Recreating Rembrandt: How an elevated print of his artwork is giving us insights into the genius mind behind it

3 min.
Close upon the face of Rembrandt’s Portrait of an Elderly Man (Copyright: Mauritshuis collection, The Hague).

In the 350 years since Rembrandt’s death, his life has lost none of its mystery and his work none of its allure. Together they create a story and legacy that intrigues and endures.

An old man sits, unsettled, on a chair. His expression seems lost in his own thoughts, his eyes distracted, framed in a bundle of copious white hair, moustache and beard. He’s not posing; his hat looks slightly displaced, his collar and coat loosened and open. His portrayer seems to have caught him off-guard, in a moment of distraction.

Hundreds of years later, the story behind Rembrandt’s ‘Portrait of an Elderly Man’ remains a mystery. We don’t know who this person is, why he’s looking unsettled and what’s lying in front of him, calling his attention away from us.

But if you look very closely, you’ll see there’s a lot more to it and to Rembrandt’s hand than initially meets the eye. The irregular strokes giving shape to his face. The variations of pinks, yellows and oranges that colour his flustered cheeks. Even his pitch-black vest conceals a part of the painter’s vision that might not be obvious without close-up inspection.

A Madrid-based organisation called Factum Foundation decided to zoom in on this iconic painting and embark on a flagship initiative to unlock – however possible – some of the mysteries that our Elderly Man is hiding.

Rembrandt applied his paint as if he was sculpting it.”

In collaboration with Canon Production Printing, they undertook the not insignificant challenge of creating an exact 3D reproduction of this iconic painting as part of the ‘Rembrandt and the Golden Age’ celebrations in the Netherlands.

Here’s the fascinating story of their collaboration.

Rembrandt’s Portrait of an Elderly Man (Copyright: Mauritshuis collection, The Hague).

Rembrandt’s Portrait of an Elderly Man (Copyright: Mauritshuis collection, The Hague).

The Lucida 3D Scanner digitising the surface of the painting (Copyright: The Factum Foundation)

The Lucida 3D Scanner digitising the surface of the painting (Copyright: The Factum Foundation)

Layer after layer, brushstroke after brushstroke

Rare for an artist, Rembrandt enjoyed vast success in his lifetime, but was counterbalanced with financial ruin in his final years and he died a pauper. Experts claims that it’s in these most turbulent times that he created his finest work. To this day, historians look at these pieces in search for insights into the final years of his life, about which little is known. ‘Portrait of an Elderly Man’, painted two years before his death in 1667, inserts itself right in this category. It’s a rather unusual portrait in that the subject looks slightly undone and the paint is applied in corresponding loose style.

That, says Charlotte Rulkens, curator at the painting’s permanent home, the Mauritshuis museum, was a first challenge for the Factum team, tasked with capturing both the texture and the colour of the painting.

“Rembrandt applied his paint as if he was sculpting it,” she says, mentioning that the thickness of his paint varies tremendously throughout the piece.

“His jacket is painted so thinly and loosely that the underlying paint layer remains visible in places. The cuffs consist of only a few broad brushstrokes and the cords of the collar were painted in one flowing movement. With the back of his brush, he scratched in the paint of the hat, to make the suggestion of hair.”

It was a particularly complex task to achieve. So, the Factum Team turned to Canon Production Printing to make sure that no detail be left behind.

The technology in a nutshell

First came the canvas, which was recorded using Factum’s non-contact Lucida 3D Scanner and turned into a textured surface for the colour data to be printed on. The scanner was designed and built in collaboration with the artist and engineer Manuel Franquelo and has already scanned over 180 paintings of historical significance around the world.

Having taken around four hours to record the 82 x 68cm Rembrandt canvas, the scan then generates 3D information on the artwork in many and various formats. Then it combines the information with a colour recording, which is obtained through hundreds of high-resolution photos taken from a single point. Together these form a single image file.

A man holds a Canon camera with a professional lens and takes a photo.

Gabriel Scarpa of Factum Foundation takes a colour recording of the painting (Copyright: Factum Foundation)

As the elevation is captured via 3D scanning, it matches the original perfectly.”

That final file was used to output a perfect replica of ‘Portrait of an Elderly Man’, fitted with the exact same colours, brushstrokes and nuances as its original version. This was thanks to Canon Production Printing’s elevated printing technology, which creates the textured surface of the replica by ‘stacking’ multiple layers of 2 to 40μm thickness ink on top of each other with extremely high accuracy.

Canon Production Printing’s elevated printing technology creates a textured surface of a replica of Rembrandt’s Portrait of an Elderly Man by ‘stacking’ multiple layers of 2 to 40μm thickness ink on top of each other.

Copyright: Factum Foundation

The end result is remarkable. True to the colour and texture of Rembrandt’s original, yet safe to touch.

It is perhaps appropriate – given that Rembrandt himself placed the human experience at the centre of his works – that The Mauritshuis ended up using the replica for educational purposes.

It did so as part of its ‘Hello Rembrandt!’ exhibition, where families were be able to find out more about the master and his work through interactive presentations, games and activities – giving our beloved Elderly Man the attention and spotlight it’s always deserved.

Our elevated print technology didn’t stop at Rembrandt. Explore the latest, iconic painting it has helped to bring to life – as well as the software that made it happen.

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