Imagine: you get up in the morning, look in the mirror and see nothing but a blank canvas. You can add your own eyelashes, a healthy blush and perfectly shaped eyebrows, even freckles if you like. Using a make-up brush you then add the finishing touches in colours to suit your mood. You can reinvent yourself every day. Like children do in a fuzzy felt book, with stick-on moustaches and pre-styled hairdos.
Not having enough (affordable) models, Vincent van Gogh also used to portray himself in various different poses. As an artist in one painting, and a well-dressed middle-class dandy in another, or a serious man-with-pipe. Or as a free-and-easy country lad wearing a straw hat. Funnily enough he did some of the sketches for these portraits on the backs of other paintings. That saved money for new canvases and meant he could keep both sides, as opposed to when he used to paint over an existing work.
This enabled him to maintain a high production rate during his labour-intensive Paris period. Despite their sketchy nature, the portraits were certainly not without merit. After all, the best ideas are conceived on the back of a beer mat… or on the back of a painting.
During his two years spent in Paris (1886-1888) Van Gogh recycled many paintings. At first he painted new pictures on top of existing ones. Later on, he also painted new works on the reverse of earlier canvases , creating “double-sided” paintings.
Ella Hendriks, Senior Conservator at the Van Gogh Museum, closes in to focus on five self-portraits made on the backs of paintings from the Nuenen period.
Bartje. Bruine bonen. Bronze age dolmens and turf huts. TT racing, natural gas and sheep pens. Simple but hearty fare such as brown beans and krentjebrij. These are some of the highlights Dutch people associate with the Netherlands’ most sparsely populated province: Drenthe. This part of the country is most famous for its unspoilt natural landscapes. Its vast sandy areas, watercourses and peat marshes make you feel time has stood still. It’s certainly beautiful, but also quite static.
When artists in the past visited Drenthe to gather inspiration, they used to single out the wild northern part of the province. However, in the autumn of 1883, Van Gogh found himself among the southern peat moors instead. These wet, sodden fenland areas have little to offer that is of interest, apart from peat that is. And during his stay, from September to December, we can safely assume that the weather was not always fair.
In this early stage of his career as an artist – he had just seriously taken up painting in addition to drawing – he experimented with effects of light and darkness. Through his painting of a ploughed field in Drenthe, Van Gogh tells us a story, which researchers at the Van Gogh Museum were able to reconstruct. He played around with the composition and the figures in the picture, but was able to hide his preparatory work effectively. And so you see, there is more going on in the peat bogs than you might think.
The recycling of materials is a hot issue, environmentally-friendly and practical. Old toys and packaging materials are melted down to create a new dashboard or a plastic chair. Advanced technologies are used to manufacture biodegradable tomato containers; an old tin of peas is given a new life as a deodorant aerosol can. This is without even mentioning creative applications such as dishes made from compressed coffee grounds, cabinets made from old bread bins and lamps from old atlases.
Vincent van Gogh was also a master of recycling. Research reveals that he painted over his old canvases in Paris as many as 25 times, and used the back of the canvas 6 times. The avid artist was always in search of something to paint on. Whether it was cheap cardboard or a beautifully woven canvas: everything could be reused. Recycling is also easy on the wallet. Van Gogh left nothing unused, because he simply could not afford new canvases.
At a lively meeting, you may often find yourself suddenly filling the whole sheet of notepaper you brought with you from top to bottom with new ideas. The inspiration just keeps on coming as the ideas compete for your attention. Every single section of the paper is used. These are actually the best kind of meetings – although many of your ideas are swiftly forgotten.
What do you think about the fact that Van Gogh painted over his earlier works?
3 Responses to “Every single section of the paper is used”
Two for the price of one: Van Gogh’s reused paintings
An intriguing aspect of Van Gogh’s working practice is his common habit of recycling of existing pictures in order to reuse the supports. Surprisingly, examination of eighty-seven Paris pictures in our collection revealed as many as twenty-five painted over existing compositions, besides an additional 6 painted on the reverse of Nuenen works. This practice of re-use covers the full range of his output, from small studies on cheap carton supports to ambitious works on expensive, fine quality canvases.
The works in question tend to fall into periods when we know from the letters that the painter had run out of canvas and had no money to buy new materials, suggesting that this practice was driven by economic necessity. Yet given this fact, it is worthwhile to consider whether Van Gogh simply used whatever materials were at hand, or whether artistic choices could have played a role. For example, why was he willing to cover up some works by overpainting them, whilst leaving others intact by painting on their reverse instead? And can we detect a more conscious approach in the different ways that he prepared the surfaces of existing pictures for reuse, perhaps in pursuit of a particular artistic effect?
Vincent van Gogh, Self-portrait with glass, 1887, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)
X-ray photo of Self portrait with glass, showing the underlying image of a bust portrait of a woman
Let’s take the example of his Self- portrait with glass, painted in January 1887 on top of a bust portrait of a bare-breasted woman. Nowadays, the portrait is poorly legible, making it quite unclear whether the brightly coloured item in Vincent’s pocket is a handkerchief or flower, for example.
Detail of the flower or handkerchief on the Self portrait with glass
Roughly textured underlayers
This is because, visually, the Self-portrait competes with the roughly textured layers of the underlying image, a direct consequence of the artist’s chosen methods and materials. First, he partially scraped down the buttery paint strokes of the underlying bust portrait, rather than reducing it to an even layer. And to make matters worse, he covered up some areas with a layer of slow-drying zinc white, going on to paint his self-portrait before this underlayer was properly dry. Disfiguring drying cracks have appeared in regions of the self-portrait as a result.
