A Closer Look at “The Starry Night” by Vincent van Gogh

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In this post, I will be taking a closer look at “The Starry Night” by Vincent van Gogh, which he painted in 1889. With swirling lines and dramatic colors, this dreamy depiction is one of van Gogh’s most iconic works. 

“I don’t know anything with certainty, but seeing the stars makes me dream.” Vincent van Gogh

Vincent van Gogh, The Starry Night, 1889
Vincent van Gogh, The Starry Night, 1889

Interesting Facts About “The Starry Night”

  • The painting is based on van Gogh’s view from his room in the mental asylum at Saint-Rémy-de-Provence. It was painted from memory during the day, as he was not able to paint from his room. But he was able to create sketches in ink and charcoal. 
Vincent van Gogh, Starry Night (Drawing), 1889
Vincent van Gogh, Starry Night (Drawing), 1889
  • “The Starry Night” is one in a series of 21 versions based on the same subject. It is the only night version in the series. 
  • Letters from van Gogh to his brother Theo provide insights into van Gogh’s inspiration and fascination with the night. In 1889 he wrote, “Through the iron-barred window I can make out a square of wheat in an enclosure, above which in the morning I see the sun rise in its glory.”
  • Although it is one of his most famous works, he initially considered the painting to be a failure based on his letters to Theo.
  • Research suggests the moon was not actually in the crescent phase, as depicted in the painting. Rather, it would have been about three-quarters full, but van Gogh probably painted it this way for stylistic reasons.
  • Research also suggests that the brightest “star” in the painting, just to the right of the large cypress tree (pictured below), may actually be Venus which would have been visible at the time van Gogh was painting in the asylum.
The Starry Night - The Brightest Star

Swirling Brushwork Used to Create a Sense of Movement and Turbulence

When I think of “The Starry Night”, the first thing which comes to mind is the swirling brushwork which creates a sense of movement and turbulence, especially in the sky. In fact, a physicist by the name of Jose Luis Aragon suggested that the swirling brushwork in paintings like “The Starry Night” have an uncanny resemblance to the mathematical expression of real turbulence shown in natural occurrences like whirlpools and air streams. You can read more on this here.

Van Gogh used a loaded brush to build up a thick, impasto texture which you can see in the close-ups below. This impasto texture is a key feature in many of van Gogh’s works.

The Starry Night - Close Up Of Moon
The Starry Night - Close Up
The Starry Night - Close Up

Color and Light

In a letter to his brother Theo, van Gogh wrote that the “starry night is more alive and more richly colored than the day”. This may explain his exaggerated use of of color.

Van Gogh used rich blues and yellows to paint the night sky, with light greens scattered throughout. His lack of blending creates a broken color effect, which seems to reiterate the sense of movement and turbulence in the painting. The colors appear to vibrate as your eyes bounce between all the distinct colors.

He painted the light of the stars, moon and houses by contrasting vivid yellows and oranges against the blues and greens in the rest of the painting. If you look closely, you will see that in most cases he used a saturated yellow or orange in the centre, then used lighter but less saturated colors around the outside.

He used a light green almost as an interim color to transition from the bright yellows and oranges to the deep blues. Green being what you get when you mix yellow and blue together. By doing that, there appears to be some kind of color gradation even though he did not use any blending.

Where Realism Meets Abstraction

To me, this painting marks an interesting area somewhere between realism and complete abstraction. Van Gogh pushed the colors and style in order to depict his unique interpretation of the world, but not so much as to lose all qualities of realism and representation. You know exactly what the subject is, but it is far from what you would see in life.

I enjoy this area in painting as I think it allows for some personal expression, without departing too far from representational art standards.

But of course, this is all just personal commentary which does not really matter. There is no right answer with this kind of stuff. Some admire van Gogh for his unique interpretations, whilst others criticise him for stepping too far away from the boundaries of reality. It is just interesting to ponder over.

Key Takeaways

Here are some of the key takeaways of “The Starry Night” which you could incorporate into your own paintings:

  • Exaggerating certain elements like color and perspective can really help you depict the emotions and feelings you have about a subject. In this case, van Gogh exaggerated the colors, form and perspective to create a very dreamy depiction.
  • To paint light, you could use a strong color contrast, like yellow and orange against blue.
  • Directional brushwork can be used to create a sense of movement and turbulence in your painting.
  • By repeating similar techniques and processes, you end up creating a strong style which people can remember you by.

