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The effect of colour

Vincent van Gogh is always associated with colour due to his bright and vivid French paintings. But his early paintings from the Netherlands on the other hand are never seen as colourful.  This, however, is not the case;  colour is an essential and constant element in Van Gogh’s entire oeuvre.  Even if the dark paintings from Nuenen (Holland) and the luminous works from France seem to be miles apart from each other, they are the result of the same colour theory.  

Vincent van Gogh, Head of a woman, 1885

Vincent van Gogh, Head of a woman, 1885

Vincent van Gogh, Zelfportret met strohoed, 1887. De helderheid van het zelfportret bereikte Van Gogh met dezelfde primaire kleuren als voorheen, maar met een beter begrip van de kleurtheorie.

Vincent van Gogh, Selfportrait with straw hat, 1887

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Vincent van Gogh was confronted with the colour theories of Charles Blanc in 1884.This book was one of the most important sources of inspiration for Van Gogh’s use of colour. Blanc gave a clear overview of the theory in which the contemporary colours played a key role. These are colours positioned opposite of each other on the colour circle and which are enforced when placed next to each other (red-green, blue-orange, purple-yellow). Van Gogh started experimenting with these contrasts in Nuenen. 

Colour circle of Charles Blanc

Blanc’s colour circle

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Van Gogh greatly admired Delacroix’s use of colour, which he had read about in Blanc. He knew that colour gradations are relative, so that a dark colour could seem light if the surroundings colours would be darker. This principle is correct for a bright use of colour as that of Delacroix.  But Van Gogh applied it on the temperate colours used by the Hague School painters.  

Eugène Delacroix, The good Samaritan, 1849

Eugène Delacroix, The good Samaritan, 1849

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The understanding that light gradations are always relative depending on their surroundings. This theory inspired Van Gogh during his whole Nuenen period and he demonstrated this principle in a letter sketch of a painting of a weaver.  

He has applied two dots in the margin, which both represent the white colour of the skein in the painting. However, the tonal effect on the eye is different: the grey dot expresses the colour white in the light, while the other dot represents the same colour influenced by the surrounding shadow – and hence shows a lot darker.

The understanding that colour effects are always relative and dependant on their surroundings inspired Van Gogh throughout his Nuenen period. Van Gogh demonstrated the principle in this sketch. He has applied two dots in the margin, which both represent the white colour of the skein in the study.

Sketch after a painting, in a letter to Theo van Gogh, mid June 1884

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He didn’t realise that within this tonal palette certain colours, like yellow and orange, if applied (mixed) with dark tones lose their power. If Van Gogh could have seen Delacroix’s work in colour reproduction or even for real, he would have realised that he was on the wrong track!

 

One Response to “The effect of colour”

  1. Paul says:

    I’ve always liked early van Gogh. It has been a while since I’ve last seen some–I think it was at Boijmans? But like his later, much brighter works, van Gogh’s early paintings were also rough. I suppose this might have just been an influence of the Hague school though.