Whether you are a professional change practitioner, or an individual attempting to more successfully navigate the changes in your life, it is important to understand both the science and the art of change. Rembrandt offers us a valuable role model in this regard. Known as one of the best artists ever, he was a master of his craft.
At the age of fourteen, Rembrandt van Rijn (Rembrandt of the Rhine) entered The University of Leiden. Nine months later he left the university to apprentice with a master painter, Jacob Isaacsz Van Swanenburgh. In his book How Rembrandt Reveals Your Beautiful Imperfect Self, Roger Housden writes that in the 1620’s, “(an artist’s) standing, despite the general popularity of painting, was not high. In general, he was still considered more of a master craftsman than someone with a unique artistic talent.”
Swanenburgh was no great artist, but he would have taught Rembrandt to prepare a canvas and grind colors; he would have shown him the elementary principles of drawing, perspective, and anatomy. Pigments were ground with linseed oil on a large, flat stone—the grindstone—to make the paint. Rembrandt would have made white paint from white lead and chalk, blue from ground glass, and lacquers from insects or plants.
Rembrandt began his formal education by learning the science of his craft.
By the age of nineteen, with two apprenticeships behind him, Rembrandt set up his own studio, which he shared with another painter. Here he began to experiment, including his early work in etching, an artistic technique that was just beginning to emerge. For more than forty years, Rembrandt continued to seek mastery of his craft, learning—and often defining—the science of it as he developed in his artistry.
Rembrandt didn’t paint by numbers.
This brief introduction to Rembrandt provides several lessons for those of us who practice the craft of change execution. First, just as Rembrandt learned about canvas and colors, perspective and anatomy, we need a firm grounding in our science. The science of change is about applying a uniform set of things (patterns, risk, tools, etc.) in a standard way, each intended to consistently accomplish a very narrow range of outcomes. It involves staying within defined boundaries, preserving prescribed meaning, and leveraging known solutions. The benefit of the science of change is that it allows for “stability.” When addressing challenges that are highly complex, volatile, and ambiguous, it is important to have access to means you can trust to create similar results most of the time. Applying the science of change also greatly simplifies the execution of less difficult changes.
Rembrandt became a master of his science. This provided him with a firm foundation, and one that he continued to develop and refine over his lifetime. However, it wasn’t this mastery alone that led to the renown he claims today. Rembrandt also became a master artist. He experimented, creating self-portraits that reflected anger, worry, and laughter. “He was able to see the realities of the three-dimensional world, and was true to what he saw; but he could also see what the ordinary eye cannot: the spirit, the life of a person, or indeed of a landscape. With one eye, Rembrandt saw every physical detail; with the other, he saw with the eye of imagination.” Rembrandt was a student of light and shadow—what is visible, and what is not. Wherever he went, he was observing, making sketches, capturing and expressing the visible and the invisible. It is these things that imbue his work with life, that raise his art from being technically superior to the level of masterpieces.
Likewise, we can be skilled technicians, masters of our science. As such, we may be successful in the implementation of many changes. However, strong—even masterful—technical ability is not enough to ensure success. We, too, need to be artists. Just as Rembrandt, we need to study human mindsets and behaviors. We need to keep one eye on “the realities of the three dimensional world,” and one on the spirit that is driving those realities. We need to be students of the light and the dark, the visible and the invisible. The art of change is about applying “creativity and intuitive judgment” to unique circumstances where multiple scenarios of success are likely to surface. It involves exploring new horizons, generating meaning in the moment, and fostering innovative responses. Science informs us, while art shapes our viewpoint. Both aspects are essential to properly address today’s level of transformational challenge. The science is needed to establish a steady platform from which we can operate—providing trustworthy understanding, skill, tools, and so forth to select and deploy. The art is necessary so the items we select can be tailored (in substance and/or presentation) to meet the particular demands of each contingency.
While Rembrandt proudly claimed his space in the history of art, it is also clear that he was a student of those who came before him. He was a collector of art, and art books. You can see his homage to past masters in the dress and poses of many of his self-portraits. In practicing our craft, we too, need to be mindful of those who have come before us, of the science—and the art—that they have left for us, and from which we can learn.
Rembrandt’s struggles are legend. Three of his five children died in infancy, and a fourth died in his twenties. Rembrandt lost two wives. He suffered bankruptcy, losing his home and virtually all of his possessions. He suffered from melancholy, what we would now term depression. Yet through all of this, he prevailed. Through all of this, he grew in his science and art of his craft. His passion for making art never seemed to waiver. “All through his life, he was ‘making himself’ through the work of his art. Not deliberately, not self-consciously; but through a continual and dedicated working over and over of the same furrow he was given to plow, the furrow of art. Just so, we ‘make ourselves’ with our own form of dedication to a lifelong task, a relationship, or faith.” Hopefully, none of us will experience the suffering of Rembrandt as we seek to “make ourselves” as change practitioners. Nonetheless, we need to draw from his lesson of passion, commitment and relentless pursuit to the work if we are going to move toward mastery of our craft.
The execution of change is not a casual craft. Rembrandt didn’t paint by numbers and if we are to truly practice our craft, we cannot either. We cannot ensure success by relying on unconscious competence; nor will success be routinely achieved by blindly applying a fixed change methodology, no matter how rigorous it is. If we are to consistently succeed, whether with organizational change or with the changes in our own lives, we require a balance of the science and art of change.
What are your thoughts on the science, and the art, of successfully navigating change? Add your comments below.
 How Rembrandt Reveals Your Beautiful, Imperfect Self: Life Lessons from the Master. Roger Housden; Random House, 2005; page 17.
 Ibid, pp. 33-34.
 Ibid, p. 156.