Additional Readings

11 Interesting Facts About Vincent van Gogh

Inspirational Quotes by Vincent van Gogh

How Vincent van Gogh Used Complementary Colors

Want to Learn More?

You might be interested in my Painting Academy course. I’ll walk you through the time-tested fundamentals of painting. It’s perfect for absolute beginner to intermediate painters.

Thanks for Reading!

I appreciate you taking the time to read this post and I hope you found it helpful. Feel free to share it with friends.

Happy painting!

Dan Scott

Draw Paint Academy

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84 comments on “A Closer Look at “The Starry Night” by Vincent van Gogh”

  1. Van Gogh’s work, especially his Starry Night series, always fascinated me. Thank you for this article – really interesting to read the colour theory behind his work. .

    Reply
  2. Thanks Dan for the emails.
    I like reading about technique. My wife and I saw “At Eternity’s Gate”, the new film
    about Van Gogh today. Interesting insights into him and his way of seeing. My wife says it is true to the Biography of him by Naifeh and Smith. I am just getting started with painting again after doing a little bit when I was 20 nearly 50 years ago.
    Thanks again
    Kind regards, Brian

    Reply
      • In the new movie Gauguin criticises VG for painting so quickly. He replies that it is the only way he can paint. G says but then you overpaint as though you are creating a sculpture. Interesting. William Dafoe does a great job playing VG. Many interesting insights.
        Also your next landscape course, is that oils or acrylics. I am using acrylics.
        Thanks, B

        Reply
  3. Thank you for this Vincent article, Dan. Really interesting and I love the technique / colour theory information. The turbulence in the landscape mirrors van Gogh’s own inner turmoil, and its so useful to have this described. Keep your articles coming, I love them and find them very inspiring! Thank you.

    Reply
      • Dear Dan,
        While Van Gogh is not my favorite, I appreciate his work much more when you feature them and comment on them. I am a 71 year old woman who has had a passion to paint since my childhood but as an adult have never picked up a brush. I have my mothers oils, a beautiful easel, a supply of canvas boards and mother’s various art books. I think I have a fear of failure, which I would really like to overcome. My personal favorite is Desgas.
        I live in the Ozarks in southwestern Missouri USA and have a plethora of beauty around my property. I am drawn to trying watercolor and would live to make my own paint.
        Thank you Dan for giving me hope and encouragement through these emails.
        Sara Trout

        Reply
  4. How you manage to find the time for your wonderfully informative ideas and tips for keen amateur painters, I have no idea. But, I do have enormous respect and gratitude that you do. Keep them coming please. I am hopeful that I can set aside a time from my work to become one of your course students. Watercolour is my medium so when a course slants towards that, I shall move mountains to be on it. Thank you for your generosity to us all.

    Reply
    • Thanks for your kind words Clare. It is easy to find the time when you enjoy doing it. Just glad to be able to help so many people. Planning to do some watercolor work this year! Will keep you posted. Thanks again, Dan

      Reply
  5. It is moving to listen to Don MacLean’s ” Vincent” while viewing Starry Night. It was written as a tribute to Van Gogh’s turbulent life.

    Reply
  6. Thanks, Dan for the post! Really like to read more of “A Closer Look” to get to know more paintings. I’m just started to learn acrylic painting and I like your techniques and color posts. Keep it up!

    Reply
  7. This was very interesting I had forgotten he was in an asylum. Your facts are easy to read and remember. Love this please do more.

    Reply
  8. Dan, Thanks for the post. Great info throughout.
    I visited a show at a museum on the outskirts of Philadelphia, PA many years ago and was stunned by Van Gogh’s paintings there. The color and energy he put into his paintings can still be felt! Amazing.
    He has been a favorite since I was a young child.
    Please continue to post and show us more.
    Best, Larry

    Reply
  9. Your discussion of Van Gough’s Starry Night was great. Short, to the point with bullet points. Informative and helpful. Keep these discussions coming.

    Reply
  10. Although I don’t care for Van Gough, the article is very interesting, and would like to hear about other master’s of art. I started painting a year And a half ago, and I love the creativity.

