Paint like Rembrandt (Or die trying)

Updated: Oct 2, 2019

I've just finished this Rembrandt study of 'Man with a golden helmet' and I'd love to briefly talk you through my process here!

You can also find a video of my process at the bottom of the page too if that's more your speed.

Remdrandt The Man with the Golden Helmet  C. 1650
The Man with the Golden Helmet, Rembrandt. C.1650

It was a healthy challenge for sure, but I believe I've learned a lot from it and I'd love to pass what I've learned on to you.

Here are 3 quick tips that will help your digital painting look more like a traditional oil painting:

1. Textures

By using a variety of different brushes you are able to better replicate traditional methods, this helps alleviate some of the uniformity that a digital medium can provide but usually reduces the realism of a piece. Use a handful of different brushes while you're working to break up the pixels of the piece into more believable strokes.

2.Limit layers

By using only a couple of layers while you paint your approach the piece just like you would a painting on canvas. You don't have to limit yourself to just one if you're not comfortable with doing so, but the fewer the better. This will help you with your edge control while painting, as the 'paint' will freely mix with itself on the same layer, as opposed to multiple layers where the 'paint' will kind of sit on top of each other.

3. Avoid special effects

This seems to be the most common issue I've seen that newer artists seem to rush to when finishing a digital painting, using tools and layer effects like a colour dodge. Of course, it can be a useful tool when used correctly, but it makes getting your values and colours accurate incredibly difficult to attain. If traditional style realism is something you're aiming for, avoid these tools at first and stick to brushwork.

The Process

Phase 1: Sketching

I start by sketching a rough version of the portrait using the circle brush, using a smaller brush weight for inner contour lines. Larger portraits will require thicker lines and vice versa.

I then build my colour palette based on the reference image making sure to separate each area of the painting by the different sections, for example, the feathers on the helmet, the skin tones, the hair, the armour and clothing.

Phase 2: Blocking in

Once you've done this, you can move on to blocking in the flat colour tones.

I pick the mid-tone from each colour swatch and use a soft round brush with the pressure sensitivity turned off to block in the initial colours for each section of the portrait on a different layer.

Phase 3: Adding tones

I begin to add the shadow tones to the face starting with the lightest from the shadow family and then slowly building up to the darkest, then I'll go back and add the lighter tones in the same way.

You'll need to refine the edges as you go, however, once you've done this if you turn the alpha settings on the layer you can paint just the areas you painted before and it will ignore everything else.

Moving on to the helmet following the same process as I did the face by adding the darker tones and the lighter tones on top to map out the lighting on the helmet.

A good tip for digital painting in general: Make sure that you when you paint, that you use different brushes so that you don't have a uniform texture.

A telltale of digital pieces to look more like digital pieces than traditional paintings. I try and use at least three or four different texture brushes to add some variety to the piece in terms of texture. Traditional paintings don't have the same uniformity that software-brushes provide, so its an easy way to add another layer of realism to your piece with little effort.

Moving on to the feather using the same method again, this time using a bristle hairy brush and thin hair brush to start adding a feel for the hairs within the feather. 

I tend to work on each piece to a certain level, then move on to the next. This helps with ensuring your colours and values are roughly where they should be, but can also help keep your concentration higher as you're working on different problems periodically.

Back to the helmet on a new layer and I begin to apply paint on the marks that have made previously, focusing on the highlights and Shadow times this time to raise the 3D form of the helmet. 

I move back and forth on this for a while until I'm satisfied with the overall look of the helmet.

Phase 4: Detailing

Then back to the face to start adding some detailing, adding deeper tones to the pupils of the eyes and other dark areas of the face such as around the neck and under the helmet.

This is a common technique used by Caravaggio's work called 'chiaroscuro', meaning that the dark tones often fade to black, pushing the subject of the portrait into the darkness.

Phase 5: Finishing touches

Once I'm happy with the tones and colour of the piece I go back and begin adding texture over the top of the layers using a light 'canvas' texture brush. I made this brush myself, and it still needs a little refining, but you can also use most texture brushes if you use them sparingly to break up some of the uniformity of your painting and add a little extra detail.

I finish up with refining some of the 3D forms on the helmet, the armour and fixing up some the feather by softening areas, and then the shirt by blending the textures out to draw focus back to the face.

I'll spend a little time toward the end scanning the different areas of the painting until I'm happy with how it looks overall. This study, of course, wasn't' meant to be a direct replication of the original painting which must have taken many many hours to complete in a different medium, but an exercise in imitating the value, texture and form utilised by a master in his craft.

If I've missed anything in particular that you'd like to know please let me know!

I'll make another post soon regarding some of the other features I've discussed here, how to use Krita and some other fundamentals. What would you like to hear about?

Video Process: