Drawings With Rembrandt on my Mind

Philip Koch, Summer, sepia ink, 31 x 41 1/2"

At age eighteen I made the decision to become an artist. Blame it on an art history survey class I took my first semester at Oberlin College in 1966. I hadn't taken an art class since the summer between 7th and 8th grade, so my drawing skills were largely undeveloped. No matter, as my teachers in my first studio art classes at best gave lip service to traditional drawing, but really pushed abstraction and conceptual art. This wasn't all bad as it let me jump into the pool without feeling bad. One teacher went so far as to tell me "Drawing has been done. We artists have new tasks nowadays." For someone with few skills, this was a tempting philosophy.

I painted abstractions with acrylic pigments for my first two years, as that was what everyone did in the Art Department. Actually, I learned a lot in the process about color mixing, the qualities of paint handling, how to make different kinds of edges, and so on. All good stuff.

But as time passed the more I worked the more uneasy I became. My paintings were too simple and I feared they werea becoming all too predictable. As luck would have it, I was spending more and more time browsing through the college's art library randomly sampling any book on painting I could find. Edward Hopper caught my eye with his oil paintings and watercolors, but with drawings, it was the big Old Master himself, Rembrandt (Dutch 1606 - 1669), that did it for me.

Rembrandt, The Mill on the "Het Blauwhoofd', sepia ink

Now Rembrandt's art couldn't have been farther away from the work I'd done the previous two years. He drew primarily with sepia colored ink (likely made from walnuts I believe) and used a homemade pen fashioned from a the stalk of a reed he picked out of the local creek. His drawings affected me with their sense of atmosphere (air itself in Rembrandt often seems laden with moisture) and a powerful drama of lights cast shadows. I remember my older sister Kathy presented me with a book of his drawings as a present on my 22nd birthday. I poured over it night after night like it was a sacred text. Maybe for me it was. (I still have the book in a place of honor on my studio bookshelf).

Down to the Bay, sepia, 22 x 44"

 If you've seen Rembrandt's ink wash drawings you've been treated to his masterful ability to put things into groups and orchestrate their movement around the page. They actually show you only sparse detail, but they deliver a remarkable presence and personality to the landscape or figures he's depicting. 

I knew he was 300 years ago, but to my eye his ability to say so much with so little opened a door. One could do art based on looking at the world he seemed to be saying. By example he showed that could produce works that were incredibly alive, amazingly personal, and somehow just as up-to-date as anything else. Work that good sometimes seems to stand outside of time.

The Trees,  sepia, 30 x 42"

So I began teaching myself to draw from observation. At first I needed the confidence that being able to erase (a lot) provided, so I stuck to conte crayons and charcoal, drawing media forgivingly easy to erase and re-adjust. But after a few years my old romance with Rembrandt came back to haunt me enough for me to take the plunge with waterproof sepia drawing ink.

At first I worked on a very, very small scale, like 3 x 4", and starting with ink so watered down it resembled weak tea. With waterproof ink you can radically dilute the ink until it's barely perceptible on your white paper. It dries quickly and where you need to go darker you simply add another coat of ink. You can see this method in the drawings above, where the darkest areas have ten or more successive layers of ink.

I'm showing here three large studio drawings that were done from tiny plein air ink drawings I did on location. In both the small and the large versions, I tip toe into the drawing, taking all the time I need to slowly build up the darker tones. That's the beauty of this technique- it's perfect for when you're feeling restrained and a little cautious. For when you want to whisper rather than shout. The drawings actually have a very loose brushwork. You can even get a little wild with making playful little abstract patterns with your brushstrokes, knowing all the while the lightness of your layers of ink will keep the piece from getting chaotic.


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