    Reply
  11. Hello Dan yes Thank you for this post. I really needed some insight, I’m busy creating my own interpretation of Starry Night for my Wife.
    Marco

    Reply
  12. Thanks for this great article, Dan. I have been lucky enough to see many of his works in various locations, (St-Remy, Arles, and in several museums.) I am looking forward to seeing the Van Gogh exhibit at the Atelier des Lumieres in Paris at the end of April.
    Sue

    Reply
  13. Having just started painting, and I have a lot to learn, thought I would have a ‘go’ at one of the Masters. Van Gough came to mind. Searching through a pile of eltronuc reproductions I came across this one by Van Gough. I did not like my effort. However I found myself going back to it continually. There is something in that painting that touches something deep within me. I knew nothing of its history till reading your article Dan. I decided to have another go and let “whatever” emerge from within me. Hmmmm!

    Reply
  14. Van Gogh had a special intuition. I always liked this painting because when I studied climatology I understood that this is how the air moves due to its different densities derived from temperature differences, which cause turbulence. This is well known to paragliders and helicopter riders!
    I do not know how to add an illustration to the comment, but it can be found in a manual for paragliders.

    Reply
    • Thanks Cecilia! Very interesting. Unfortunately you cannot add images to comments, but feel free to email it to me. Dan

      Reply
  15. Thanks Dan, I am a physician and have allways thought that he had glaucom, that would explain the rings around the stars. just m thoughts.

    Reply
  16. Dan did you get my comment on Van Gogh, as a physician I have always thought He a condition called glaucoma, which would explain the rings around the stars, or any bright light at night.

    Reply
  17. Oh yes,Dan. More. I really enjoyed the Van Gogh article. Never realized he used light green in the stars. Cezanne is one I would love to understand more about. His method is a mystery to me. Many thanks.

    Reply
  18. Dan, thank you for breaking this dps so clearly. I am 75 and have been painting since I was nine. You are the best instructor of painting I hAve ever had. What a privilege. Please continue as you get the time as this is of great value.

    Reply
  19. Wonderful Article, Dan. Thank-you. I, like others would like more articlers on masterworks, perhaps from artists on the verge of their particular style, similar to van gogh. On hindsight, you have done a pretty good job of doing just that so far, do please for our sake, keep up the good work. I am hoping to support you soon through taking a course, not simply to support you, I need it ! LOL Thank you for your insight.

    Will Burgess

    Reply
  20. Hi Dan, what else is there to add in positive comments about your article on vanGogh? I love to see and hear more on any of these Old Masters! I did a painting on vG’s one with the irises at the bottom. To learn his technique. Was fun to do. Further I am asked on a number of occassions how come they see something of vG in my paintings and one even asked (tongue in cheek) if I was maybe a descendant of vG! Being a Dutchy! ? Pls keep going with these posts!!!

    Reply
  21. I have never been a fan of van Gogh. However, I am not walking away from the fact that he is well accepted by the art world now (not while he was alive, unfortunately. On the other hand, I understand his techniques after your in depth explanation in a language that I can understand. I may even use some, if not all, of his approach.

    Thank you for this very informative note.

    Reply
  22. Thank you for the insights. When my children were at school they had to paint in the style of various artists and had to copy certain famous pictures, including this one. I am learning to paint and wonder if you would recommend copying famous pictures.
    I would like to read your comments on other famous pictures, so look forward to you continuing this series.

    Reply
    • Hi Liz.

      I would certainly recommend it. It is a great exercise to try and copy the masters. But of course, try painting your own subjects as well.

      More painting breakdowns to come!

      Cheers

      Dan

      Reply
  23. I teach a few private middle school age students, and a small elementary afterschool class. We started painting Starry Night two weeks ago. You have perfect timing! We read a children’s book about the life of Van Gogh before we started painting. It was interesting to hear what they had to say about his life. While I will only highlight portions of your article, I will still use it in class. Your photos will make it easier for me to discuss his use of texture and directional paint strokes to create movement. Thank you so much. It is important for artists (at any level) to pass it on to the next generation. You have helped me do that. Kindest Regards.

    Reply
  24. I initiated a drawing class for senior women 4 years ago, with the idea of helping them to re-connect with their creativity. Your suggestions are timely and contribute to the richness of our class.
    Many thanks

    Reply

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