Van Gogh’s Use of Color


Vincent van Gogh is perhaps one of the most famous painters in modern society. A self-taught painter often associated with bold, bright colors due to the paintings of his later career in France (Vellekoop 247), Van Gogh was strongly influenced by the works of others. His color theory, derived from the color theories of Eugène Delacroix, was based heavily on the juxtaposition of primary and secondary colors known as the law of simultaneous contrast. A concept first described by Michel Eugène Chevreul, the law of simultaneous contrast as well as tonal contrasts and the relativity of color formed the basis of Van Gogh’s color theory as seen in his works The Potato Eaters, Head of a Woman, and The Bedroom.

Van Gogh did not discover color until September 1883 when he was thirty years old and had been an artist for three years (Swerdlow 142). His ideas about color were developed through his detailed study of Eugène Delacroix’s color theories. Van Gogh read about Delacroix’s color theories in Charles Blanc’s Grammaire des arts du dessin: architecture, sculpture, peinture, “which explained the action of complementary colors – colors opposite each other in the color wheel” (Vellekoop 248). The first color in each pair of complementary colors is a primary: red, blue, or yellow. The second color is a secondary color mixed from two primary colors and complementary to the primary color that was not used in the mixture. For example mixing the primary colors red and blue produces the secondary color purple, which is complementary to the primary color yellow. When complementary colors, such as red and green, are juxtaposed they reinforce each other (Vellekoop 248). “This phenomenon, known as the law of ‘simultaneous contrast,’ was first described by the physicist Michel Eugène Chevreul…These contrasts formed the basis of Delacroix’s color theory, which Van Gogh adopted wholeheartedly” (Vellekoop 248).

The second part of Van Gogh’s color theory is the use of tonal contrasts and the relativity of color. Tonal contrasts, otherwise known as broken tones, and the relativity of color are both important aspects of complementary color theory. Tonal contrasts, as described by Charles Blanc in his essay on Delacroix, occur when one mixes together to complementary color in unequal proportions. This causes the colors to only partially destroy one another resulting in a broken tone that will be a variety of grey. In a letter to his brother Theo, Van Gogh describes this concept with the use of green and red. “An equal mixture of green and red, for example, produces grey, while unequal proportions result in reddish grey or greenish grey. Such unequal mixtures, known as broken tones, weaken each other when juxtaposed. However, if a broken tone such as a reddish grey is placed beside a whole tone, red for example, the result will be a contrast” (Vellekoop 248). In Blanc’s essay he also discusses the relativity of color and the fact that the effect of a color depends on those around it. This concept had a lasting impression on Van Gogh, as it was relevant for his use of complementary colors to create simultaneous contrasts in addition to the application of tonal contrasts in a painting. “He understood that he could paint a very dark color and yet make it appear light provided the surrounding color tones were even darker” (Vellekoop 249). Since color is relative and depends on the colors around it, it is unnecessary to choose a color that matched reality. This concept was another key principle in Van Gogh’s use of color as he became famous for the expressive and distinctive colorings of his later paintings.

The Potato Eaters

Van Gogh’s first experimentation with his study of color theories was in Nuenen during 1885. While in Nuenen, Van Gogh originally focused on painting ordinary people (Swerdlow 142). It was during this time that he painted The Potato Eaters and Head of a Woman, his first successes with color theory. Head of a Woman, was successful in the use of the law of simultaneous contrasts due to the blue-black tints of the background reinforcing the contrasts created by the woman’s red cap and green dress as well as the yellow and orange in her hair (Vellekoop 249). According to Joel Swerdlow, author of “Vincent van Gogh: lullaby in color,” The Potato Eaters is “his first work of genius because of his successful color experimentation…Blacks and browns are not what they appear. Like every color in the painting they are made by combinations of primary colors- red, yellow, and blue. Reds and greens fight. Even the shadows have colors, all of which carry energy, convey emotion, and capture what is beyond the visible” (146). Both of these paintings, while successful in their use of complementary color theory, are more somber and less intense than Van Gogh’s later works. This is due to the face that Van Gogh’s palette consisted of mixed colors rather than pure pigments as it did when he was in France (Vellekoop 249). It wasn’t until Van Gogh traveled to Paris that he began to fully appreciate color.

While in Nuenen Van Gogh adopted the somber palette of the painters of the Hague School resulting in his Nuenen paintings being dark in color and rather low in contrast (Vellekoop 250). After traveling to Paris, Van Gogh saw the lighter and colorful paintings by Delacroix and could admire the potential of color. In 1888 Van Gogh traveled to the south of France. The paintings he made while in the south of France, especially in Arles, are characterized by the pure application of primary colors and very pronounced secondary contrasts (Vellekoop 251). Perhaps Van Gogh’s most famous example of these contrasts is his 1888 painting The Bedroom.

