A Closer Look at Vincent van Gogh’s Grass and Butterflies

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Let’s take a closer look at Vincent van Gogh’s Grass and Butterflies. I’m always impressed at how well van Gogh was able to inject life into even the most simple subjects. There’s a sense of movement and activity about it.

I’ll cover:

Vincent van Gogh, Grass and Butterflies, 1887
Vincent van Gogh, Grass and Butterflies, 1887

Vibrating Colors

The painting features a vibration of broken color. Van Gogh wove together all kinds of greens, blues, yellows, and reds. It must be quite a sight in person.

Broken color is particularly effective for conveying all of nature’s brilliance without having to painstakingly render every detail. It might not look like much up close, but from afar, the distinct strokes come together to form plants, flowers, soil, and butterflies.

This does come at a sacrifice though. Painting with small dabs of color means a lack of intricate drawing, color gradation (blending), and a refined finish. Sadly, you cannot paint with both van Gogh’s energy and broken color and John Singer Sargent’s realism. There must be a trade-off.

Vincent van Gogh, Garden Coin With Butterflies, 1887 (Detail 2)

In terms of the overall color theme, green is the dominant color. It takes up most of the painting and is strong in saturation.

The yellow and blue strokes also contribute to the green theme via optical mixing (dabs of yellow and blue can optically mix together and appear as green). Below is a simple demonstration of this. This image is made up of blue and yellow dots with a white background. The colors are clearly identifiable.

Optical Color Mixing - Blue and Yellow Circles

Watch what happens when I make these circles much smaller. Instead of blue, yellow, and white, the image appears green. This is due to optical mixing. Van Gogh’s painting features some of these effects, though to a lesser extent. 

Optical Color Mixing - Blue and Yellow - Medium

The other major color is red. There’s the vivid red butterfly around the bottom, strokes of dark red throughout the shadows and plants, and light red flowers.

Going back to color theory basics, green and red are complementary colors, meaning they are on opposite sides of the color wheel. When placed together, they have a striking contrast. When painting with complementary colors, it’s (usually) good practice to restrain one of the colors so that the other can dominate. Otherwise, the battle between complementary colors can be jarring to look at.

In this case, van Gogh restrains red and uses it more as an accent color. There are only a few strokes of rich, saturated red. The rest are tinted and weak in terms of saturation.

An alternative strategy for this painting could be to tone down the greens so that the red accents (namely the vivid red butterfly at the bottom) would appear sharper and more distinct. Claude Monet’s The Poppy Field is a great example of this. As it stands, the red butterfly is overshadowed by the sea of rich greens.

Light and Shadow (Value)

Here’s a grayscale of the painting (created using my free grid and grayscale tool):

Vincent van Gogh, Garden Coin With Butterflies, 1887 (Grayscale)

A few key observations:

  • The painting can be segmented into two value groups: the light values and the dark to middle values. There’s hardly any value gradation between these groups. This tells me that van Gogh relied heavily on saturation and hue contrast to convey realism.
  • There are no sharp highlights or dark accents.
  • The butterflies in the bottom right-hand corner blend into the light background (light subject on a light background equals low contrast). The two butterflies around the middle are more prominent (light subject on a dark background equals high contrast).
Vincent van Gogh, Garden Coin With Butterflies, 1887 (White Butterflies)
Vincent van Gogh, Garden Coin With Butterflies, 1887 (White Butterflies 2)

Brushwork, Movement, and Texture

The painting features van Gogh’s signature brushwork-short, punchy strokes that broadly follow the shapes and contours. These strokes, combined with vibrating colors, convey a sense of movement and activity in the painting. They take our eyes on a journey through the painting. Every now and then, there’s an abrupt stop in the fluidity. The most notable example is the edge that separates the land and the wall of greenery at the back. These abrupt stops create tension and interest. Much like an off-note in a classical piece.

Tip: A useful exercise you can do with your favorite master paintings is to relax and let your eyes travel through the painting. Take note of the journey. This will give you clues as to where the artist wants you to look and the way in which they composed the painting.

Vincent van Gogh, Garden Coin With Butterflies, 1887 (Movement)

The curves and movement are emphasized by the impasto paint texture. Each stroke has its own tiny ridges, contours, gulleys, highlights, and shadows. A single stroke may not seem like much by itself, but it all adds up when you have hundreds or thousands of strokes.

