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Van Gogh and Colour

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Following yesterday’s post about our visit to the Van Gogh experience, I wanted to return to the subject of his use of colour. In the first part of his career, he used a distinctly muddy palette, almost as if he was dipping his brush in the mud of the lowland fields where he was working. Later on, he established an approach that amplified colour, making vibrant choices that made no pretence at mere representation but stepped straight into expressionism (Van Gogh is widely regarded as the inspiration of the early 20th century expressionist movement).

The exhibition presented two conflicting theories of why his colours were so intense. In the ‘documentary’ section, it was suggested that he was partially colour-blind and painted brightly because he couldn’t distinguish between subtler shades. Poppycock and balderdash, say I. Van Gogh studied colour and the work of the French Impressionists. There were clear precepts for painting in response to what one sees and exploiting the growing understanding of optical science and colour perception. I think that the suggestions he couldn’t see colour is wrong and demeaning to both the artist and to the many who have followed further on those paths.

In another room (the opportunity to make your own artwork after the projected ‘immersive’ experience) there was a quote from Van Gogh about colour. Unfortunately, I didn’t jot it down but it conveyed very clearly that colour was a major strand in his work not because he struggled to see it but because he understood using it as part of the very essence of a painter’s craft.

I’m rather partial to a different theory, which does explain why his sense of colour changed, presented on the Artnome website. They suggest that the data gleaned from his paintings and the locations they were created points to a straightforward explanation. It was simply the move from more often overcast northern European climes to the bright and sunny south of France. I think there was an element of deliberate choice as well but, if you’ve ever spoken to an artist about the value of ‘light’ in different places, the location theory seems to having something going for it.

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