With a little help from Rembrandt

Artist brushes up on her technique by painstakingly copying a portrait by the old master


When business is brisk, Hai-ou Hou, owner of Gallery International on North Charles Street, usually can be found chatting with visitors in the front rooms of her white-cube gallery or talking long-distance with her far-flung network of artists.

But when things slow a bit, as they often do in August, Hai-ou (pronounced "HI-oh"; she doesn't use her Chinese surname) is likely to retreat into the cluttered space behind her gallery, where stocks of paints, canvas and easels await.

"Then, I paint," she says. "Even though it's not always easy wearing two hats, I'm more myself in my studio than when I go out front and become a businessperson. When you've set your heart on a painting, it can be hard coming out again and talking to customers."

Painting is Hai-ou's passion, and since March she's had her heart set on one in particular: Rembrandt's magnificent Portrait of a Lady With an Ostrich-Feather Fan. The work, painted about 1660, depicts a fashionable woman adorned with jewels and wearing a dark cloak with white collar and cuffs. In one hand, she holds a white ostrich feather. The painting hangs in the National Gallery of Art in Washington.

Because Hai-ou is a dealer of contemporary conceptual art, paintings by Rembrandt are outside her regular line of business.

But as a painter and portraitist in her own right, she's fascinated by the 17th-century Dutch master's fabulous technique - so much so that she's spent scores of hours since last winter painstakingly copying Rembrandt's Lady at the National Gallery in a program that allows artists to reproduce the museum's masterpieces from life, so to speak.

Each week, Hai-ou sets up her easel in the gallery where Lady is displayed, then spends hours meticulously re-creating the famous image, brushstroke by brushstroke. It's almost like painting a person, except it's a portrait of a painting.

It's also a way of picking up centuries-old craft skills that weren't taught in Hai-ou's native China when she was a student at Beijing's Central Institute of Fine Art and Design, or in the graduate program at Towson University, where she earned a master of fine arts degree in 2000. Many art schools no longer require students to learn traditional techniques.

Yet in the past, it was common for artists to copy works by famous masters as a way of perfecting their craft. Rembrandt copied the Venetian master Titian, for example, and Titian copied his mentor, Giorgione.

Copying forces the artist to scrutinize the structure of a painting - how the colors are built up, how the transitions from light to dark are managed, how the figures are placed - in far greater detail than that required of the casual viewer.

"We have a lot of copyists who are teachers themselves and who are going to teach the techniques they learn in their studios," says Holly Garner-Ponce, manager of the copyist program at the National Gallery. "Our program has been around since the gallery opened in 1941, and usually we have 20 to 22 regulars who come in once a week."

Though many museums welcome copyists - both the Baltimore Museum of Art and the Walters Art Gallery have allowed artists in to copy their treasures - most have strict guidelines for making reproductions.

At the National Gallery, for example, every copy must be at least 2 inches larger or smaller in size to distinguish it from the original, Garner-Ponce says. In addition, no copy can exceed 40 inches, and if a painting includes the artist's signature, it must be signed and dated by the copyist as well.

"We provide the easel, stool and dropcloth for them to use, and they supply their own paints, canvas and brushes," Garner-Ponce says, adding that applicants must also undergo a background check and submit a statement of intent, two examples of their work and four letters of recommendation.

After she was accepted into the program, Hai-ou longed to immerse herself in Rembrandt's art. So she enrolled in a summer class at Baltimore's Schuler School of Fine Arts, which specializes in teaching the old masters' methods.

"I went there to learn the materials and how to use them," Hai-ou recalls. "When I started, I didn't know any of the techniques - how to glaze, mix colors or cook the special medium Rembrandt used." At the Schuler School, Hai-ou learned the traditional step-by-step process of making a painting.

"First, you do the underpainting, then you sketch in the figure with burnt umber," she says. "Next, you lay in the dark colors very thinly, then follow with brighter colors on top that are thicker, what we call impasto. Eventually, you come back to put glazes over the painting, then you impasto the bright areas again and repeat the process as many times as you need to until you get it right."

One of the most difficult aspects of copying a Rembrandt, Hai-ou found, was getting the skin tones right.

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