Painted in October of 1888, The Bedroom is one of Van Gogh’s best-known paintings that exemplify the law of simultaneous contrasts. In a letter to his brother Theo, Vincent stated that the purpose of the expressive colors and contrasts in The Bedroom were to translate emotion onto paint (Vellekoop 251). Over the years the original pigments that Van Gogh used to paint The Bedroom have faded.

Color Reconstruction of The Bedroom

Color Reconstruction of The Bedroom

The violet, used to depict the walls of his room, was chemically unstable resulting in it fading prematurely. “Because the red in the purple paint faded prematurely, probably even during Van Gogh’s lifetime, it left behind only the blue with which it had been mixed” (Siegal). Due to the fading of the original colors, the balance between the primary colors and their complementary contrasts had been disrupted. In 2010, the painting was restored with the use of Van Gogh’s personal description of The Bedroom and present day knowledge of the aging and discoloration processes of his pigments. In the restoration, the primary colors play a leading role. For example, the yellow of the chairs and the bed is a direct contrast to the violet of the walls. Because the yellow Van Gogh used is such a bold color your eye is immediately drawn to it. According to Marije Vellekoop, head of collections, research and presentation for the Van Gogh Museum, “the purple walls in the bedroom make it a softer image. It confirms that he was sticking to the traditional color theory, using purple and yellow, and not blue and yellow” (Siegal). The contrast is soothing rather than abrasive

In conclusion the style of Vincent Van Gogh has always been to study other artists, absorbing what seemed useful and rejecting what he did not like (Swerdlow 146). Basing his color theories on the works of Eugène Delacroix, Van Gogh developed a his own color theory deeply rooted in the law of simultaneous contrasts as well as the concepts of tonal contrasts and the relativity of color. “Van Gogh saw pieces as studies that helped him find his style” (Siegal) and was able to use color as a means of expression. His paintings The Potato Eaters, Head of a Woman, and The Bedroom display his deep knowledge and understand of complementary color theory as well as his progression from dark in color and low in contrast to the bold, bright colors that he is known for.

Works Cited

Vellekoop, Marije. Van Gogh at work. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2013. Print.

I chose this book because it discusses the color theories of different artists that inspired Van Gogh while he developed his own color theory. It also discusses Van Gogh’s application of his color theory in paintings such as The Bedroom and Head of a Woman.


Siegal, Nina. “Van Gogh’s True Palette Revealed.” New York Times 30 Apr. 2013: C1+. Academic Search Complete. Web. 2 Dec. 2013. 

I chose this article because it discusses the color theory Van Gogh used while painting The Bedroom in addition to the effect time has had on the pigments used in the painting. It also compares the restored version of the painting, and it’s original colors, to the modern day version, and it’s faded colors.


Swerdlow, Joel L. “Vincent van Gogh: Lullaby in Color.” National Geographic Magazine Oct. 1997: 101+. National Geographic Virtual Library. Web. 2 Dec. 2013. 

I chose this article because it discusses Van Gogh’s life as an artist in addition to his personal development of color theory. It also discusses how Van Gogh saw the world and the effect color had on his everyday life.

13 Responses to Van Gogh’s Use of Color

  1. Abby says:

    That’s really interesting that Van Gogh was alive when many parts of modern color theory were just starting to be developed! Although I’m pretty familiar with a lot of Van Gogh’s paintings, I never noticed how much he relied on contrasting colors in his work. It’s also really neat that you were able to find letters that he wrote describing his color discoveries!

    • Coursier says:

      Je n’avais pas réalisé que ce n’était pas avant sa 3 ème années d’artiste, elle semble être une très longue période. Votre article était très instructif et j’ai appris en vous lisant la technique de Van Gogh que je ne connaissais pas auparavant.

  2. Emily String says:

    I didn’t realize that it wasn’t until his third year as an artist, that seems like a really long time. I thought your paper was very informative, and I feel like I learned about Van Gogh’s technique that I did’t know before .

  3. Cullen O'Neill says:

    This is very informative, I feel like I can look at Van Gogh’s works with a new understanding. Also it’s awesome that you took us through his thought process on color, something I’m sure is very hard to do with a mind like his.

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    Definitely, what a magnificent site and enlightening posts, I surely will bookmark your blog.All the Best!

  6. Its like you read my mind! You appear to know so much about this, like you wrote the book in it or something. I think that you could do with some pics to drive the message home a little bit, but other than that, this is great blog. A fantastic read. I’ll certainly be back.

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  8. robert kern says:

    this is the greatest article on color i have seen so far

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  12. Salma says:

    Which type of colors did Vincent use???

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