Looking for contrast
When you think of Vincent van Gogh, you think of bright, intense colours. Yet his palette wasn’t always so vivid. If we compare Vincent’s first still lifes with his later masterpieces, we see a long quest, in which his colours changed from dark to bright.
Colour expresses something in itself. One can’t do without it; one must make use of it. What looks beautiful, really beautiful — is also right.
Vincent took painting lessons with the artist Anton Mauve in The Hague. Mauve worked mainly in grey and blue tones. Most Dutch artists painted ‘tonally’ at this time. This was the kind of work Vincent saw around him, so that’s how he began to paint too.
Tonal painting is a technique based on light and dark variations of a single colour. Van Gogh used different shades of blue-green in this simple still life of a yarn-winder. A lighter tone of the same colour accentuates the places on which the light falls.
When Van Gogh began his lessons with Mauve, he immediately got to paint still lifes in oil, enabling him to develop his feeling for colour. Vincent was happy, because up to now he had mostly produced drawings – the usual approach for a trainee artist.
Vincent wanted to know more about how colours work. He studied lots of books on colour theory, from which he learned that complementary colours – red and green, yellow and purple, blue and orange – intensify one another.
Vincent now understood the theoretical principles behind these colour pairs. But the illustrations in his textbooks were mostly in black and white: how was he supposed to apply the principles in practice?
The primary colours are laid out in Charles Blanc’s colour wheel, with their combinations in between. Complementary colours are shown on opposite sides. When used alongside each other, each complementary colour is optically intensified.
Vincent read an article describing the use of colour by the French artist Eugène Delacroix (1798–1863) – one of the most famous painters of the Romantic movement. Delacroix used contrasting colours to heighten the dramatic effect and to evoke a mood or emotion. The latter in particular appealed to Van Gogh.
Vincent also pored over reproductions of Delacroix’s paintings, including his celebrated Barque of Dante. But the prints were in black and white so the colour effects weren’t clear.
And if you find some book or other on colour questions that is good, do be sure to send it to me.
Vincent started to use complementary colours, but he continued to mix them, resulting in ‘muddy tones’. At first sight, his work still shows the same natural grey and brown shades as his Dutch counterparts.
Vincent largely used the complementary colours red and green for his Head of a Woman. Rather than laying them down side by side, however, pure and more or less unblended, he mixed them, with the result that the colour contrast is not as powerful.
This painting was a carefully thought-out exercise in colour for Vincent. He gave the heads ‘something like the colour of a really dusty potato, unpeeled of course.’ By using the same tones for the peasants as for the potatoes, he intended to convey the reality of their harsh rural existence.
Having moved to Paris, Vincent went to see a ceiling mural by Eugène Delacroix in the Louvre. It was a revelation: now he knew how bright colours could work together.
Modern art in Paris encouraged Vincent to adopt a lighter, brighter and looser painting style, like that of the Impressionists. He also fell under the spell of the ‘Pointillists’ (originally a term of abuse) who painted with colourful dots.
Garden with Courting Couples: Square Saint-Pierre is one of Vincent’s most ‘Pointillist’ paintings. It was the first work he showed in Paris. He applied the new technique in his own way, alternating dots with elongated dabs. After a while, Vincent probably found precise stippling too rigid and time-consuming.
Vincent saw Georges Seurat’s work at an exhibition in 1886, the year in which Seurat’s almost scientific technique made its breakthrough. This study of the Seine was done a little earlier, and is not yet so strict. Seurat laid unmixed colours alongside one another in loose stipples. Viewed from a modest distance, the dots form a unified whole.
Vincent also painted on the banks of the Seine. He applied the Pointillist technique in his own way: elongated dabs for the water, small dots for trees and bushes, and larger strokes for the sky.
Delacroix created this ceiling painting for the Louvre. Van Gogh was impressed by its colour contrasts, which taught him how to apply colour in a modern way.
And when I painted landscape in Asnières this summer I saw more colour in it than before.
Vincent produced one colour study after another. Which colour combinations create the most powerful effect? How many variations are there of a single colour? Colour had now become an obsession for him.
He used coloured wool to test different combinations before trying them out with his expensive paints. He kept his little balls of wool in this box.
Vincent was an avid collector of Japanese prints. They offered a fresh take on composition, perspective and colour, and the prints also showed him how to work with large patches of colour.
Rather than using contrasting colours, Van Gogh opted in this painting for a ‘tonal’ approach, working almost exclusively with shades of yellow, He used his little balls of wool to test the colour combinations.
Paris saw him transform into a modern artist. Vincent himself clearly sensed this metamorphosis, which is why he chose to depict himself as a painter using bright, intense colours. He proudly signed the self-portrait in orange-red.
Van Gogh applied the paint in his 'Self-Portrait as a Painter' in juxtaposed, unmixed stripes. What looks like ginger hair from a distance consists up close of complementary colours, such as green and red.
We know from technical analysis that the colours on this palette are precisely the same ones that Vincent used to paint his self-portrait.
Once the paint was dry, Vincent signed the canvas in orange-red paint – the same tint he had used for the beard. The colour contrasts nicely with his blue jacket.
…that there are colours that make each other shine, that make a couple, complete each other like man and wife.
Vincent became known for his intense colour contrasts. He hoped his colourful work would contribute to the modernization of art. After Vincent left Paris, he took his intense colour contrasts even further. It was now that he created many of the paintings for which he became so famous. Van Gogh predicted in 1888 that ‘… the painter of the future is a colourist such as there hasn’t been before.’
He didn’t know that he himself would turn out to be that painter.
Van Gogh described this floral still life as ‘an effect of terribly disparate complementaries that reinforce each other by their opposition.’
Vincent painted this sower in unusually intense, ‘unnatural’ colours. The striking composition was probably inspired by examples from Japanese printmaking.