Building with Color: Van Gogh’s Painting Technique

Vincent Van Gogh - Starry Night. Vincent Van Gogh - Starry Night. Public domain image, courtesy of the Google Art Project.

From sun-kissed sunflowers to starry nights, the paintings of Dutch Post-Impressionist Vincent van Gogh are some of the most instantly recognizable works in late 19th-century art. There are countless reasons why fans of Van Gogh are drawn to his work, but one of the most intriguing aspects admirers note is his dynamic painting technique. 

Driven by his artistic contemporaries, the science of color, and an unyielding passion for capturing his world, Van Gogh cultivated a painterly style that transcended that of his contemporaries and paved the way for even more colorful explorations in paintings in the generations to come. In this article we go below the surface of Van Gogh’s paintings to grasp his novel technique and nuances with a selection of some of Van Gogh’s most iconic compositions. 

From Dutch Drab to French Flair

Born in the Netherlands in 1853, Van Gogh tried his hand at several professions before tapping into his inherent artistic talent around 1880. His early drawings and paintings revealed a keen eye for studying the people and landscapes around him, but they also tended to be rather bleak. The Potato Eaters, for example, is one of Van Gogh’s earliest celebrated paintings, showcasing this somber, earthen palette and conveying a dimly lit, dismal interior. 

Vincent Van Gogh - The Potato Eaters.

Vincent Van Gogh – The Potato Eaters. Public domain image, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

A move to Paris in 1886, though, changed Van Gogh’s relationship to color. Upon his visit the exhibition of Impressionist paintings on view at Paris’ Maison Dorée restaurant, the artist would have seen George Seurat’s Sunday on La Grande Jatte, a pivotal painting for its reliance on contemporary color theory and its Pointillist technique. He must have emerged inspired, because not long after his palette transformed. 

Replacing the dreary hues of his earlier works was a new array of vibrant colors that he further amplified through an innovative painting technique that drew new attention to each stroke of paint in everything from self-portraits to cityscapes. Inspired by color theory, namely that the pairing of complementary colors on a canvas could amplify their visual intensity, Van Gogh began to separate his strokes of paint. Rather than blend his pigments, Van Gogh layered strokes side by side. In such paintings, like Fritillaries in a Copper Vase (1887), these visible strokes of paired colors could enliven the compositional space. 

Essential to this method, though, was the building up of the surface of the composition. In this still life, these paired strokes that construct the tabletop at the bottom are layered on top of each other, which created a colorful richness and also enhanced the painting surface. 

The Influence of Impasto

Vincent Van Gogh - Fritillaries in a Copper Vase.

Vincent Van Gogh – Fritillaries in a Copper Vase. Public domain image, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The climax of this compositional building was Van Gogh’s incorporation of impasto in many of his most notable paintings. Impasto is an artistic technique that involves the laying of thick, substantive amounts of oil paint onto the surface of a composition to give the work a sense of multi-dimensional texture. This visual effect, which Van Gogh most likely achieved with the use of a palette knife instead of a brush, added to the dynamism of his paintings by creating a rhythmic topography across his compositional surfaces, as well as depth and luminosity. At the same time, this heaviness often could transform the sensation of the painting such that a straightforward scene could convey powerful, expressive emotion. 

Impasto in Action: A Spotlight on 1889

The best way to illustrate this influence of impasto is to look at how deftly Van Gogh used it throughout his peak years of production. Sadly, though Van Gogh’s innovative technique was progressing from 1887 onward, a psychological breakdown in late 1888 would result in extended periods in which he was institutionalized from 1889 until his untimely death in May 1890. During this brief period, though, Van Gogh was prolific and produced some of his most famous Post-Impressionist oil paintings. Let’s take a closer look at some of these gems to better understand impasto’s impact on van Gogh’s technique. 

Wheat Field with Cypresses (1889) 

Painted in early summer, Van Gogh’s landscapes capture the pastoral countryside near Saint-Rémy. It should be noted that Van Gogh actually presented three renderings of the same scene (two of which are pictured above, one currently housed at the Met and the other at the USA’s National Gallery). A closer look at these paintings reveals the sheer variety of brushstrokes that the artist used to paint this vista, from swirling strokes to convey the dance of the golden wheat in the wind the foreground of the painting to the gentle arcs of green that capture the wiry cypress trees at right. Throughout, impasto is visible, but the most prominent application is in van Gogh’s treatment of the sky, where visible bulges of paint emerge from the surface. 

The Bedroom (1889) 

Vincent Van Gogh - The Bedroom.

Vincent Van Gogh – The Bedroom (1889). Public domain image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The second of three versions of this painting (the original was executed in 1888), this composition reveals Van Gogh’s portrait of his room in the Yellow House at Arles. Envisioned by Van Gogh as an artistic outpost for himself and his artistic colleagues, the Yellow House and its interiors became a popular subject for the artist. This second version is arguably the more striking of the three as it captures Van Gogh’s endless affinity for experimenting with color. Moreover, impasto reigns supreme, building up the central textures from the bed to the floor. 

Vincent Van Gogh - Sunflowers (1889).

Vincent Van Gogh – Sunflowers (1889). Public domain image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Starry Night (1889) 

One of Van Gogh’s most irresistible canvases, Starry Night is a quintessential example of impasto in action. Similar to Wheat Field with Cypresses, Van Gogh gave life to his night sky with paired swirls of paint in shades of blue, yellow, and orange as if the energy of nature itself was washing over the sleepy valley town of Saint-Rémy. 

Sunflowers (1889)

This satisfying scene of sunflowers was one of five that Van Gogh created in the closing years of the 1880s, yet it is one of the most compelling as it showcases a brilliant contrast in style. Setting his impasto-heavy blooms against a rather flat yet saturated background, Van Gogh seems to almost project his flowers from the surface of his composition in an exercise in dimension. 

Vincent Van Gogh - Self-Portrait.

Vincent Van Gogh – Self-Portrait (1889). Public domain image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Self-Portrait (1889)

A snapshot of the artist himself, Self-Portrait showcases Van Gogh’s remarkable ability to work even within a limited palette. Saturated with soothing and cool green-blue hues, Van Gogh’s painting reveals an honest portrayal of a rather frail artist fortified with layers of paint. 

The Enduring Influence of Van Gogh’s Impasto

Van Gogh’s paintings are some of the most celebrated in the world, but a look below their surface reveals how his painterly technique was equally captivating. So inspiring  was his approach that he inspired many who followed in his artistic footsteps, from the colorful chaos of Fauve artists Henri Matisse and Andre Derain to the artful pairing of Expressionist Edvard Munch. Van Gogh foreshadowed a new generation of artistic innovators that would chart a course into modernity while also creating a body of work that will be forever enjoyed for its brilliance.