In Rembrandt’s time the “working up” (opmaken) meant bringing the painting to a finished state, and the prescribed method was to start from the background plane forward. Ideally, areas of the background layer (“reserves”) would be left unpainted where foreground objects were to be placed later, except where doing so would impede the fluid painting or continuity of the background. Van de Wetering points out that painters in the 1600s were pretty much set in this working order, while those of the previous century were not so systematic.
Another general rule, which did carry over from earlier centuries, was to break the picture into color shapes, similar to the way fresco painters worked in giornate, the areas of wet plaster that one could finish in a day. The folds of a blue cloak would, for example, be brought to a finish or close to it, leaving adjacent (and nearer to the foreground) elements for another day’s work. What colors were mixed on a particular day depended on the section of work to be completed next.
Needless to say I have no need for giornate, but I couldn’t follow the literal working up procedure if I wanted to, which must be due to my late–19th-century, Impressionist sensibilities, or something. Van de Wetering writes:
To our modern minds, it seems more natural to imagine the choice of the spot at which the artist works on his picture to be dictated by the totality of the painting being produced. As Cézanne told his friend Joachim Gasquet, “Je mène comprenez un peu, toute ma toile à la fois, d’ensemble” [“You see, I work on my painting as a whole, all at once”]. This is the reason why today’s painter generally works standing up—so that he can repeatedly walk back a few paces to view the work as a whole. Seventeenth-century painters generally sat at their easel.
I often do sit at the easel but it’s usually because the work at hand is so small. I have to accept that I’m a product of my time, or at least of the teaching I received. For now, Cézanne and I don’t seem so far removed. (Of course, chronologically he is nearer to me than Rembrandt so why does that make me want to cringe?)
There is a lot of value in the Dutch master ways—after all, we call them Masters. We may not follow such systematic working processes, but can only benefit if we at least imagine the planes of depth, think in terms of isolated color masses. Think of giornate.