I was introduced to a new painting by Vincent van Gogh the other day, Interior of a Restaurant. I’m surprised that I’m still seeing van Gogh paintings for the first time, especially considering I’ve been writing about art for over seven years now. He may have lived a relatively short and turbulent life, but it sure was a prolific one. Let’s take a closer look at the painting.
- Key Details
- Intimate Composition
- Compressed Values and Dark Accents
- Other Readings
- Want to Learn More?
- Thanks for Reading!
- Medium: Oil on Canvas
- Size: 18 x 22 in (45.5 x 56 cm)
- Completed: 1887
- Current Location: Kröller-Müller Museum, Netherlands
It’s an intimate and tight composition, with no windows or open doors. It feels like we are right there in the restaurant. This was one of van Gogh’s greatest strengths—being able to capture and convey the subject’s true essence. The only break we get from the confines of the room is through a painting on the wall depicting open sky and land.
The rigid settings push a sense of linear perspective. As the viewer, we stand at an angle to the walls and the corner of the room is off-center in our line of vision. This results in all these diagonal lines that gently converge toward each other as they get further away. The tables also appear to flatten out as you go from right to left. Consider what the painting would look like had van Gogh painted directly in front of one of the walls. Flat and static I imagine.
Tip: The perspective and vantage point from which you convey the subject can greatly influence the overall composition.
As I was doing the above draw-over, I noticed several oddities in terms of perspective. For example, the painting appears slightly too flat in perspective compared to the rest of the wall. These slight oddities also play into the nature and charm of van Gogh’s work. It’s imperfect by design, as is life. And whilst van Gogh was not a stickler for precision, he did do enough to make it believable.
Below is the painting with a three-by-three grid over the top. This shows us how the painting is arranged in terms of the rule of thirds. The idea is that the gridlines and intersections are naturally aesthetic positions in a painting with mathematical foundations. See how the dimensions of the room roughly align with the left vertical and bottom horizontal grid lines and how each segment is unique.
There’s an interesting sense of diagonal balance between the top left and bottom right corners. The top left is further and quieter.
Van Gogh made good use of pointillism for the walls, floor, and flowers. Instead of blending the colors together, he painted distinct dabs of color in varying combinations. The result is a vibration of color that optically blends together.
It’s a particularly effective technique for injecting life and activity into otherwise bland areas. The downside is it comes at the expense of intricate drawing and rendering (you cannot hope to paint with the fine rendering of John Singer Sargent whilst painting with small dabs of color).
In the close-up below, notice how van Gogh suggests changes in the wall through changes in color. The more dramatic the change in color, the more dramatic the change in subject or environment.
The effect is more subtle with low-contrast colors. See parts of the tablecloths and how it’s hard to distinguish between the dabs of light green, yellow, and white. It also seems like van Gogh uses a different technique here. Instead of building up layers of distinct dabs, it looks like he painted a layer of white and then painted dabs of color over the top in the wet paint.
Van Gogh also used more solid brushwork for certain areas, such as the chairs, the painting on the wall, and the light fixture. This adds contrast and gives our eyes a break from all the dancing colors. Also, on a separate point, look at how van Gogh scratched details in the wet paint (refer to the close-up below). This is why it pays to look at paintings up close. You get to see all these tiny details that might otherwise elude you. Van Gogh was certainly not limited by technique; he did anything necessary to convey his ideas, whether that be scratching, dabbing, swirling, flat strokes, scumbling, and so on.
Compressed Values and Dark Accents
Below is the painting in grayscale:
Most of the colors are compressed around the middle to light gray value range. This makes the painting appear flat without color. It’s different to say, a painting by Rembrandt that utilizes a full value range from stygian blacks all the way up to brilliant highlights.
That’s the downside of using more color in a painting—it comes at the expense of the full value range. Unfortunately, you cannot paint with both the color of van Gogh and the drama, light, and shadow of Rembrandt. There’s always a trade-off.
There are two dark accents outside of the compressed value range. These act as small exclamation points that draw our attention and provide contrast for the lighter colors. This pairing of compressed values plus dark accents is one of my go-to strategies.
Want to Learn More?
If you want to learn more, you might be interested in Composition Breakdown. You’ll explore other great paintings and why they work.
Thanks for Reading!
Thanks for reading! What are your thoughts on the painting? Feel free to share in the comments.
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