Exercise: The Night Watch


Look carefully at Rembrandt’s famous painting The Night Watch, commissioned by Frans Banning Cocq, the figure in the centre foreground.

Make some notes in your learning log about how the artist uses background, pose, clothes, props and light. What effect does he create? What does the portrait say about Banning Cocq?

Look particularly at the use of light and dark in this huge portrait. How might you create similar effects photographically?

The Night Watch, 1642 – Rembrandt
The Night Watch, 1642 – Rembrandt


  • Background:
    • Murky, brown, indistinct – mass of insignificant ‘extras’
    • Top half of image = lots of negative space above men’s heads
  • Pose:
    • Frans Banning Cocq (FBC) is centrally positioned, prominent and with a robust stance – legs apart and arms outstretched, also slightly taller than those around him – makes him appear important
    • Willem van Ruytenburch (WvR) slightly less prominent, legs also apart but looking at (deferring to) FBC, his superior
    • The other foreground figure with a notable pose is the unnamed man in red to the left, holding a musket, though he is not looking at FBC
    • Interesting that almost all background figures are looking in different directions – is this a comment on FBC’s leadership (or lack of)?
  • Clothes:
    • FBC is dressed mostly in black, which has the effect of partially blending him into the background – it is the red sash that marks him out as important
    • WvR visually stands out more for being in white/cream uniform
    • Musket man on left in red – unclear significance
    • Kneeling woman in cream dress – unclear significance
  • Props:
    • FBC looks like he is holding a musket by the barrel
    • WvR looks like he’s holding a club of staff by the shaft
    • Musket man is prominently holding musket with both hands
    • Drum strangely cropped off to right side
  •  Light:
    • Prominent on FBC and WvR, as though a spotlight or shaft of sunlight had hit them – pool of light visible under feet
    • Lighting implied from left side as seen by shadow of FBC hand falling across WvR uniform
    • Also prominent on kneeling woman just behind musket man – ditto re pool of light
    • Strong contrast of light (chiaroscuro) to draw attention

The sum total of all the above elements is to place primary prominence on FBC (by lighting, stature and pose) and WvR (by lighting and clothing) and secondary prominence on musket man and kneeling woman to the left of FBC.

To recreate this photographically:

  • Sufficient overhead light to provide some clarity on the background figures
  • Spotlight above and to the left on FBC and WvR
  • Less powerful spotlight on the kneeling female figure



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