Vincent van Gogh, Garden Coin With Butterflies, 1887 (Detail 3)

Key Points of Interest

The painting doesn’t have a strong focal point, but there are several key points of interest that our eyes can bounce between:

The butterflies. If it weren’t for the painting’s name Grass and Butterflies it would be easy to mistake the butterflies for flowers. The butterflies play a reserved role in the painting, as they do in life.

Tip: The painting’s name can give importance to certain elements within the painting. This can be particularly helpful for vague or subtle subjects.

Vincent van Gogh, Garden Coin With Butterflies, 1887 (Detail 1)

The flowers. Pink and white flowers provide a small area of contrast in the painting. It’s a case of a few simple, large shapes and these small, intricate flower shapes.

Depth and Perspective

The scene has a narrow depth of field. Meaning the effects of atmospheric and linear perspective do not play a significant role. It’s different to say a vast landscape by Albert Bierstad, with blue-tinted mountains and a distant horizon line.

Van Gogh made up for the lack of depth in the scene with his exaggerated color and brushwork. When certain elements are lacking in a subject you must rely on other elements to create interest.

The scene is depicted from a downward perspective as if we are in van Gogh’s shoes looking down at the marvelous garden and butterflies. This cuts the depth and gives the painting a relaxed, intimate feel. It’s similar to Sargent’s Siesta.

John Singer Sargent, Siesta, 1907
John Singer Sargent, Siesta, 1907

Van Gogh’s Interest in Butterflies

When I started writing this post, I figured it would be a fairly straightforward painting without any hidden undertones. A simple garden and butterflies, nothing more, nothing less. But it seems van Gogh put deep thought into the idea of butterflies, writing about them on several occasions in his many letters to friends and family. He was particularly fascinated by their metamorphosis from an unwitting caterpillar. Refer to the below extract from a letter to his sister, Willemien van Gogh:

“Now I know that it’s fairly impossible for the white potato or salad grubs that turn into May bugs later to be capable of forming credible ideas about their future overground existence.

And that it would be rash of them to undertake overground studies to throw light on this question, since the gardener or others interested in salad and vegetables would immediately trample them underfoot as being harmful insects.

But for parallel reasons I have little faith in the rightness of our human ideas concerning our future life. We can no more judge our own metamorphoses impartially and sagely than the white salad grubs can theirs.

In a sense, van Gogh himself was a butterfly in the making. He spent his life in poverty and turmoil, unaware of his eventual metamorphosis into perhaps the most recognizable name in the art world.

Below are a few other examples of van Gogh’s butterflies:

Vincent van Gogh, Long Grass with Butterflies, 1890
Vincent van Gogh, Long Grass with Butterflies, 1890
Vincent van Gogh, Poppies and Butterflies, 1890
Vincent van Gogh, Poppies and Butterfiles, 1890
Vincent van Gogh, Nachtpauwoog, 1889
Vincent van Gogh, Nachtpauwoog, 1889

I also stumbled across this poem by Curtis Farmwald from his book, The Existential Butterfly:

“Though it was painted
Years ago in another country
By the troubled Vincent van Gogh,
The painting could have been done
Right here sometime this summer.
I’ve seen red poppies like those
Growing wild just down the road.
Yellow sulphurs like those
Are all over my yard.
Can their beauty still inspire
A troubled soul to survive?”

Key Takeaways

  • Simple subjects are challenging in the sense you need to inject life into them to make them interesting. Van Gogh did so with exaggerated color and brushwork. Simple doesn’t mean easy. 
  • Broken color is an efficient painting technique for capturing nature’s brilliance, but it comes at the sacrifice of intricate drawing, color gradation, and a refined finish. You can’t have it all!
  • Directional brushwork can inject life and movement into your work. Van Gogh was the master of it.
  • Van Gogh’s life was similar to that of a butterfly. He spent his life in poverty and turmoil, unaware of his eventual metamorphosis into perhaps the most recognizable name in the art world.

Additional Resources

Thanks for Reading!

Thanks for taking the time to read this post. I appreciate it! Feel free to share with friends. If you want more painting tips, check out my Painting Academy course.

Happy painting!

Dan Scott

Draw Paint Academy

57 comments on “A Closer Look at Vincent van Gogh’s Grass and Butterflies”

        • This certainly was a through comprehensive lesson in which it was absorbed in my
          thought process, as excellent. Again, a very good advantage to have. Thank you.
          Charlotte H.

          Reply
    • Your study of Van Gogh became my study …and builds on the love I have for his work. Thank you for this morning delight.

