The last six lessons of my online course, Watercolour A to Z, began with the…
We’re 10% of the way through 2023, but still feeling the chill of winter, of course, so I hope the bright red, above, warms you up a bit! It’s a detail from a painting by Barnett Newman, actually, titled Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue? and it certainly got one person very heated, when it was exhibited at the Stedelijk, back in 1986. And if you waant to dig a little deeper, there’s an intriguing podcast on the subject from 99% Invisible.
Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue? is also the title of my new course on colour for Dillington House, and it was while I was researching the colour yellow that I became I became intrigued by the way Vincent Van Gogh’s palette changed from the dull browns and blacks of his peasants and potato eaters to the bright yellows, reds and greens of his sunflowers and sowers. Studying the excellent resource on Wikipedia that lists every work of Van Gogh’s chronologically, you can see a definite, but very gradual transition from dark to light over hundreds of paintings. Was it because he met Impressionist artists like Lautrec and Signac when he moved to Paris? Was it because he ventured even further South to the bright sunshine of Provence? Was it simply his increasing confidence with his materials? The answer is probably all of these things, but there is also much more…
Vincent Van Gogh’s early paintings are remorselessly dark and austere. In more than one hundred and sixty portraits, landscapes and still lifes, painted between 1884 and 1885, his minimalist, muddy palette reflects the harsh realities of peasant life in The Brabant in the late nineteenth century. But that is all about to change.
A Peasant Woman Digging in front of her Cottage Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=74379735
“Presently my palette is thawing, and the bleakness of the earliest beginnings has gone.”
Landscape with Church & Houses 1885 Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9363025
Although he started late and had no formal art training, Vincent studied his subject assiduously. In his 1885 letter to his brother, Theo, quoted here, he writes about no fewer than ten other artists including Veronese and Delacroix, but it’s his relationship with colour that consumes him.
“I still often run up against a blank wall when undertaking something, but all the same, the colours follow one another as if of their own accord, and taking a colour as the starting-point I see clearly in my mind’s eye what derives from it, and how one can get life into it.”
Autumn Landscape with four Trees 1885 Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3689421
By 1886, with his paintings unsold and unable to afford the rent in Belgium any longer, Van Gogh moves to Paris to live with his art dealer brother. The Impressionist works he encounters here are a revelation.
“May I not simply understand by it that a painter does well if he starts from the colours on his palette instead of starting from the colours in nature?”
Restaurant de la Sirène at Asnières 1887 Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9423349
A year later, he is painting regularly at Asnières, a village on the Seine to the north of Paris that’s popular with Seurat, Signac, Renoir and Monet.
“Suppose I have to paint an autumn landscape, trees with yellow leaves. Very well — if I conceive it as — a symphony in yellow, what does it matter whether or not my basic yellow colour is the same as that of the leaves — it makes little difference. Much, everything comes down to my sense of the infinite variety of tones in the same family.”
Les Alyscamps, Arles 1888 Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9479350
By the following year, he has moved to Arles, where he produces nearly two hundred paintings and drawings of extraordinary quality. His insight, that an artist need not paint with naturalistic colours to paint well, but can develop their own personal colour choice, instead, influenced a generation and changed art for ever.
“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.”
Valley with Ploughman Seen from Above Hermitage Paintings, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7276652
“One begins by fruitlessly working oneself to death to follow nature, and everything is contrary. One ends by quietly creating from one’s palette, and nature is in accord with it, follows from it.”
The Red Vineyard 1888 Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=151865
“The painter of the future is a colourist such as there hasn’t been before,” wrote Vincent in a letter to Theo a year before his suicide, “This painter of the future, I can’t imagine him living in small restaurants, working with several false teeth and going into Zouave brothels like me.
But it seems to me that I’m in the right when I feel it will come in a later generation and that in our case we have to do what our means allow us in that direction, without having doubts and without flinching.”
That colourist, we know, with the benefit of hindsight, was Vincent himself.