I recently toured the current exhibit Becoming Van Gogh at the Denver Art Museum, a
limited engagement, one time only show that features the master’s progression and influences as an artist. I found it fascinating to view the works that led Van Gogh from his murky brown beginnings through various trends of thought like Impressionism, Pointillism, Fauvism, and Post-Impressionism.
However, what really got my juices flowing, as a painter, was seeing how his sampling of all the art movements of the time led to his own sense of color theory, and when I say “his own” that is exactly what I mean. Toward the end of his career Van Gogh owned his colors and none more than what I call Van Gogh Green.
If you’ve ever seen a Van Gogh painting then you are probably already visualizing the color now. This green, which seems to permeate all of his later paintings, is hard to describe but instantly recognizable. It is warm and bright like sunlight hitting maple leaves in the spring, but it is also cool and calming, almost minty. The mysteries of this green are what give it power as an anchor in most of Van Gogh’s later works.
I can easily imagine Van Gogh’s obsession with this color; he must have seen it everywhere he looked. I believe this combination of yellows, blues, and white drove his color harmonies and was the basis for his selection of the palette for the rest of the paintings. The next chance you get to see a Van Gogh from this period look at the green, and then look at the colors he chose to accent it. Look at the deep warm purples, the pale blues, and the vibrant oranges. Notice how well the green works with them. Then ask yourself what colors it would take to make that green.
I once sat in a restaurant with the great American painter Tim Liddy. We spent our entire conversation arguing over what color the walls of the restaurant were and what colors it would take to mix that color. Van Gogh Green must have started with Cadmium Yellow, followed with some Cerulean Blue, some white, but then what? A touch of _________ to make it warmer, but then a touch of ___________ to make it appear cool again?
Whatever the combination, I am certain that Van Gogh actually saw it in his world and strove to capture it in his paintings. His paintings seem alive with color that sucks you in and makes you feel that nothing is more real than what he saw.