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
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.
- "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.
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.
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.
(If you want to learn more about color, make sure to grab my free Color Theory Cheat Sheet).
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 from "The Starry Night"
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.