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Most people characterize Vincent van Gogh’s work for its bold, swirling strokes. But he had much more to offer than that. I spent the past few weeks going through his entire collection, which included over 800 paintings, in order to get a sense of his painting style and preferred techniques and processes. Here are my conclusions.
Brushwork that is bold, directional and has a sense of movement
Let’s start with the obvious one: bold, directional brushwork. In some form, this brushwork is featured in most of his paintings. His strokes will take you on an adventure around the painting, as they twist, turn and swirl around the subject. This gives the work a unique feeling of movement and vibrancy. The directional strokes also reiterate the subject’s form and contours.
Van Gogh had to have a keen sense of space and movement in order for these bold strokes to be successful. Take his iconic Starry NightFor example. He didn’t study physics, yet his depiction of the sky’s movement and turbulence is surprisingly accurate. This video explains this well: The unexpected math behind van Gogh’s Starry Night.) That’s why his paintings read well, albeit dramatized.
If you look closely, you’ll see that each bold and impasto stroke leaves tiny cast shadows and highlights on the painting. This gives the painting a dynamic, three-dimensional look. As you move the painting around and view it from different angles, the appearance will change as the tiny highlights and shadows move and the impastostrokes become more or lesser pronounced (more so from the side). When I visited the van Gogh Museum in AmsterdamIn my early 20s. (No photos, sorry). I also saw the same thing, but to a lesser degree at the European Masterpieces Brisbane is hosting an exhibition of Van Gogh’s paintings. Van Gogh’s painting, The Flowering Orchard, was on show. It’s not his most textured work, but there are a few impasto strokes.
Below is a photo I took. Can you see the tiny highlights and shadows on each stroke?
You can see a photo of the painting in high resolution. Here is a link to the article. Zoom in to see the details.
Van Gogh frequently used dark outlinings to emphasize objects. This was probably due to the influence of Japanese woodblock prints and Japanese art, which Van Gogh was fond of.
Outlining is an easy but powerful technique to make something stand out in your artwork. But it’s more stylistic than realistic. We don’t see objects in the world neatly defined by dark outlines. They simply exist and there’s an immediate transition between one object and the surrounding colors. That’s why you don’t see outlining used as much by more realistic painters like John Singer SargentThe following are some examples of how to use Joaquín Sorolla. They focus on tonal changes to define objects. But it’s still a powerful technique to have in your back pocket, no matter your Painting style.
I remember being inspired by van Gogh’s outlining in my painting, Montville, Tree in Mist. I used ultramarine to help distinguish fern leaves from surrounding nature.
I also used swirls and outlining similar to van Gogh. Maleny Late Afternoon. I lifted paint with a cotton-bud to create a light outline around the cloud.
Tip: When you look at the work of others, you should be on the lookout to see what techniques and processes they use that you could adapt in your work. This isn’t copying, as one technique doesn’t define an artist and you’ll invariably put your own spin on it. Over time, you’ll develop a vast and vertisile range of techniques at your disposal.
There are several examples of pointillism in van Gogh’s work. Pointillism is the use of small dots or dabs to convey a subject.
He usually used it for busy and close-up nature compositions such as Undergrowth. The colors vibrate and dance on the canvas and there’s a quality of realism about it, despite the strong stylization. Van Gogh used tiny dabs of paint to convey movement, as if grass and leaves were blowing in the wind.
Another example of van Gogh’s pointillism is Interior of a Restaurant. He used it as a way to bring life to the walls and floors. Color combinations can suggest different surfaces.
Most artists associated with pointillism—Georges Seurat, Paul Signac, Henri-Edmond Cross, etc.—were defined by the technique and used it exclusively in many of their paintings. Van Gogh, however, used it sparingly and often as one of several techniques. In Interior of a RestaurantHe used pointillism to paint the walls and the floor, and more refined brushwork with flat color shapes on everything else.
