Upon returning home, I discussed the trip with the librarian who runs the Adult Artist Workshop at the Red Bank Public Library, where I serve as Artist in Residence. She kindly directed me to a book of VanGogh's letters, most of which were written to his brother Theo. Reading his letters, I have come to a greater admiration of VanGogh, not only as a painter, but as a marvelous writer and philosopher as well.
In his letters, VanGogh described his learning process and the details of many of his paintings, as well as his approach to life and his daily experiences. Prior to this I had thought of VanGogh as a free form post impressionist with a rather loose, slap dash, emotional and expressionistic stye. I have come to appreciate him as a most analytic artist with a very scientific and thoughtfully structured approach to producing his art.
There are many examples of his analytic approach through preparatory studies, brushwork, color, etc. As I internalize his approaches I will describe them in future Blog Posts. In this post I will describe How I have used one of his approaches to color.
In his letters, VanGogh describes his environment and potential painting motifs with amazingly precise color adjectives. The following are three examples.
The following is his description of an evening walk along the shore. "One night I went for a walk by the sea along the empty shore. It was not gay, but neither was it sad - it was - beautiful. The deep blue sky was flecked with clouds of blue deeper than the fundamental blue of intense cobalt, and others of a clearer blue, like the blue whiteness of the Milky Way. In the blue depth the stars were sparkling, greenish, yellow, white, pink, more brilliant, more sparklingly gemlike that at home - even in Paris: opals you might call them emeralds, lapis lazuli, rubies, sapphires. The sea was very deep ultramarine - the shore a sort of violet and faint russet as I saw it, and the dunes ... some bushes Prussian blue."
The following is his description of his choice of colors in the motifs that he is painting. "I am doing a canvas of roses wit a light green background and two canvases represemtomg big bunches of violet irises, one lot against a pink background in which the effect is soft and harmonious because of the combination of greens, pinks, violets. On the other hand, the the other violet bunch (ranging from carmine to pure Prussian blue) stands out against a startling iron background, with other yellow tones in the vase and the stand on which it rests, so it is an effect of tremendously disparate compliments, which strengthen each other by their juxtaposition."
The following is an example how he used color to express emotion. "in my picture of the "Night Cafe" I have tried to express the idea that the cafe is a place where on can ruin oneself, go mad or commit a crime. So I have tried to express, as it were, the powers of darkness in a low public house, by soft Louis XV green and malachite, contrasting with yellow-green and harsh blue-greens, and all of this in a atmosphere like a devil's furnace, of pale sulphur."
I think that this is an amazing ability to describe the totality of what he is seeing or feeling directly in terms of a pallet of paint! He could do this before he began to paint. This is the opposite of the way I had been doing business. Having restarted my painting career with plein air alla prima type painting I had fallen into an approach of trying to match the colors that i could find in the motif.
VanGogh appeared to work out the complete color scheme in his head prior to initiating his painting. He would choose the color pallet to achieve the type of harmony or emotional impact that he wanted to achieve. He stated that matching the colors in the physical motif was secondary to selecting colors that would harmonize and convey the emotion that he wanted to present.
In the Amsterdam VanGogh Show they had on display a wooden box containing many small balls of colored yarn. VanGogh used these colored yarns to test the harmony of the potential colors that he was considering to include in his painting.
This illustrated to me how he carefully thought through his approach to a painting prior to applying paint to canvas. I decided to try to adapt this lesson to my next painting, realizing that I will only be able to take a small step in my current approach to representational painting.
The motif I chose was a beach scene with a very dramatic sky. I decided that I wanted to use a minimum color set, initially paint and blend the sky with a wet in wet technique, and exploit a blue orange complement strategy to achieve some spark to the painting. I also decided that I would use a rough panel so that I could achieve the sparkle in water by scumbling lighter colors over the water surface.
My first step was, through some pre-painting testing, to choose three tones of blue as the basis for the sky. As described in previous posts, I use a limited pallet of modern colors. Therefore, the colors that I use never match classic tube colors exactly. I premixed three pools of blue, as depicted in the following photo of my pallet.
One pool was a violet blue pool (something like ultramarine), a green blue pool (something like cerulean), and an inbetween blue (something like cobalt). To both neutralize the blues, tint the clouds, and to provide a basis for the sand beach I mixed three other pools of paint. These pools are the basic color components of naples yellow, yellow ochre, and burnt sienna.
Note that I do not have tubes of naples yellow, yellow ochre, or burnt sienna. However, the three pools above, each of which is a different combination of yellow, red and green, when appropriately diluted with white will yield colors similar to the tube colors of naples, ochre and sienna. An advantage of this technique is that I can create colors with either more or less white, and I can use either an opaque titanium white or a very transparent zinc white to achieve a wide range of hues and tones within the color families.
Having thought all of this out ahead of time, following the example that i learned from VanGogh, I then was ready to begin to paint!
The following is the initial painting that resulted.
When these had dried, I added the details of the surf and the rock jetty. I also painted in a dark base color of the sea, which matched one of the darker colors of the sky, over which I subsequently blended and scumbled lighter colors of the sky and clouds as they would be reflected on the water. I also blended both orange and a blue components reflected from the sky to achieve a lively and complementary beach.
I found this painting process very satisfying. It was based on a pre thought out plan and color strategy, alla VanGogh The first step used the pre planned color pools wet in wet. There were then subsequent sessions where mixtures of the same color pools were used to add details and to refine the drawing and the color harmonies and complements. My thanks to Vincent!