Go Go van Gogh

Why do we love Vincent van Gogh so much? I mean, he really seems to be the universal equalizer of art-taste everyone loves him from the art snobs to the fresh-eyed n00b, cynics and optimists. His work seems to embody something universally moving and enjoyable.

Why? It’s a big question. But I think it’s easy to imagine how easily accessible he is. He incorporates bright, intense colors into every painting that grab our attention. His famous yellow sunflowers burn like bright suns, and those same sunny tones often penetrate his deep midnight blues for a fantastic skylines or great city scenes. His peasant work also incorporates the same blue-yellow duo, that, while equally saturated, incorporate softer tones of bright sky and golden hay.

Take the image above, for instance. It incorporates lots of greens in with the classic blues and golds, and we even see black (the impressionists never would have dared…) You may notice the mountains are very tall, vertical, stark. They seem to lack depth, right? Mr. Vincent, like other avant-garde artists of his day, were looking to Japanese woodcuts to redefine the horizon line. If you look at a Japanese wood-cut, you probably won’t realize exactly what looks odd in the painting, but it’s the horizon line! It’s been raised so that the foreground takes up a greater portion of the picture. The lack of depth is a side effect–the intended side effect in this case. The forest and the mountains blend organically into one another–as if they all rose vertically on trunks in front of us, forming a near sheer wall of nature!

van Gogh's study

Of course, this isn’t the only thing that helps the trees and the mountain into one giant mass of beautiful nature! Van Gogh’s famous swirling shapes blend the two together visually, making each seem like they’re a part of one giant mold of play-dough–a very striated glop of play-dough. What I like about this painting so much, is that these shapes immediately grab and interest us making him accessible. But van Gogh doesn’t just draw a line to make them swirl. Let me explain, if I tried to make a tree swirl it would look something like this:

Uses the tone of color to create swirling motion–the colors themselves create the movement through through the piece. If the plebeian way I’ve described this makes it seem less than epic, do the classic art trick: step away from the panting and just look at the way color (overall) fades and reforms in the painting. From the very bottom we see light dusty gold, then it gets green in the trees, gold, green, and again: gold to green up in the sky. Blue and black form low lights that add more movement. He gets the color he wants without sacrificing the shapes on the page because he uses the tone of whatever color he wants to give that space shape. For instance (I’m looking at the peaks of the mountains), when he wants to both bring blue into his canvas and give the mountain shape he inserts blue in the form of lines, integrated also with green, so it looks like shading. Look around at other painters, they will use a darker version of the same color to shade (ie green on a mountain, dark green to form shadows), van Gogh introduces a whole new color, just because he wants it there! It’s pretty radical. This integration of line and color means that he integrates the affect/mood (color) directly into the shapes/subject matter (line).

Basically, van Gogh distorts the horizon line, because flatness as a background was the new direction, but he still manages three-dimensional movement in the mountains! (beautiful contradiction for one image, no?) And he pulls this contradiction off by (wait for it…) he uses whatever color he wants to make shape! And when you step back it looks like one wave of swirling color (and we’ve circled neatly back to one flat wave–flatness, where we began) it’s beautiful :)

detail from van Gogh's irises

As a second example (because I couldn’t help myself) van Gogh created amazing depth of color in two ways here: One–his stems–he gets three colors in and doesn’t sacrifice line because he uses the line (the outline of each leaf) as an excuse to bring in blue! Two–the red clay ground–actually I have no idea if it’s supposed to be red clay or not. But the red really looks beautiful doesn’t it? This is the old trick, borrowed from his forefathers–the impressionists. Lots of colors, all pixilated together (to use the term retroactively)–and the overall effect gives more vibrant color because there’s so many going on!

If you want a contemporary’s painting to compare, look here! You’ll find a lack of “pixilation” (peppering of color) and certainly no outlines for shapes to bring in exuberant colors :) Each had a different objective, but I think this helps us remember how special van Gogh’s style really is!

Leibl--German Realist