We were at an exhibition of “Rembrandt’s later works.”
When the other kids in my boarding school made me draw pastel portraits of them, I had to be looking desperately for whatever it was that made the “likeness.” But what I was really noticing and wanting to capture were all kinds of other physical themes. A small plane here, a lens-shape here, a scooped shiny cup beside the eye, a gradient of color, a slanting correspondence between two widely spaced features, a rope-like form caused by stress across several features, a parallelism…
The more I worked, the more I was forced by panic to rescue the likeness and look for what had gone wrong about it. But also the more I noticed the shapes and rhythms that actually interested me, and tried to record them, the more of them I saw, so that they interrupted and compounded and eventually obscured each other.
What you desire to do is to be able to see each of these forms, discretely, and record it clearly with a single stroke or dab or slash of paint, and then lay alongside or across it the next.
And when I looked at Rembrandt paintings, I discovered that this was what he, alone, did. With a brush loaded with paint of just the right intensity, so that he did not have to try it in place and find it wrong and work over it again, he laid on, say, a little hammock-like sag of flesh in the cheek; and then he went on; and in the finished painting each of these individual forms, these acts of paint, has not become obscured by the hundreds of others, but is there for us to see. That is the way in which Rembrandt is supreme among painters.