In his Lilac BushBelow, he combined a pointillism style with a dark outline and a few color shapes. He also varied the brushwork to match different parts of his subject. For the sky he used more horizontal strokes, for the feature plants he used a greater contrast and variation, for the grass he used punchy vertical strokes.
Use of Color
Van Gogh began his career as an artist with a palette of dull, restrained colors. Grays and browns are predominant in his early work. There’s also a sadness about them.
Around 1886, when van Gogh was in his early 30s, he found color and didn’t look back. If I had to choose a turning-point, it would have been his Le Moulin de la GaletteThe richness of the blues, greens, oranges, and reds in this painting.
Van Gogh’s best work was when he could push the colors to their limits without them looking garish. Van Gogh achieved this by focusing on the subject matter and following logical and strong color themes. He could use warmer, brighter colors to depict a sunset or a clear midday sun, or richer, more vivid greens to represent plants and foliage. While he stylized and exaggerated the subjects, he kept one foot in real life.
It’s also worth mentioning his fondness for yellow. Many of his paintings are a tribute to yellow’s brilliance.
Wheat Field with Reaper, SunIt is stunning. It’s like sunlight itself.
In many of his letters, he also makes reference to yellow. Often with vivid descriptions. In a letter he wrote to one of his sisters:
“Now we are having beautiful warm, windless weather that is very beneficial to me. The sun, which I cannot describe in any other way than yellow, bright yellow sulfur, or pale lemon gold. How beautiful yellow is!” – Vincent van Gogh
Letter to his sister 1888 (Source)
Van Gogh was a fast worker. In less than a decade he produced over 2,000 paintings and drawings. His later years were prolific and produced some of his most famous works, including Café Terrace at NightYou can also find out more about the following: Starry Night. It’s as if he was hit with a wave of ideas and creativity that he had to get out onto the canvas and knew he didn’t have much longer to work. It’s possible that financial constraints played a part, as painting quickly meant less paint wasted on the palette.
His rapid approach adds to the charm of his work. There’s a sense of spontaneity and honesty about it. It’s as though he didn’t have time to refine his thoughts and ideas; he just had to get them out onto the canvas.
It is also likely to have influenced the tools and techniques he chose. He did whatever it took to get the marks he wanted. This included using palette knives and his fingers. He also used paint straight from the tube on the canvas. This is a great way to use your tools. Remember to be open-minded, and that nothing is off limits. Don’t limit yourself to thinking that you must always use “X” tool to paint “Y” (like a fan brush to paint leaves).
Of course, this approach won’t work for everyone. It will only lead you to frustration and a mess. To paint quickly, you need a certain level of experience and intuitive ability. You may also simply prefer a more controlled and calculated approach, and that’s fine.
Van Gogh’s work has a strong emotional foundation. He didn’t just paint what he saw; he painted how he felt and experienced the subject. That’s why his work appears to be relatable and honest.
His paintings show a sensitive artist who was able to feel the world around him. I imagine he was very sensitive to everything, and that he felt it all. His work ranges between deeply saddening paintings and colorful and cheerful landscapes.
Tip: Observation is an essential part of being an artist, but that’s not limited to observing the physical world around us. It’s also about observing the more subtle aspects of life—the mood, atmosphere, and emotions.
Same subject, Different Conditions
There are many examples of van Gogh repeating the same subject under different circumstances. Here are some of his 1888 orchard paintings. This could have been to study changes in colors and light. Or maybe he wanted different aspects of his subject. Claude Monet, too, did this. But he did it on a much bigger scale and with a keener interest in light and color. If I were to guess, I’d say van Gogh cared more about the emotion and character than color and light.
It’s worth taking a brief look through this chronological list of van Gogh’s paintingsSee patterns and themes, as well as common subjects.
Thank you for Reading!
You are welcome to join me in the discussion. If you would like to learn more I invite you to join Color Masterclass. Enrollment for the following week is now open.
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