A Study of Rembrandt Style Lighting from the Three Point Perspective

When teaching lighting techniques, I explain to my students that, to understand where and why a light is positioned in a given way, we must start at the beginning. Classical art, paintings in particular, hold the majority of the clues we need to begin lighting our characters. The aesthetics of lighting, were established hundreds of years ago.

While many great and talented artists have contributed to the fundamental quality of the work we do, the one who is perhaps most attributable is Rembrandt Van Rijn. Rembrandt is the most well-known of the classical Dutch painters. He was born in 1606, in a town southwest of Amsterdam. In 1625, he opened a studio, and began his soulful study of the drama of human experience through painting. He paid particular attention to the faces and eyes of his subjects, because these are the places where the immediacies of revelation are experienced. His keen focus on the shape and details of the bust — shoulders, head and neck — formed the basis for a style that would stay with him his entire career.

Start with the Key

One of the primary challenges faced by Rembrandt, and others in 15th century Europe, was the rendering of three dimensional subjects on a two dimensional canvas and the quality of the image in terms of its realism. In Rembrandt’s day, there were few ways to illuminate your subject.  One could paint outside where the lighting was most abundant, but weather was a factor, or in a studio that needed adequate window light or suitable artificial ambiance. Tonal range and color quality indicate the majority of Rembrandt’s subjects were painted inside under oil lamps or candle light.  Notice the warm quality to Figures 1 through 4. 

The shape of the face is fully formed when careful placement of the primary light source is directed toward the subject. In doing so, we create what we call a “key” light.  Over his career, Rembrandt made a series of self-portraits in an effort to understand this relationship. Careful study of the changes taking place in his own likeness revealed how lighting played a central part in defining the texture and character of his subjects.

The key light is the most important light in a three-point lighting scenario. Without it, our subject would not have adequate illumination to establish basic shape, volume, color or texture of skin and clothes. Placement of the key light can have demonstrative effects on the narrowness or fullness of our appearance. A position perpendicular to our frame (side-light) renders a thinner quality to the face. Consider figures 1 and 3.

Man in a Gorget and Plumed Cap, 1631 - Self-Portrait at the Age of 28, 1634
Man in a Gorget and Plumed Cap, 1631 – Self-Portrait at the Age of 28, 1634

If we close down the angle of the key light, and bring it around more to the front of the subject — closer to the camera lens — the result is a flatter visage with fewer shadows to define any surface features. Note the rounder effects of the more frontal illumination from figures 2 and 4. 

Man in a Gorget and Plumed Cap, 1631  -  Self-Portrait at the Age of 34, 1640
Man in a Gorget and Plumed Cap, 1631 – Self-Portrait at the Age of 34, 1640

Laugh Lines and Golden Triangles

In the majority of cases, when the perfect angle of reflection from Rembrandt’s key light was achieved, a small patch of triangular highlight would appear under the subject’s eye, situated opposite from the light source. Note figures 1 and 4. This byproduct is known as the “Golden Triangle.” Rembrandt understood  that, if he could observe the Golden Triangle from his point of view, the key light was providing the most flattering and dramatic shape to his subject, effectively framing the expression while defining the aspects of the nose and cheek structures. Of course, all results are subjective, but, if we are attempting Rembrandt style lighting, witnessing the Golden Triangle is one indication we have succeeded.

The “Golden Triangle.”
The “Golden Triangle.”

While the brim of the hat in each of these examples is blocking an abundance of illumination near the top of the forehead, it is the high placement of the key light that is pronouncing the features of the face itself.  Cheek bones, laugh lines, full lips, protruding eyebrows, a bulbous nose and chin features are all effected by the height of the key light and its proximity from the side versus the front of the subject. The initial position for our key light is 45 degrees off axis from the camera, with respect to the subject, and slightly above eye level. From that starting point, we move it around to suit the subject we are working with. 

3 point lighting diagram showing key, fill and back lights
3 point lighting diagram showing key, fill and back lights
Examples of Maliik - Rembrandt with soft fill, Rembrandt with edge, Full frontal key light and soft fill
Examples of Maliik – Rembrandt with soft fill, Rembrandt with edge, Full frontal key light and soft fill

Chiaroscuro: Highlight and Shadow

Once we have achieved the desired Key quality, and our subject is adequately shaped and illuminated, we must decide on a level of overall contrast for the rendering. Chiaroscuro is a term, from the Renaissance, that implies the level of highlight versus shadow that we allow in our lighting. The more contrast we create when lighting our subjects, the more “mood” can be evoked.  Images with a high degree of shadow are viewed as mysterious or negative in connotation.  Conversely, less contrast employed in our lighting can imply openness, love or awareness. 

Notice the level of exposure on the face of the “Prophetess Anna,” from 1631. In the artist’s frame, an old woman reads a manuscript with the light from her key streaming in from over her shoulder (fig. 5).

An old woman reads a manuscript with the light from her key streaming in from over her shoulder.
An old woman reads a manuscript with the light from her key streaming in from over her shoulder.

Take note of the degree to which we see detail in her face. Even though she is turned away from her light source, her demeanor is fully realized as the light bounces off the Bible and onto her face.  This quality of indirect illumination is referred to as “fill,” and it can be achieved quite easily by bouncing light onto the subject or by using a directed secondary source of light. We call that additional source a “fill” light, because it is “filling in” the shadows and lowering the overall contrast in the scene. Typically, fill lights are positioned complementary or opposite their key source with respect to camera placement.

