Van Gogh’s Brush

posted in: Painting | 2

Here’s how a connoisseur or a conservator would look at a Van Gogh. The painting is Van Gogh’s from 1889 during his stay in San Remy, Provence in the hospital of St Paul de Mausole.   Van Gogh was allowed by his doctor to walk about the area and town to search for painting subjects. Vincent found these Cypress trees on one of his walks. They are still there in San Remy about a 20-minute walk from the hospital (but, behind a private fence today). You will find the painting in New York’s Metropolitan Museum. Van Gogh was using an impressionist palette which included cadmium yellow, chrome yellow, carmine (he said he especially like carmine and cobalt blue), emerald green (the impressionist green), viridian, lead white, cobalt blue, cobalt violet or manganese violet and sometimes Prussian blue and ultramarine blue, vermillion would be his intense red (cadmium red had not yet been invented). Vincent makes his marks in thick wet paint. He uses his brush like a large drawing instrument (if you’ve seen his drawings you will see the relationship). In the three detail examples I provide you can see how his brush stroke lays down a path of paint. Toward the end of the stroke (in the clouds and sky) you can see the bristles of the brush leave their trail. In my first detail example, box 1, notice the colors in the blue parts of the sky. The blue-green color is probably made with cobalt blue and a little viridian and white, although a cerulean could produce this color. This blue-green tint (a tint is a color mixed with white) is a color complement to the coral tint of the cloud. When these two colors are juxtaposed the sky seems to glow. Van Gogh had studied complementary colors and their simultaneous contrast effects. Observe that on the edge of the clouds the color is a mixture of both the cloud and sky colors. The yellow of the coral cloud color fades to a grayed green when mixed with the blue of the sky. Do you see it? In the next example in box 2, observe the short blue arc strokes that lie on top and across the paler sky strokes.
These were added later in his room when the paint underneath was dry. See how they did not mix with the other colors and see how they did not disturb the shape of the underlying brushstrokes. Now, you’re looking like a connoisseur! In the last example in box 3, observe the violet hills. The violet is darker or lighter depending on how much white Vincent had mixed in it. Monet had earlier announced that the color of the atmosphere was violet. Impressionists were called violet maniacs before they were called Impressionists. Vincent mixes some of his whitened violet into the sky above the violet hills giving a feeling of a violet atmosphere. Do you see how some of Vincent’s sky strokes trace the shape of the hills when they are laid directly against the violet hills? With this stroke Vincent shaped the hills below. After that hillside-adjoining stroke the rest of the sky strokes are free to try other orientations. This gives the sky more energy and depth. Yet, up higher in the sky we again see him repeat the shape of the hills with another brush stroke. Can you find it?

2 Responses

  1. Sybil

    Interesting! I wonder how this relates to the Velázquez article in yesterday’s Times – could the scholars not appreciate these similar details in the Philip IV portrain until the painting was cleaned?

  2. dee harris

    how do think he started his painting ? was it a toned canvas or white? does he do a detailed drawing first in paint or other object ? does he brush in flat local color and then paint into it ? or some other way? i know it might be impossible to ever know the answers but would like to hear your opinion since your brush stoke article was so informative. i really enjoyed it.

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