Monday Motivator: The ‘Secret’ to Van Gogh’s Red

Art motivational quote“…I had ranged the reds from pink to orange, which rose into the yellows as far as lemon with light and dark greens.”

— Vincent van Gogh writing to Theo about painting a portrait of Roulin?s wife, 22 January 1889

What I take from this is to not think of a colour as limited to only tubes marked that colour, but to include analogous colours too (colours that sit alongside one another on the colour wheel). So, not thinking of red as reds alone, but including yellow and orange as well as purple and blue. For blue to include green and yellow. Yellow to include green and orange, and so on.

Or put another way, the ‘secret’ to Van Gogh’s beautiful reds is to use more than only red.

Never Use White in a Painting?

Some artists didactically insist black should not be used in a painting, often supported by the argument that the Impressionists didn’t. Do you ever hear it said about any other colour?

If you wouldn’t use black to darken a colour, then perhaps using white to lighten it shouldn’t be automatic either? The main problem is few colours are light in tone (though some do come in “light” and “dark” versions). You might lighten a red with a bit of yellow, but how would you lighten a yellow?

Sunset over the Minch monoprints by Marion Boddy-Evans
Sunset over the Minch monoprints

I think where “don’t use white” should be considered is when you’re working with the lightest tones on a painting. Don’t automatically use pure white, use very pale yellow, blue, red, green, purple first. Take a look at Monet’s snow paintings to see what interesting colours “white snow” can be (for example Lavacourt under Snow in the National Gallery in London).

A monoprint I made a few years ago has pale blue that seems lighter than the white of the paper (the top one in the photo). I think it’s the coolness of the blue that does this, against the warm white of the paper.