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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
The strokes follow a curved theme. This helps inject life and gesture into the painting. Consider what the painting would look like had van Gogh pushed a more linear theme. Flat and static I imagine. Steve Huston provides some great insight into curved lines and gesture in his book, Figure Drawing for Artists. He wrote, "The world is full of watery design lines. Just look around ... Every organic thing-rivers, clouds, fire, smoke, drapery, branches, vines and flower petals, rock and soil formations, a blade of grass-has that watery quality."
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.
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.
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.
"So if you want to do, as the artists do, go look at the red and white poppies with their bluish leaves, their buds soaring on gracefully bent stems." Letter to Wilhelmina van Gogh, 2 July 1889
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.
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.
For the same reason that a salad grub has to eat salad roots for its higher development — so I believe that a painter has to make paintings — perhaps that there’s something else after that." Letter to Willemien van Gogh, 24 February 1888
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:
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?"
- 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's. He spent his life in poverty and turmoil, unaware of his eventual metamorphosis into perhaps the most recognizable name in the art world.
Thanks for Reading!
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