Use of color arbitrarily to express more forcibly – Vincent Van Gogh

I love Vincent Van Gogh. I love his passion as expressed in his painting. Powerful, brilliant, unique. But I didn’t really appreciate the man until I read a compilation of his letters to his brother Theo. He wasn’t just a brilliant artist – he was a highly intelligent and tragically honest man.  I like people like that. Either because I’m like that or, because I think I’m like that.


I picked the compilation up tonight, opened it and started reading and found a great insight into what he was doing with color – how he expressed what he felt about his subject by the color choices he made.

Here is that section – from ‘The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh’, edited by Mark Roskill:

… instead of trying to reproduce exactly what I have before my eyes, I use colour more arbitrarily so as to express myself forcibly. Well, let that be as a matter  of theory, but I am going to give you an example of what I mean.

I should like to paint the portrait of an artist friend, a man who dreams great dreams, who works as the nightingale sings, because it is his nature. He’ll be a fair man. I want to put into the picture my appreciation, the love that I have for him. So I paint him as he is, as faithfully as I can, to begin with.

But the picture is not finished yet. To finish it I am now going to be the arbitrary colourist. I exaggerate the fairness of the hair, I get to orange tones, chromes and pale lemon yellow.

Beyond the head, instead of painting the ordinary wall of the mean room, I paint infinity, a plain background of the richest, intensest blue that I can contrive, and by this simple combination the bright head illuminated against a rich blue background acquires a mysterious effect, like a star in the depths of an azure sky.

In the portrait of the peasant I again worked in this way, but without wishing in this case to evoke the mysterious brightness of a pale star in the infinite. Instead, I think of the man I have to paint, terrible in the furnace of the full ardours of harvest, at the heart of the south. Hence the orange shades like storm flashes, vivid as red hot iron, and hence the luminous tones of old gold in the shadows.

On, my dear boy… and the nice people will only see the exaggeration as caricature.

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