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Vincent van Gogh’s Use of Color

by VanGoghology

Vincent Van Gogh was widely recognized for his vivid use of color and impassioned brushwork. Color, he believed, could represent emotions and convey meaning in ways that words often could not. Van Gogh’s use of pigment was an essential aspect of his creative approach, and he experimented with various color combinations to evoke distinct moods and sentiments.

Some of his most well-known pigment combinations was blue and orange or yellow and purple; He thought that these particular color pairings not only generated a sense of tension and intensity in his work, but he was also familiar with the Law of Simultaneous Contrast of Colors.

Bold use of color and expressive brushwork!

A curiosity of how colors contrasted with, and next to one another led Vincent on a mission to learn more about color theory, and in doing so, discovered ‘complimentary colors‘. 

Not one to do things by halves, Vincent read various books about color theory, specifically those authored by Professor Charles Blanc, who’s theories were a scientific continuance of the studies originally undertaken by French Chemist Michel Eugène Chevreul and one of the world’s greatest colorists, artist Eugène Delacroix.

In June 1884, Vincent borrowed Blanc’s book “The Artists of My Time” (Les artistes de mi temps) from his friend and fellow artist, Van Rappard; upon completion and “as a result of,” Vincent subsequently ordered Blanc’s highly praised “”Grammar of Painting and Engraving” (Grammaire des arts du dessin).

Blanc color wheel

To better understand Blanc’s color theory, he designed a diagram known as a color wheel – An example is seen here.

As noted in ‘The grammar of painting and engraving‘ and as Vincent explained to Theo “If one combines two of the primary colors — yellow and red, for example, in order to create a binary color, orange, this binary color will attain its maximum brilliance when one places it close to the third primary color, not used in the mixture.

Similarly, if one combines red and blue to produce violet — that binary color — the violet will be heightened by the immediate proximity of yellow. Lastly, if one combines yellow and blue to form green, this green will be heightened by the immediate proximity of red.

Each of the three primary colors is rightly called Complementary in relation to the binary color that corresponds with it. Thus, blue is the complementary of orange, yellow is the complementary of violet, and red the complementary of green. Vice versa, each of the composite colors is the complementary of the primary color not used in the mixture“.

Vincent understood this explicitly and we can see the theory carried out in many of his paintings – These complementary colors although heightened when placed next to each other in juxtaposition, prove disastrous when combined.

Color theory had a significant influence on many artists throughout Europe, none more so than the founder of Chromoluminarism, (also known as Divisionism), Georges Seurat.

This revolutionary set of rules and theories of color helped form the Neo-Impressionism movement, and made way for Pointillism, and artists such as Paul Signac, Claude Monet, Camille Pissarro and more used this technique to achieve the maximum luminosity scientifically plausible.

Still Life with Basket and Six Oranges

Still Life with Basket and Six Oranges

If we look at ‘Still Life with Basket and Six Oranges‘ we can see how Van Gogh implemented Blanc’s theory into practice by combining red and yellow to form orange and setting it against a primary color.

Irises May 1890 1890Irises in a vase against a yellow background painted during his time at Saint-Rémy was also a color study; here we see red pigment mixed with blue to create violet as a binary color set against the primary color of yellow to essentially make the irises, pop.

Red and green, yellow and purple, blue and orange – amplify one another.

Overall, Van Gogh’s use of pigment and technique was revolutionary for his time and continues to inspire artists today.

Thick Brushstrokes
Vincent’s brushstrokes are another defining feature of his style. He used thick, impasto brushstrokes to create a sense of texture and movement in his paintings. His brushstrokes are often visible on the canvas, giving his work a sense of immediacy and energy. This method allowed him to create a three-dimensional effect that added depth, while marrying a contrast of color to create a sense of movement and energy which is noticeable in the majority of his works.

Use of Light
Van Gogh’s use of light was also influenced by Blanc’s color theory, AND an important component of his creative approach. After reading Les artistes de mon temps, Vincent was determined to master chiaroscuro; a technique which has actually been around since the 5th century, one of which Vincent was familiar with, but had not mastered.

Chiaroscuro, pronounced key-are-a-scuro, is the use of dramatic contrasts between light and dark, usually stark contrasts that affect the entire composition; this is clearly visible in some of his most renowned and iconic paintings, such as “Starry Night” and “The Potato Eaters.”

Van Gogh mentioned chiaroscuro several times in his correspondence – letters to Theo, his friend and fellow artists, Emile Bernard and Anton van Rappard, and his friend and pupil Anton Kerssemakers – whom Vincent would usually visit on Sundays to tutor – In January of 1885 Vincent suggested they devote three days tackling shading, color and chiaroscuro, because he felt Antons’s paintings were still not lively enough. 


In order to get the chiaroscuro right, one must not only paint a lot but also really see a great deal being painted, and know some things about theory, about light and color. I’m sure that once we’ve really painted together again you’ll see for yourself that at the moment you’re still overlooking things which, once you learn to see them, will mean that painting will interest you much more even. In short — there will be even more soul in it.
Vincent to Anton Kerssemakers

Van Gogh’s Love of Nature

Nature was a central theme in his work, as he believed that nature was a source of inspiration and healing. Van Gogh’s paintings either appeared dark and dismal or vibrant and colorful, both of which captured the beauty of the natural world.

As an artist of ‘En plein air’, he embraced the countryside, often walking miles to capture a specific scene. His paintings of wheat fields, sunflowers, and starry nights are some of his most famous works, and they continue to inspire artists and art lovers around the world today.

Farms near AuversDespite struggling with mental illness for much of his life, Van Gogh remained committed to his art and his love of nature, both of which gave him a sense of purpose, until his struggle simply became too much. His legacy as one of the most influential artists of all time continues to inspire people to find beauty and inspiration in the natural world around them.

van Gogh’s Use of Perspective

Vincent was fascinated by the impact of perspective in his paintings. He frequently used exaggerated perspective to create depth and bring the observer into the picture. To generate a sense of wonder and amazement, he also experimented with unconventional perspectives, such as staring up at the night sky.

Some examples of Perspective:

  • The Bedroom
  • Café Terrace at Night
  • Corridor in the asylum
  • Dormitory at the Hospital in Arles

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