Most people characterize Vincent van Gogh’s work for its bold, swirling strokes. But he was much more dynamic than just that. I have spent the last few weeks looking over his entire portfolio, including over 800 paintings, to get a feel for how he painted and his preferred techniques and processes. Here are my findings.
- Bold, Directional Brushwork and a Sense of Movement
- Use of Color
- Emotion and Stylization
- Same Subject, Different Conditions
- Thanks for Reading!
Bold, Directional Brushwork and a Sense of Movement
Let’s start with the obvious one: bold, directional brushwork. Most of his paintings feature this brushwork in some form or another. His strokes take you on a journey around the painting as they twist, turn, and swirl around the subject. This gives his work a unique sense of movement and vibration. The directional strokes also reiterate the subject’s form and contours.
For these bold directional strokes to work, van Gogh must have had an uncanny sense of movement and space. Take his iconic Starry Night, for example. He didn’t study physics, yet his depiction of the sky’s movement and turbulence is surprisingly accurate. (This video explains it well: The unexpected math behind van Gogh’s Starry Night.) That’s why his paintings read well, albeit dramatized.
If you look closely, you’ll see that each bold and impasto stroke leaves tiny cast shadows and highlights on the painting. This adds a dynamic three-dimensional quality. As you move around the painting and look at it from different angles, its appearance will change slightly as the tiny shadows and highlights move and the impasto strokes become more or less pronounced (more pronounced from the side). I noticed this when I visited the van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam in my early 20s (no photos, sorry). I also saw it to a lesser extent at the European Masterpieces exhibition here in Brisbane. Van Gogh’s painting, The Flowering Orchard, was on display. It’s not his most textured work, but there are a few impasto strokes.
Below is a closeup I took. Can you spot the tiny cast shadows and highlights on individual strokes?
You can also see a high-resolution photo of the painting here. Make sure to zoom in on the details.
Van Gogh often used dark outlining to accentuate objects. This was likely the influence of Japanese art and woodblock prints, which he was particularly fond of.
Outlining is a simple but powerful technique if you want something to stand out in your painting. But it’s more stylistic than realistic. We don’t see objects in the world neatly defined by dark outlines. They simply exist and there’s an immediate transition between one object and the surrounding colors. That’s why you don’t see outlining used as much by more realistic painters like John Singer Sargent or Joaquín Sorolla. They focus more so on tonal shifts to define objects. But it’s still a powerful technique to have in your back pocket, no matter your painting style.
I remember being inspired by van Gogh’s outlining in my painting, Montville, Tree in Mist. I used ultramarine blue outlines to help distinguish the fern leaves from the surrounding nature.
I also used van Gogh-like outlining and swirls in Maleny, Late Afternoon. I lifted paint from the surface with a cotton bud to create light outlines around the clouds.
Tip: When exploring the work of other artists, you should always be on the lookout for techniques and processes you could adopt in your own work. This isn’t copying, as one technique doesn’t define an artist and you’ll invariably put your own spin on it. Over time, you’ll develop a vast and vertisile range of techniques at your disposal.
There are several examples of pointillism in van Gogh’s work. Pointillism being the use of many tiny dots or dabs of color to convey the subject.
He typically used it for busy and up-close nature compositions, such as Undergrowth. The colors vibrate and dance on the canvas and there’s a quality of realism about it, despite the strong stylization. Van Gogh also used the tiny dabs to convey movement and activity, as if the grass and leaves are blowing with the wind.
Another example of van Gogh’s pointillism is Interior of a Restaurant. He used it to inject life into the walls and floor. Notice how different color combinations suggest different surfaces.
Most artists associated with pointillism—Georges Seurat, Paul Signac, Henri-Edmond Cross, etc.—were defined by the technique and used it exclusively in many of their paintings. But van Gogh used it more sparingly, often as just one of many other techniques. In Interior of a Restaurant, he used pointillism for the walls and floor and more refined brushwork and flat color shapes for everything else.
