Rembrandt, the Drawing Club and Me

Jane Hardy discovers a deeper understanding of the Dutch artist's final work with like-minded learners at the Ulster Museum

On a cold morning which looks like winter, we pit ourselves against Rembrandt - and lose, naturally. But for a group of amateur artists attending the Ulster Museum's Saturday drawing club the sight of the great seventeenth century Dutch artist's 'Self-Portrait at 63', his last, is more than inspiring.

The class, devised three years ago by tutor and freelance artist John Scovell to link art practice and the Museum's collection (including pieces on loan like the Rembrandt), begins with a long look at the famous painting.

During his life, Rembrandt van Rijn used himself as a model from the 1620s, when he portrayed himself as a young man with and without artist's hats but always a lot of hair, nearly 100 times. That's a lot of looking in the mirror.

Quite a few commentators have noted the modernity of Rembrandt's series of paintings charting his own physical evolution, from fresh-faced youth to prosperous middle-aged man and finally the older, more reflective figure we saw. What makes him special is perhaps the honesty of these self-portraits. There is an almost contemporary style here.

Risking cultural relativism, if you look at the way this painting puts the face centre stage, illuminating it by contrast with the shadowy body and background, you get a sense of the style in which rock stars and celebrities are often photographed by snappers from Bailey to Rankin.

Funnily enough, given his Old Master status today, Rembrandt's art was controversial in its time. Apparently at the start of 1670 the artist Abraham Brueghel wrote a letter to the Sicilian collector Antonio Ruffo. Brueghel acted as Ruffo’s agent in Rome and had been urging his patron to buy Italian pictures, but Ruffo had other ideas.

He complained to Brueghel that the greatest painters in Italy couldn’t provide him with a half-length portrait equal to those of Rembrandt, who had died a few months earlier. Unfortunately Brueghel answered with barely suppressed contempt. Our reactions are slightly different.

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John Scovell talks us through the brush strokes, the chiaroscuro (or light and shade) and the way in which Rembrandt seemed to have moved on from his contemporaries. We agree that the eyes more or less have it. There is humour in there but seriousness, maybe even sadness too.

We know from his biography that Rembrandt had been through a difficult period, having suffered the loss of his wife Saskia and three of his four children. He ended up living with his son Titus after becoming bankrupt when the stock market crashed. Yet the face remains that of a survivor, still fascinated by the human condition.

We return to the studio to do a terrific exercise involving glueing black, torn strips of paper onto pale ochre coloured sheets to identify where the shadows are. It is absorbing and makes you look anew at the image, now viewed a few inches away via a photocopied black and white version.

Armed with new understanding, we go on to explore the self-portrait in scribble drawings and longer, more considered exercises.

'We try to explore as many different techniques, media and styles as possible in the drawing club so that people can find their own artistic voice' says Scovell, a firm believer in the power of art. 'I think anyone can draw - if you can write, you can draw. The club started over three years ago to support the Museum’s John Luke exhibition and takes its inspiration mainly from the art galleries.'

Even though part of the pleasure of going along to these free art sessions on Saturday morning is rediscovering your inner five-year-old, the concentration and focus involved stimulates adults in a different way.

'It was felt the Museum's Art Discovery Zone was successfully appealing to younger visitors but that some time should be given to the over-18s,' Scovell adds. It has worked, according to Liz Byrne, a middle-aged professional woman whose job is in the charity sector and who regularly attends.

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'It's nourishing,' she says. 'A couple of years ago, I saw a flyer for the class and went along casually. I discovered a lot of other people like me there and found it lovely, relaxing and the closest thing I know to meditation as you're focusing on one thing.'

She became so enthusiastic in fact that going to the Museum at weekends was almost like going on a date. 'I find the class liberating,' she adds. 'When you're at work, concentrating is hard work but this is different - and fun.'

Afterwards, Liz takes her artwork home and puts it in the kitchen. 'Anybody who's in there can comment and we might have a chat. I don't exhibit my drawings but am keeping them so I can look at the progress.'

Around 60 people have enjoyed the art classes to date, with weekly attendance sometimes reaching 24. Caroline Magowan, who works in education, is similarly keen to get along.

'I hadn't done drawing since I was at school but I find the classes enjoyable, and quite therapeutic,' she says. 'You meet people, you improve artistically and coming here has helped me through quite a challenging period in my life.'

As Scovell sums up, the classes are a good way of escaping the pressures of daily life for a couple of hours as well as a bit of an art history tutorial.

'The Rembrandt portrait on show is a fantastic touchstone through which we can look at the art and techniques of portraiture. Rembrandt is not only remembered for his superb paintings but also for his very fine drawings and in the Drawing Club, we have been trying to replicate some of these, with impressive results.'

Rembrandt's Self-Portrait at 63 is on show at the Ulster Museum until March 13. The Drawing Club will run every Saturday morning until Easter, starting at 10.30am. Find out more about how to sign up here.