London: Phaidon.

White, R., and Kirby, J. 1994. ‘Rembrandt and his circle: seventeenth-century Dutch paint media re-examined’, National Gallery Technical Bulletin, 15: 64-78.

Rembrandt, Flora (1635) [Ernst van de Wetering,
Rembrandt: the Painter at Work, fig. 296]

Materials

Swedish Raw Linseed oil, Cremnitz white, chalk
Kremer Pigmente
www.kremer-pigmente@t-online.de


Also see the Bibliography of Rembrandt and Burnt Plate Oil

Download MS Word documents of this page (text only) or the Bibliography

Sarah Belchetz-Swenson is a painter and printmaker in Williamsburg, Massachusetts, USA. She has presented numerous lectures and has taught painting at Smith College. Her interest in historic techniques led to collaborative work with Phoebe Dent Weil, presenting workshops on Rembrandt’s painting and drawing techniques at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and the Chicago Art Institute in connection with the exhibition, ‘Rembrandt’s Journey’ in 2004. Phoebe Dent Weil is an art conservator. Recently, she has focused on research and teaching historic painting and sculpture techniques, and is Co-Director, with Sarah Belchetz-Swenson, of Northern Light Studio, St. Louis, Missouri, USA.

Sarah Belchetz-Swenson Phoebe Dent Weil
sarah@northernlightstudio.com phoebe@northernlightstudio.com
http://www.belchetz-swenson.com http://northernlightstudio.com