In his Lilac Bush painting below, he combined pointillism with dark outlining and a few flat color shapes. He also varied the nature of his brushwork to match the different parts of the subject. For the sky, he used more horizontal strokes; for the feature plants, he used more variance and contrast; for the grass at the bottom, he used punchy, vertical strokes.
Use of Color
Van Gogh started his art career with a dull and restrained color palette. Grays and browns dominate his early works. There’s also a sadness about them.
Around 1886, when van Gogh was in his early 30s, he found color and didn’t look back. If I had to pick a turning point, it would be his Le Moulin de la Galette painting, with its rich blues, reds, oranges, and greens.
At his best, van Gogh could push the colors as far as they could go without appearing garish or overdone. He did this by pushing in the direction of the subject and by following strong and logical color themes. He might use warmer and brighter colors for a sunset, richer blues for a clear midday sky, or more brilliant greens for plants and foliage. Whilst he did exaggerate and stylize the subjects, he always kept one foot in reality.
It’s also worth mentioning his fondness for yellow. Many of his paintings are a tribute to yellow’s brilliance.
Wheat Field With Reaper and Sun is particularly stunning. It glows like sunlight itself.
He also mentions yellow in many letters, often with quite vivid descriptions. In a letter to one of his sisters, he wrote:
“Now we are having beautiful warm, windless weather that is very beneficial to me. The sun, a light that for lack of a better word I can only call yellow, bright sulfur yellow, pale lemon gold. How beautiful yellow is!” – Vincent van GoghLetter to his sister, 1888 (Source)
Van Gogh worked fast. In just over a decade, he created over 2,000 drawings and paintings. His latter years were particularly prolific and yielded many of his most iconic works, such as Café Terrace at Night and Starry Night. It’s as if he was hit with a wave of ideas and creativity that he had to get out onto the canvas and knew he didn’t have much longer to work. Financial constraints may have also played a role, as painting fast may have meant less wasted paint from drying on the palette.
His rapid approach plays into the charm of his work. There’s a sense of spontaneity and honesty about it. It’s as though he didn’t have time to refine his thoughts and ideas; he just had to get them out onto the canvas.
It also likely influenced his choice of tools and techniques. He did whatever was necessary to achieve the desired marks. That included using palette knives, his fingers, paint straight from the tube onto the canvas, ratty old brushes, mixing on the canvas, and the blunt end of the brush. This is a good way to approach your tools. Be open-minded and remember that nothing is out of bounds. Don’t limit yourself to thinking that you must always use “X” tool to paint “Y” (like a fan brush to paint leaves).
Of course, this approach won’t work for everyone. In untrained hands, it will only lead to frustration and a mess on the canvas. To paint fast, you must have a level of experience and intuition to back it up. You may also simply prefer a more controlled and calculated approach, and that’s fine.
Emotion and Stylization
Van Gogh’s work has a strong emotional foundation. He didn’t just paint what he saw; he painted how he felt and experienced the subject. That’s why his work appears to be relatable and honest.
His paintings suggest he was quite sensitive to the world around him and all the emotions and feelings that come with it. I imagine he felt everything and he felt it strong, with his work ranging from deeply saddening portraits to colorful and cheery landscapes.
Tip: Observation is an essential part of being an artist, but that’s not limited to observing the physical world around us. It’s also about observing the more subtle aspects of life—the mood, atmosphere, and emotions.
Same Subject, Different Conditions
There are several examples of van Gogh painting the same subject over and over again under different conditions. Below are a few of his orchard paintings from 1888. Perhaps this was to study changes in light and color. Or perhaps he wanted to capture different aspects of the subject. Claude Monet also did this but on a much larger scale and with a keener and more apparent interest in color and light. If I had to guess, I would say van Gogh was more interested in exploring the emotion and character of the subject than the study of color and light.
It’s worth taking a brief look through this chronological list of van Gogh’s paintings to see common subjects and other patterns and themes.
Thanks for Reading!
I appreciate you taking the time to read this post and I hope you found it helpful. If you ever want to learn more, I invite you to join Color Masterclass. Enrollment is open for the next week.
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