Seeing a Rembrandt up close is nothing like the experience I thought it would be.

So, imagine this: you’ve spent years flipping through art books, soaking up every detail of Rembrandt’s paintings. You’ve marveled at the subtlety of his brushwork, admired his mastery of light, but something’s missing. It’s like eating something that sounds really appealing but turns out to be a bit ‘Meh.’  That was my experience of seeing Rembrandt’s work printed in books. My impression was of work that was dark and impenetrable.  As a result, I was ambivalent about seeing the originals.  But a trip to Amsterdam changed all of that.

Until I stepped into the Rijks Museum and came face to face with Rembrandt’s originals I hadn’t realised what I had been missing.

Walking into that museum, I was impressed by the majesty of the building, and the space afforded each of the old masters’ paintings in the gallery. And then there they were, hanging on the walls like old friends I’d never met in person. “The Night Watch” has the most indescribable presence—it’s massive, vibrant, and just commands your attention. No book could capture the sheer presence of that painting. Its position at the end of the gallery draws you in and as you walk towards it, viewing other paintings along the way, you just know that something magnificent is waiting for you.

Along the way, I was entranced by some of Rembrandt’s self-portraits. Small details draw you closer –  like the scratching into the paint to create the texture of his curls in his self portrait as a young man painted in 1628. In his self-portrait as the Apostle Paul (1661), he delicately leads the viewer’s eye up the painting from the lighter page of a book, to a faintly illuminated section on the front of his jacket, and finally light on his head covering.

Rembrandt paints his most famous painting

The star of the show is clearly the monumental painting The Night Watch, painted in 1642.  Sadly this painting has had to be put into a huge glass box to protect it from damage.  It has twice been attacked with a knife, first in 1911, and then again in 1976. In 1990, the surface was sprayed with acid. Now, no-one can get to this priceless piece of history. It’s hard to describe the experience of standing in front of this painting. It tells a dramatic story of light and dark, and characters in action.

There’s something about seeing a Rembrandt up close that has greater impact. You notice the tiny details, the brushstrokes, the texture of the canvas—it’s all there, telling a story of an artist’s life-long dedication to his art.

But it’s not just about the art itself. Being in the museum adds to the experience. Surrounded by paintings by other great artists puts Rembrandt’s work in context. You start to appreciate the history.  It’s like stepping into a time machine and getting a glimpse of what life was like when Rembrandt was painting these masterpieces.

Books are great for getting a taste, but nothing beats the real thing. You can feel the artist’s energy, see the mistakes, and understand their process in a whole new way. It’s like going from watching a concert on TV to being front row at the live show—it’s more intense. It’s different.

I would encourage everyone (artists and non-artists) to make a point of going to see artworks up close. Whether it’s work by local artists, or some of the internationally celebrated great masters  – it will be more than just a viewing. It will be an experience.