Color experiments: Van Gogh’s Sunflower Paintings

The Dutch Painter Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890), regarded as the founder of the Impressionist Movement, used unusual colors at that time. He was always experimenting with color. 

Because Van Gogh usually didn’t use the real natural colors of his objects, art historians believe they can get a glimpse of Vincent’s mental world by knowing more about the colors used in all the Vincent’s artwork.

In this article, we’ll briefly look at Van Gogh’s life to better understand his emotions, which influenced his use of colors. Then we’ll discuss his use of colors in his artwork.

Vincent van Gogh’s Life and Mental State in a Nutshell

Early Years

Vincent van Gogh lived from 1853 to 1890, but his artistic career only started in 1881. In this short artistic career of only ten years, he created about 2,100 artworks. As a child, he was always thoughtful and began drawing early. As a young man, he became an art dealer and traveled extensively. However, when he was transferred to London for an “office job,” he became depressed and decided to leave the art environment and turn to religion. He then worked as a Protestant missionary in southern Belgium. 

Van Gogh, the Artist

In 1881, however, he decided to become a full-time painter. To enable him to start an artistic career, his younger brother supported him financially. But Vincent van Gogh suffered from periods of what was called insanity at that time, but he was most of the time sane and lucid. He worked non-stop in the periods between his breakdowns, but when he was in the midst of a breakdown, he didn’t paint at all. 

Vincent van Gogh’s drawings and paintings were created in different periods, including when he was in asylums. But it must be remembered that he was an artistic genius who suffered from a mental illness and was not an insane painter. Furthermore, Van Gogh was an artistic genius who experimented with colors and was not using unusual colors “by accident.” Instead, he used colors that affected the viewers’ emotions when looking at the depicted objects. 

Van Gogh’s Mental State and Death

During his life, Van Gogh spent some time in psychiatric hospitals. During one of his psychotic episodes, he severed a part of his left ear with a razor. His last stay in an asylum was at his own request, and he discharged himself. It is believed that after he had discharged himself, he shot himself in the chest. Two days later, he died. 

Things to remember about Van Gogh’s color Experiments

The Colors are not natural and realistic

Vincent van Gogh deliberately used colors to capture mood and emotion. He was continuously experimenting to find the exact colors he had in mind to convey the emotion he felt. So, when you look at a Van Gogh painting, you first must remember that the colors used in Vincent van Gogh’s drawings and paintings are not realistic and natural because Van Gogh used color to convey emotions. 

“Unusual” Colors 

You’ll find “unusual” colors for that time in Van Gogh’s paintings, including yellow ocher, chrome yellow, vermilion, ultramarine (a deep blue color), lead white, and black.  

Although art scholars can scientifically explain why and how Vincent van Gogh mixed and applied the different “unusual “colors on his canvases, Van Gogh didn’t “calculate” scientifically what to mix and how to apply it on the canvas. Instead, he instinctively and inspired experimented on the canvas until he was satisfied. The way he used color just confirms what an inspired genius he was. 

A popular Theory

Interestingly, a popular theory behind Van Gogh’s color choices shifts to lighter, yellowish colors is that he might have suffered from xanthopsia, or “yellow vision.” It is a color vision deficiency with a predominance of yellow in the vision.

Use of color in the most famous Vincent van Gogh Artworks – the “Sunflower” Series

You’ll find eleven titles with “Sunflower” as part of the list of Vincent van Gogh paintings names. This is because Van Gogh painted at least eleven canvases with sunflowers as the subject. With the “Sunflower” series, he specifically experimented with the shades and tints of yellow. 

Variations on a yellow theme

Some art scholars describe the “Sunflower” paintings of Vincent van Gogh as “variations on a yellow theme.” Van Gogh wrote at a stage that the yellow color was meant to illuminate his days and draw him back from the “darkness” of his depression. 

In the “Sunflowers” series, he limited his palette to yellowish colors. He utilizes yellow as its predominant color, but only in tints and shades. Actually, “Sunflowers” feature tiny “pure” yellow.

Vase With Twelve Sunflowers II – Vincent Van Gogh

The symbolic value of Color

As part of Van Gogh’s experimenting with colors, he also used color symbolically. For example, he said at a stage that yellow symbolizes the sun. That was why he used yellow in the “Sunflower” paintings and painted the flowers with almost no shadows or complementary colors. For Van Gogh, the yellow color conveyed a message of life, energy, happiness, and hope. 

Interestingly, it has been scientifically proven that the sunflower has a psychological effect and that this is one of the reasons why Van Gogh’s “Sunflower” paintings seem timeless.

Use of color in Van Gogh’s other paintings

For the early paintings on the Van Gogh list, he usually used dark colors like most other Dutch painters of the time. Although Van Gogh initially painted his early artworks mainly in dark colors, he was always curious about how color can convey emotion. He read many books on color theory. Complementary colors fascinated him, and he discovered that yellow and purple, blue and orange, and red and green intensified each other.

In his later works, he added bright colors, including yellow, orange-red, blue, and green. As explained earlier in this article, the mood he wanted to convey in every artwork determined the colors he used. He used complementary colors to brighten and create contrast in some of the artwork on the always famous Van Gogh paintings list. 

Besides Van Gogh’s experimentation with “lighter” colors like yellow, he still used dark colors when depressed. In his painting “Shoes,” for instance, he used a lot of brown and khaki colors because he wanted to show the viewer the hard life and humility of the shoe owner.

Rest From Work (after Millet) – Vincent Van Gogh

Conclusion

Although Vincent van Gogh only had a 10-year artistic career, his experiments with color influenced many painters at the beginning of the 20th century. Most of his usage and ideas of color became characteristics of the Impressionist movement.