Exercise: The Night Watch

Rembrandt’s painting known as The Night Watch (1642) is a fascinating masterpiece which offers insights to photographic portraiture. This group portrait, commissioned by Frans Banning Cocq and financed by him and a number of other individuals in the painting, breaks with tradition of static military portraits.

The nickname of the painting is misleading as it is, in fact, set during the day and is of a militia company which would not have been active. The painting had become very dark over the decades due to dirt and varnish but has now been restored.

Background: this is still quite dark – especially considering it is a day time scene – but we can make out some architecture which speaks to the civic pride element of the painting. The canvas is huge (originally 13′ x 16′ although trimmed down in 1715 to fit into a specific space in Amsterdam’s town hall) and the figures are more or less life size, which makes the lofty space above the crowd even more impressive. We are drawn into the scene from which the characters emerge, leading from darkness towards light.

Pose: FBC is central and confident but seemingly benevolent as he strides forward. Lieutenant Willem van Ruytenburch looks at FCB as he walks by his side.  Other individuals are engaged in various activities – the most prominent with muskets –  and looking in different directions. There is a pleasant sense of democracy and comradery. These are men of action and the energy is palpable.

Clothes: these are more ceremonial than practical. FCB is in black for maximum gravitas but with a red sash and white ruff centre front of the image. WvR is in cream, radiating light and goodness balanced by the female ‘mascot’. Another man wears red and the black clothes and white ruff of FCB is balanced on the right by another man looking out of the scene.

Props: the long staffs create diagonals and converging lines to lead the eye and enhance the dynamism of the scene. The weapons remind us this is a military portrait and all the formal trappings of the troupe are included. There is even a dog barking at the cropped drummer to add sound to this lively image.

Lighting: Rembrandt is, of course, famous for his use of tenebrism, chiaroscuro and the use of ‘rushlight‘ to create interesting and appealing paintings. These strong contrasts make the figures strongly 3D and allow a sense of depth but without the scene being impossibly busy. The use of pools of light leads our eye to various elements to create a narrative. There is a clear hierarchy. Some men are more flooded with light than others.The main light source is coming from sunlight on the left of the scene which is so bright that FBC’s hand casts a shadow on WvR (pointing to his compadre’s … er… Cocq?). There is light on all the faces and especially bright is the mascot girl who wears the symbols of the company (chicken claws). With a right to left reading, the light source could signify past glories that still illuminate the subjects.


Unfortunately neither of the links in the OCA course notes for this exercise are working but David Saffir and Sally Wiener Grotta were mentioned as having been inspired by The Night Watch in their photography. In other videos they have talked about how they use light and shadow to create structure as well as mood. The chiaroscuro sculpts a scene to focus our attention where it matters, whilst creating texture and movement. They expose for the subject and do not worry about the shadows.  An HDR proponent’s nightmare.  A key thing with portraits is the human connection and Saffir and Grotta believe that this is most powerful in a ‘luminous moment’. The choice of “local lighting” can transform a scene.

My dutch friend Karina van Berg, a lighting expert, says the aim is always “to make it round”. This dimensionality is crucial to Rembrandt’s scene. Karina and her team actually once recreated The Night Watch on a film set. That is her between the FCB and WvR characters.


Key learnings:

  • Think proactively about how light and line can activate a scene
  • A tenebristic approach creates dimensionality as well as drama
  • Consider whether the direction of the light provides meaning (right to left readings, past to future) and what impact the quality will have





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