      Reply
    • Thank you for the insights ! The butterflies also speak of resurrections hope, and new life !

      What a joy, to think that perhaps Vincent had this as his hope also.

      Reply
  1. I have always ( affectionately ) been described as ‘Vincent’ as I love colour being injected into paintings. I don’t always feel as if I am a ‘Vincent’ as I don’t inject the paintings as he did. I don’t always think about swerves although I try and put them in. I didn’t think that Vincent’s paintings were very good until I read your article and now I see them in a different light. It all makes sense.

    Reply
    • I agree with your last comment. I didn’t understand why people thought Van Gogh’s work was so great…I didn’t particularly care for it. But now this article, with its detailed analysis, made me better understand and appreciate his art. I also have always loved butterflies, so that detail was really interesting as well. And I particularly enjoyed the additional paintings included, especially Poppies and Butterflies.
      Thanks, Dan, for a great article!

      Reply
  2. I always enjoy your posts! I just finished a little oil painting of a friend’s back yard garden….I wish I would’ve read this before I painted it. On the other hand….maybe I’m not really finished with it and can inject some of the thoughts from this Van Gaga lesson into it.

    Reply
  3. This analysis is so beautiful and helpful. Not only your explanation helped me in understanding Vangogh’s painting in a better light. Sharing Vangogh’s letter also helped me in understanding the mind of the artist.

    Reply
  4. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this piece on Van Gogh’s Grass and Butterflies – thank you for putting it together and for sharing.

    Reply
  5. I find your studies and analyses of Masters’ works to be informative and thought provoking. I have always looked for the focal point in photos and nature as I considered whether I wanted to paint that image . Now I will consider the possibility of creating interest thru style (color, value, brushwork) as an alternate or compliment to a physical focal point.

    Reply
  6. I really enjoyed this, I want to start painting again , but am lacking in motivation. And confidence.,…but it really doesn’t matter if its not totally beautiful at least its peaceful and healing .

    Reply
    • My family and I will visit the virtual Van Gogh exhibit in NYC on Thursday, Aug. 5th; can hardly wait! I think it will be an extraordinary experience, especially for the two of us who are artists and art-fans. Thanks, Dan, for your insights!

      Reply
  7. I’m always striving to improve my artwork- thank you for your well researched and informative article. I wear many hats, and look forward to dedicating more time to my art. You inspire.

    Reply
  8. Thank you for this analysis of Van Gogh’s painting. I painted sunflowers yesterday in my garden and could have used this insight. I will paint them again today and try to keep your comments in mind.
    Using complimentary colors the way he has opens up a new window. I have always tended to use analogous color but will try to use the complimentary more to see what happens!

    Reply
  9. I have really enjoyed reading your analysis of Van Gogh’s painting above. This has brought more meaning to me and of insight into the work of Van Gogh. I will go on and read your other pieces. His paintings are full of such life and energy. Also, the poem and his love of butterflies gives some insight into his life struggles. Thank you for writing these pieces. I paint as well, and will attempt to use some of these techniques in future.

    Reply
  10. Your analysis coupled with philosophy is as intriguing, inspirational and addictive as Van Gogh’s paintings. Give me more ! 🙏🏽

    Reply
  11. I loved this lesson. I’ve always loved Van Gogh (and the Van Gogh Immersive Experience was Amazing!) Your lessons never fail to show me something new about each artist you cover. I come away with a fresh perspective not only on the artist but also on how I approach each of my paintings. I am an emerging artist, still molding and refining my voice. Thank you for you help along this journey.

    Reply
  12. Very interesting exploration. I can say that I have never noticed the butterflies in Van Gogh’s paintings, I need to spend more time on observation! Your article also caused me to wonder about his technique. I’ve never painted with oil, would single splashes of color be put down through out the painting and others added on top continuously layering? Would each layer be left to dry before going onto the next color? Things to wonder. Thank you!

    Reply
  13. This very informative article has introduced me to some of Van Gogh’s paintings that I’ve never seen before. Thank you so much for this and your other excellent lessons.

    Reply
  14. You are the most generous teacher: you take the time to enlighten and encourage us…and it goes beyond the paintings, in which you take so much of your own time to impart your understanding and appreciation of famous works that many of us have never considered before; you share a part of yourself…and that is phenomenal. Your considerable talent as an artist is only part of your gift.