The extent to which we employ a fill light, is dictated by personal taste or by the subtle clues laid out in our script. If the unknown is inferred or the suggestion of death, evil or sadness is required, we may use a small degree of fill. Or, none at all, as in figure 2.

The more we illuminate the scene, the more positive the implications are for our characters. Note the non-confrontational aspect of the self-portrait in figure 4? As stated earlier, fill light can be introduced as indirect or reflected light, as would be collected off bright costumes. Fill light can also be bounced off surfaces, like tables, counters and other set pieces, or with white cardstock called, “Show Cards” or “B-Boards.”  They are generally purchased from art supply stores or lighting rental houses. They can also be made from styrofoam board, like the construction materials used to insulate homes, and can be obtained from your local home improvement store.  Light that is bounced off colored materials or surfaces will retain the actual color of those surfaces.  Therefore, when buying foam board or card stock, it is necessary to choose material that is a neutral white color. 

Managing Separation

The final characteristic that epitomizes classic Rembrandt style lighting, is the way in which we achieve separation of our subject from their background.  Subjects illuminated in non-descript space can bleed details into their backgrounds, if we do not manage the separation. To aid in this, we must apply an additional source of light to details around the subject.  How we choose to do this can also affect the overall mood.

Consider, for a moment, the implications of each of the images shown. In figure 6, the “Man with the Golden Helmet” is either receding into shadow or emerging from it. By the look of imposing tension on his face, the mood could be interpreted as simmering in deep thought, regret or tension. Details in the man’s garments are blending with the background and returning our gaze to his face.

The Man with the Golden Helmet, 1650
The Man with the Golden Helmet, 1650

The deliberate choice to obscure certain details is a device to manage the emotion of the shot. Take care to notice the slightest of separation over the left shoulder of the helmeted man. It is just enough to create a sense of space, without confusing the mood.

On the other hand, figure 7 offers a completely different connotation.  Despite the fact that the subject looks as deeply introspective as the figure in the previous frame, the overall tone is less foreboding. The haloed separation from the wall is suggesting a more inspirational tone in the image. The themes of redemption, revelation and thoughtfulness are translated as a result of the complete recognition of the character. 

Head of a Bearded Man, 1630
Head of a Bearded Man, 1630

The instrument we use to accomplish this look is called the “background” light.  It is the third and final element in the Rembrandt style of artful illumination. It is generally positioned above and behind the subject and directed to details of the set that line up in the back ground. By creating brighter values behind the subject, we isolate values in the foreground and make them easier for our eye to locate. Variations in color between background and foreground can also create a sense of separation by the degree in which the hues oppose each other. For instance, warmer values, for objects in the foreground, can be mixed with cooler (bluer) backgrounds for interior scenes.

The Edge Light

In modern times, with the advent of movies and television, the background light would evolve into a directed source of illumination. Rather than lighting the environment behind a subject, the light was focused squarely on the back of the subjects head and shoulders. From the perspective of the camera, a bright and shimmering “edge” light was created.

Due to the rudimentary nature of black and white television, a background light would sometimes be inadequate. However, when combined with a harder and more intense light from behind, the profile of a subject is more clearly established against their background on a smaller screen. What began as a mechanism to compensate for a crude electronic viewing experience has emerged years later as an element that helps define our contemporary aesthetic.

Intensity, Shape, Color

In summary, we have looked at the techniques employed by Rembrandt to lend a quality of three dimensionality to a painted portrait. The overall intensity, shape and color of the subject being lit are established with three sources of illumination. The key light creates shape and overall brightness. The fill light controls the amount of contrast and the level of detail in the shadows, created by the key light. A background or edge light is then employed to provide separation of the subject’s profile from details in the environment or set.

The following photos exhibit variations in shape using a Rembrandt key and edge light in a non-descript “black limbo” environment. Minor, soft fill has been used subjectively. Notice how the addition of the edge light is more or less necessary based on the reflectivity of skin tones. Also, understand how the use of an edge light may be counter intuitive to the mood created by our key.

Rembrandt key and edge light in a non-descript “black limbo” environment. Billie Burke, Ingrid Bergman and James Stewart.
Rembrandt key and edge light in a non-descript “black limbo” environment. Billie Burke, Ingrid Bergman and James Stewart.

What is interesting to consider, when studying Rembrandt’s lighting style, is the notion that all these affirmations of the human form were conceived through direct observation and painstaking attention to details.  At no time did he benefit from a modern capture device. His understanding of dimensional rendering, by the application of direct or indirect light and angle of incidence, are not only accurate, but still in use today. His style is the benchmark from which all aspiring photographers, cinematographers and gaffers begin expressing their own styles and preferences. 

Rembrandt Van Rijn died in October, 1669, but his legacy lives on each time creative image makers take to the set. The tools have changed over the centuries, but the same goals and level of craftsmanship are required. Our expectations as creatives, and our appreciation as viewers, are the product of reasoned standards set forth 350 years ago.

Michael Walsh, is a seasoned Hollywood lighting technician with experience on 74 feature films and over four hundred episodes of television.  

Michael Walsh
Michael Walsh
Michael is a retired gaffer with over 26 years of experience in the film industry, working on 74 feature films and over 400 episodes of TV.

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