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Rembrandt Lighting For Classical Oil Painters

This is a step by step guide of Rembrandt lighting for beginners, including: what Rembrandt lighting is, why you should use Rembrandt lighting as an oil painter, and a complete list of steps to take in order to get Rembrandt lighting.

Rembrandt Self Portrait Showing Rembrandt Lighting

What is Rembrandt Lighting?

It’s a classical technique for lighting your subject that adds depth and drama to portraits. It's named after the legendary painter Rembrandt van Rijn because he frequently used this form of lighting to great effect.

Rembrandt Self Portrait demonstrating the power of Rembrandt lighting

The hallmark of Rembrandt lighting is the triangle of light that gets created on the shadow side cheek combined with chiaroscuro to create dramatic lighting. Similarly there is a highlight zone created on the light side of the face that emphasizes the cheek bone and draws the viewer in to the eye. This lighting helps to add volume to the face and emphasizes the form of your subject.

Rembrandt Portrait demonstrating the emotional appeal of Rembrandt lighting

Why Use Rembrandt Lighting?

Rembrandt lighting is popular in portrait painting because it creates a striking and dramatic effect by emphasizing contrast between light and shadow. This adds depth, form, and a sense of three-dimensionality to the subject, enhancing the overall realism and visual appeal of the portrait. The play of light and shadow in Rembrandt lighting can help convey emotions, highlight facial features, and create a sense of mood and atmosphere, making your painting more captivating and engaging.

Rembrandt portrait showing the key reasons why you should use Rembrandt lighting

How Do You Get Rembrandt Lighting?

In order to get Rembrandt lighting there are a few key steps you need to pay attention to in regards to lighting. This list is meant for classical oil painters in particular and includes all of the key points that I have learned from first hand experience setting up Rembrandt lighting in my studios.

1. How To Position Your Model and Lights for Rembrandt Lighting

Place your subject at a 45-degree angle to the light source. This will create a triangular area of light on the subject’s cheek opposite the light source.

diagram showing how to angle the light in order to get the proper light on your model for Rembrandt lighting

2. The Best Light Source For Classical Oil Painting & Rembrandt Lighting

Use a single direct light source, such as a softbox light or window positioned slightly above the subject’s eye level and directed downward. It is best to have diffused light, so if you use natural light you will probably need some kind of thin drapery to soften daylight.

studio softbox lights kit

Cheap Softbox Lights - Best for Beginners

My Preferences & Recommendations For Classical Oil Painting Studio Lighting

I prefer soft box lights over natural light for three main reasons: power, consistency, and convenience. Artificial lights have consistent light at a controllable level. It's also hard to beat the versatility it offers when you can paint at any hour and move the light anywhere!

Natural lighting is great, but even with ideal conditions I would recommend having an artificial backup because it will simply give you more opportunities to paint with good lighting.

There are 2 lights I have used that I would highly recommend. The first, pictured above, is cheap and great for a first time user which only has an on and off switch. These are great because they're simple, cheap, mobile, and provide a pretty good amount of light.

You can buy the lights I recommend through my affiliate link below

softbox light kit

Best Value Softbox Lights - Great Value and ideal lights but a bit more expensive.

If you invest a little bit more money you can get a larger and more powerful daylight softbox with adjustable light as pictured above. These are a much nicer light and offer more flexibility in terms of lighting. For the added utility these are a really great value.

3. Remove Distractions

Be sure that there are no other light sources that could disrupt your lighting setup. Close the blinds on windows, turn off house lights or other light sources, etc.

This also applies to the background! Remove any strange objects or bright colors that could distract from your model. Avoid white walls.

Ideally you should have a consistent dark background. A black backdrop can be a great solution for this and can work wonders when dealing with an odd painting room.

photography black backdrop

To get the backdrop I recommend click below:

4. Look For the Rembrandt Triangle

Ensure that the light source illuminates one side of the subject’s face while the other side is partially in shadow. The goal is to create a small triangle of light on the shadow side, formed by the light falling on the cheek and the shadow from the nose.

Portrait with annotation showing the triangle of light that is achieved with Rembrandt lighting

5. Other Things To Look For to Achieve Better Rembrandt Lighting For Oil Painting

Are there clear highlights?

The nose, cheek bone, forehead, eye, and eye socket should all have clear highlights. These highlights will make it easy to emphasize the form and they’re extremely useful when trying to achieve likeness.

Arrows pointing out the key highlights that are present with Rembrandt lighting

Can you see midtones?

If the light is diffused then you should still be able to see midtones on the shadow side of the face. If it appears like there is too much contrast and not enough midtones then you should try moving your light further away from your model.

If that doesn’t work, try using something to diffuse your light such as baking paper or a white towel.

Another option if you don’t have a diffused light is to add a secondary light source to subtly soften the shadows. One method towards that end is to point a light at a wall on the shadow side of your model so that it will softly reflect light back onto your model.

Arrows pointing out the key mid tones and shadows that are present with Rembrandt lighting

Can you See the Contours?

You should be able to see the outer contours of the face. If your light is too harsh or the background is too similar in tone to your subject, this can be difficult.

A dark and soft background can make it easier to identify the outer contours of your subject.

6. Get The Same Light On Your Painting For the Best Results

This will help to enhance the illusion of depth. You can identify the way that the light is playing on the surface of your canvas and use it to your advantage for increased reflection. If you are just painting a portrait then you should probably have one light on your model and one on your painting. With larger softboxes it is possible to light both with the same light. For larger works you should use an additional lights.

Rembrandt Boot Camp

annotation showing the colors that are used on Rembrandt's palette

Want to learn even more about the techniques of the Old Masters and how to paint like Rembrandt? Join me for Rembrandt Boot Camp

One of the problems a lot of painters face is a lack of direction. They take advice from many different sources: people with different philosophies, different styles, and different goals.. So it’s no surprise they end up with flat results.

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