    Reply
  15. During COVID I started doing fine art puzzles and it’s turned into a really great way to study a painting. The Van Gogh ones have been particularly interesting because his brushstrokes, color, value and temperature choices are so distinctive.

    Reply
  16. Special thanks for pointing out the freedom of using color and brushwork when a focal point is not obvious. You have a great way of instruction.
    Thanks Dan.

    Reply
  17. Thank you for taking the time to put this information together and to share. This article gives me a whole new appreciation for Van Gogh’s techniques Makes me want to grab my paints and practice even more!
    Thank you

    Reply
  18. Articles such as this one are what makes me rank you as the best art instructor I know. You delve into your topics and communicate what we are seeing so well. Thank you.

    Reply
    • I really like concentrating on your articles and analyses of various masterpieces. I am rank beginner and am struggling to deal with colour and form and how to appreciate the genius of the masters. In particular what it is that puts them on such a high plateau. Thank you so much

      Reply
  19. You are so right…it would be wonderful to see this painting in person. I saw Van Gogh’s ‘Starry Night’ in person. It cannot be compared to photographs of the painting. It is so vibrant and alive. I had such an unexpected emotional impact from it. It was so beautiful I almost cried. (I got a grip with happy hour after the exhibition.) I have since seen exhibitions of Monet and Rembrandt. Nothing can be compared to seeing the real thing.

    Reply
  20. Having just had the opportunity to attend ‘Imagine Van Gogh, Immersive Exhibition,’ it was great
    to read your interpretation of his artwork. I was totally mesmerized by the exhibition. It was definitely
    a multi-sensory experience. The 200 paintings projected for the exhibition really showed his interest in many and varied subjects. I couldn’t get enough of his extensive, interesting, varied and colorful paintings. As attendants read his life story before the actual viewing of the paintings, really added to
    my appreciation of all his work. Keep posting your insights on great artists. They are so informative,
    well researched, and inspirational! Thank you for the thought, time, and effort you obviously
    take to enlighten and inspire all of us, I’m sure, who follow your posts!

    Reply
  21. Thank you for the informative read. I have always loved Van Gogh and this has given me a little more in-site into his works.

    Reply
  22. 70 years old and have taken up painting with wax. Yes I get accidental movement and can work with it.
    Now I’m ready to take more control of creating planned movement. Your Van Gogh photos and article was just what I needed as a starting guide in using my stylus in a controlled planned way using the broken colour theory that Van Gogh worked with. Am so excited to start a small practice board.
    Thanks for researching this fabulous artist sharing your view point and facts.

    Reply
    • And Van Goh’s legacy might be to inspire so many more though his life so tragic really-I struggle to create art and find so many who struggle more with life found their refuge and brilliance in art-thank you for sharing-it is a joy to read technique and context of the artist intertwined.

      Reply
  23. I truly love the loose yet somewhat recognizable images that are depicted in Van Gogh and in my own style of painting I lean heavily on texture and color with loose palette knife and brush strokes to convey form and story. I have played around with realism and abstract art but tend to always make my way back to combining them both so that the painting speaks for itself. My watercolors have always been painted realistically while my acyrlics are more in the impastor impressionists style.

    Reply
  24. I’ve always loved Van Goph works I studied his work for years. I painted Starry night, his sunflowers, and Thatched Cottages at Cordeville. ea ch one I changed to put a little of me in them. I created my own style, added to his. I also painted Michelle Courier she has the same style, flowing across the canvas everything is important. I would say there is no section more impotant than the other. I like your critique of his work.

    Reply
  25. I subscribe to your mailing list and have just found, with delight, the email that contains the Doctor Who clip of from the Vincent Van Gogh episode. This is my very favorite episode of Doctor Who! I’m a bit of a Whovian and have watched that episode many times, and have watched the clip even more. It never fails to move me. Though fictionalized, this episode made me feel a connection to Van Gogh, who’s been my favorite artist since I first discovered ‘Starry Night’ back in high school art class way back in 1968, as well as Six weeks of each instructional year was dedicated to Art History by our delightful young art teacher who was only a few years older than her students. A few years later came Don McLean’s beautifully written homage, ‘Starry Starry Night’. If you’re not familiar with the song, it’s worth a listen.

    Reply
  26. Thank you a lot. My music has been, unexpected, greatly inspired by Vincent van Gogh. Everytime I use a new theme, I find out he used to have a connection to it as well. I still don’t know what it means. Your website has helped me a lot getting a closer look at his work.
    Best
    Sora

    Reply

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