Rembrandt ~ his portraits and palette.

Rembrandt ~ his portraits and palette.
Rembrandt - his portrait and his palette

Written for paint manufacturer, Royal Talens to promote The Year of Rembrant 2019.

To celebrate the Year of Rembrandt, we explore his prolific portrait painting and pared down palette spanning over forty years.

To accompany the event, we are running an oil painting workshop exploring his portraits and palette.

KENWOOD HOUSE, THE IVEAGH BEQUEST, London. ” Self-Portrait ” c1665 by REMBRANDT Van Rijn (1606-1669).

What do you know about Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn?

You will know that he is the most celebrated Dutch painter of all time.

You will also know that he painted The Night Watch, the colossal oil painting (3.6m x 4.3m) famous for its dramatic use of light and shadow and the jewel in the crown of the Dutch Golden Age.

You may not know, however, that Rembrandt (1606 – 1669) was a prolific portrait painter and printmaker, specifically self-portraits. He created approaching one hundred works, including forty paintings, thirty-one etchings and seven drawings. No other artist has painted themselves with such little vanity, charting not only their own physical changes and fortunes but also the cultural and historical changes in the world around them, spanning over forty years.

Self portraits

Self-portraiture was an important part of the painter’s oeuvre and made up around ten percent of his total output, relatively large compared to other masters. Rubens only painted seven self-portraits for example. Rembrandt painted himself at a steady pace throughout his life right up until the year he died in 1669 at the age of sixty-three, as both a means of research and self-expression, but also to satisfy the demand for self-portraits by prominent artists of the 17th century. Researchers now know that his students also copied his self-portraits as part of their training, so this puts several portrait provenances into question.


The thirty-one etchings reveal another side of Rembrandt, supplementing the rich visual diary of his life, as he explores what he called his ‘studies in expression’. They are sketchy, un-posed ‘tronies’, examining exaggerated facial expressions and contorted features, lines and wrinkles – many show him pulling faces at himself. It’s a fascinating insight into his commitment to portraiture.  

Rembrandt self portrait 1630
Rembrandt portrait 1630

Oil painting

In his oils, we can trace his progression from a dapper, portrait painter in the 1630’s to ageing artist in his troubled but powerful later portraits. Self-portrait wearing a white feathered bonnet, 1635, shows a successful artist wearing a velvet cape decorated with gold embroidery, medallion and gold chain. His recognisable black velvet beret is adorned with two vertical ostrich feathers signifying wealth. This, surely, must be at the height of his prowess and perfectly illustrates his mastery of texture and light.

Self portrait wearing a white feathered bonnet *oil on panel *91 x 72 cm *signed b.r.: Rembran[…] / f:· 1635

Art historian Kenneth Clark suggests, ‘with the exception of Van Gogh, Rembrandt is the only artist who has made the self-portrait a major means of artistic self-expression and he is absolutely the one who has turned self-portraiture into an autobiography.’  

The size of the mirror

The size and availability of mirrored glass was a practical factor in the life of a portrait artist! It is fascinating that over the course of his life and rise and fall in fortunes, he was able to paint on a larger scale dependant on the size of mirror he could afford.

From the 1650’s there are several portraits showing more of his body when 80cm was the maximum height for a sheet of mirror. He may have bought a large mirror in 1652 and then sold it years later when he went bankrupt. In 1658 his son Titus was tasked with delivering another mirror, which is purported to have smashed en route to his studio.

Rembrandt in later years

What did his original palette consist of?

Rembrandt used a relatively small palette of colours dominated by dark earth tones and luminous highlights that were widely available at that time. Among his staples were lead white, bone black, ochres, siennas and umbers. By the 17th century, Holland was a centre for the manufacture of artists materials, pigments were in good supply and developments in the industry meant that there was now relative consistency in colour and quality.

Changes in paint manufacture

As advances in paint production marched on, large scale production processes were now in place for colours such as lead white, vermilion, smalt and lead-tin yellow. All of which are found in Rembrandts work. Earth pigments such as Burnt Sienna, Raw Sienna, Raw Umber and Burnt Umber were imported from Italy.  Other colours included; Azurite, Yellow ochre, Vermilion, Madder Lake, Carmine Lake and Cassel Earth.

Buy your own Rembrandt oil paints

Browse our online shop for Rembrandt oil colours in 120 colours, 40ml tubes – prices starting at £6.65. Colours available online or from our shop; Pegasus Art, Griffin Mill, Stroud, Glos GL5 2AZ.

Rembrandt oil colours by Royal Talens – available at Pegasus Art


Rembrandts use of chiaroscuro, bold contrasts between light and dark, is exquisite. His portraits have a unique radiance, illuminated faces, luxurious fabrics, a rich a dark palette and shadowy backgrounds. The artist is a fascinating character, achieving great success as a young man with his old age marred by financial hardship and personal tragedy. His genius can perhaps be best described by a fellow artist Van Gogh who wrote,

Rembrandt goes so deep into the mysterious that he says things for which there are no words in any language. It is with justice that they call Rembrandt a magician – that’s no easy occupation.’

Resident artist and tutor, Max Hale, is a UK ambassador for Royal Talens and together we bring you two exciting opportunities to get involved in The Year of Rembrandt:  

Rembrandt Portraits Workshop

An oil painting workshop led by Max Hale

Saturday 2nd November

10am – 4pm     £70

at Pegasus Art GL5 2AZ

Book online:

Call to book on 01453 886560.

Working from a life model, Max will teach you how to paint using the palette of the great painter. Royal Talens have kindly sponsored the workshop with free samples, allowing you to try Rembrandt oil colours for yourself. By the end of the workshop, you will have a near completed portrait, which you can continue to work from at home. You will find it fascinating to explore the techniques favoured by Rembrandt.

Competition: Win a limited edition Royal Talens Rembrandt oils set worth £99.00

You could win this wonderful limited edition set of ten Rembrandt oil paints, palette knife, size 8 brush, 75ml odourless white spirit, 75ml painting medium and double dipper in a Year of Rembrant Gift Set Box.

How do I enter?

Simply search for Pegasus Art Shop on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram and share the competition post using hashtag #rembrandtartexperience and tag a friend!

For more information about The Year of Rembrandt:

Win a trip to Holland by entering your own Rembrandt painting! For more information:

Pegasus Art, Griffin Mill, Stroud, Glos GL5 2AZ   01453 886560