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Van Gogh and the Method to his Madness, and the color Yellow

by Shawn Dell Joyce

This week in my Classical Training class at Dunedin Fine Art Center, we are studying Vincent Willem van Gogh. He was a Dutch Post-Impressionist painter who posthumously became one of the most famous and influential figures in Western art history. In a period of 10 years, he created about 2,100 artworks, including around 860 oil paintings, most of which date from the last two years of his life. This is amazingly prolific. I produce, on average, a painting a day, or a good painting once a week (1 out of 7) but Van Gogh did about twice that in his later years. Many of his works were also undocumented, possibly used for barter and otherwise gifted and lost to art history.

During his life, his brother Theo sold only 1 of Vincent's paintings. He painted with ZERO awards, applause, or even kind words from the art influencers of his day. Only his friend Gauguin and his brother Theo believed in him, and his vision.

Van Gogh was ruthless in his pursuit of art. He spent all day, everyday, painting. He spent all his money and more on art supplies (I know this feeling!) and even wrote to Theo that his teeth hurt and were falling out from malnutrition. Truth is, he suffered from obsession, and also from true mental problems, some of which may have resulted from heavy-metal poisioning from "pointing" his brushes and imbibing small amounts of toxic paint pigments.

On thing inherent in his work is that you can recognize it a mile away. The hand of the artist is very clear in Van Gogh's work. His short brush strokes that follow the shapes of what he paints (think of the cosmos in Starry Night) and the thick texture which he applied the paint give an indication of the method to his madness.

Van Gogh simplified his subjects, then painted them with simple strokes and values, building up daubs of color like pixels. He was also in love with a new shade of yellow recently released on the market called "Indian Yellow" that acquired and added to all his paintings including the moon in Starry Night.

His iconic Sunflowers which currently holds the market for the the most expensive painting sold at auction for over $33M, was one of 5 paintings he did is a very short span of a bouquet of sunflowers on his kitchen table. In my class, we are studying his method by using modern tech.

Simplifying a motif is like pixelating an image. You break it down into abstract shapes of color and value. Instead of painting "sunflowers" you are now painting shapes of different colors. This objectification helps you to REALLY see what you are looking at and paint it-not what you THINK you see!

This is crucial because the mind plays tricks on you, and as soon as you name it; "sunflower" you mind substitutes a stored, memorized symbol for sunflower and that's what you paint. This concept is from Betty Edward's "Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain." A ground-breaking book that combines neural science with creativity.

When you simplify an image, you have no vocabulary to substitute for blocks of color and value and it forces you to paint what you actually see.

Here's a reference photo my friend Karim shot and I used for a demo in class...

Now a painter (Like Van Gogh) looks at this photo and breaks it down to simple shapes of color and value. This is what we see...

Use this reference photo instead to start off your painting. Block in daubs of color just like these pixelated squares (don't have to use square shapes). Just put the daubs where you see them. When I paint, I paint it EXACTLY like that with blocks of color and value. This is the underpainting for my finished piece...

It really doesn't look like much-just tonal interpretations of the shapes and colors in the still life. This abstracted version is the underpainting. The goal is to cover the whole surface of the canvas with paint. You have "blocked in" how you can start refining some of the shapes into flowers and work up the finished piece. For the next step, look at the original photo (unpixelated) and work from it to refine a few edges to create a beautiful painting...

"VIncent's Boquet" Pastel 11x14 $600

This is one of those skills that you build by doing it a few times. I use an app on my phone to pixelate images and see the patterns of values. I try to paint from that pixelated image first. Get the big shapes and value patterns in place then refine a few edges that are important to me (not to the camera).

This method is not much different from Van Gogh's simplification, or even the Impressionist's simplification of the subject. Try this at home and see for yourself.

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