Need for canvases
Perhaps van Gogh’s need for canvas was so acute that he simply could not take the time to prepare it in the proper way. Or possibly he found the distinctive surface of the roughly scraped and overpainted portrait appealing as a substrate on which to paint. In the same period, for example, he painted on the battered surfaces of reused wooden panels, or on cartons primed with a roller to provide a lightly speckled surface.
In the case of Self-portrait with glass he could not have fully anticipated the added effect of disruptive drying cracks that would have formed soon afterwards in the paint, yet it seems that he was not unhappy with the result. He added his signature Vincent to the finished picture, which suggests that he recognized its artistic merit and was willing to adopt a laisse fair attitude towards its technical ‘shortcomings’ measured in the conventional sense.
Detail of the signature on Self-portrait with glass
Nothing is as fickle as fashion. And when it comes to fashion, everything revolves around colour. While yesterday, your flashy neon leggings might have been the height of chic, perhaps a more modest milk chocolate/cappuccino look will be in vogue tomorrow. Trends come and go. Sometimes painters also want to bring something new to a canvas, to create a fashionable effect. Naturally, you can do this by trying to find the right colours yourself, but it’s also good to take a look at what the paint manufacturers have devised.
In the summer of 1886, Vincent van Gogh came across cerulean blue: a new synthetic pigment that produced a ready-made blue-green colour. Just as with every fashion fad, however, it was a matter of waiting to see if the trend would take off. As far as we know, Vincent only mentioned using this colour to Theo: perhaps he had shocked himself with his excess of chic. Or perhaps he had yet to discover its added value. Anyhow, after a month he gave up using the new pigment. It had turned out to be a bad buy.
Chic Prussian blue proved to be something quite different, however. Van Gogh used it to give more depth to a dark sky, or to lighten up an overcast one. Unlike simply using black, this shade clearly enriched the painter’s palette. So if we follow Van Gogh’s lead, then thefashion tip for this summer is clear: Prussian blue is the new black. Cerulean blue, on the other hand, is sooo last season.
‘What I sometimes think when I hear people saying ‘there is no black in nature’ is — there doesn’t have to be any black in paint either.’
Vincent van Gogh, Nuenen, June 1884 (letter no. 450)
Van Gogh made a gradual shift, starting in Antwerp and continuing in Paris, from a traditional palette of subdued colours to a more modern palette of brighter hues. He used some types of paint less, or stopped using them altogether, and new types found their way into his work.
One of the pigments that Van Gogh began using in the spring of 1886 was the greenish-blue cerulean blue (cobalt tin oxide), a pigment that came onto the market in the second half of the 19th century. In the past, we thought that Van Gogh had used this pigment for the first time in Paris, and not during his earlier Dutch period.
In a letter of 5 August 1882 to his brother Theo, he describes his early palette: ‘but you will understand that I’ve limited myself to simple colours in both watercolour and oil: ochre (red, yellow, brown), cobalt and Prussian blue, Naples yellow, terra sienna, black and white, supplemented with some carmine, sepia, vermilion, ultramarine, gamboge in smaller tubes.But I refrained from buying colours one ought to mix oneself. I believe this is a practical palette, with sound colours.Ultramarine, carmine or something else are added if absolutely necessary.’
Yet when we examined the painting Girl in a wood, from the collection of the Kröller-Müller Museum, I was in for a big surprise! Van Gogh produced this painting outdoors in The Hague between 10 and 22 August 1882 – along with fourteen others, only five of which are still known today. We discovered that in Girl in a wood, he had used cerulean blue for the sky! Does this mean that Van Gogh was using modern pigments early in his career after all, despite what he wrote to Theo? For a long time, Girl in a wood was the only painting from his Dutch period that was known to contain cerulean blue, but we recently had the opportunity to examine another painting made that same August. Again, cerulean blue had been used for the sky. This was more than a one-time experiment.
Vincent van Gogh, Girl in a wood, 1882, Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo
Cross-section of a sample from the sky in the painting. The greenish-blue specks in the uppermost paint layer are particles of cerulean blue from the paint used for the sky. The white bottom layer is the ground applied to the canvas.
I immediately delved into Van Gogh’s letters in search of information. And sure enough, in a letter written to Theo on 14 August 1882, he describes a painting of green pastures that he has just completed: ‘Yet it was all a question of colour and tone, the gradations of the range of colours in the sky, first a lilac haze — inside it the red sun, half covered by a dark purple cloud with a delicate edge of gleaming red; beside the sun vermilion reflections, but above a yellow band that turned green and higher up bluish, the so-called Cerulean blue, and here and there lilac and greyish clouds catching reflections from the sun.’
Some experts had assumed that the term ‘Cerulean blue’ in this letter referred to the colour rather than the particular pigment that Van Gogh had used for the sky. Our research, however, has shown that Van Gogh meant exactly what he wrote!
3 Responses to “A new colour in Van Gogh’s palette”
Wendy FeldbergThe hidden flowers remind me of mimosa. Van Gogh might have liked...Read more
MeggiHello everyone, I don't have a favorite painting because I adore...Read more
yvettejétais choquee par des coulours vives qui m'ínspiree, je veux...Read more
Hanny m &g-daltGreat guy. great artwork. nothing more needs to be said. xRead more
Silvia SantiniI ask myself..How did he think the paint was finished? if I...Read more