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The Color of Sunshine

Did you know Yellow was Van Gogh’s favorite color? The color of sunshine. In 1888, Arles France, the small house he rented was a color he described as “buttery yellow”. AND he used only three shades of yellow ‘and nothing else’ to paint the five versions of Sunflowers in a vase he is known for painted while in the Yellow House.

Writing to his sister from Arles in 1888, he wrote, "Now we are having beautiful warm, windless weather that is very beneficial to me. The sun, a light that for lack of a better word I can only call yellow, bright sulfur yellow, pale lemon gold. How beautiful yellow is!"

‘It’s tremendous, these yellow houses in the sunlight and then the incomparable freshness of the blue.’ Vincent Van Gogh. The Yellow House 1888. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam. {{PD-US}}
van gogh portrait of dr
Vincent Van Gogh. Dr Gachet 1890. Seen with Foxglove, Vincent painted two versions that vary in color. One in a private collection; the other, the Musee d’Orsay, Paris. {{ PD-US}}

While there are several theories, some art historians think the passion for yellow might be a result of what he “saw”. Vincent’s doctor, Dr. Gachet may have treated seizure symptoms Vincent suffered from with digitalis, a medicine taken from the purple foxglove. Van Gogh’s vision may have been ‘colored’ by a side effect of treatment causing yellow-blue vision. He may have seen the world through a yellow “digitalis” lens.

Until paint was produced commercially during the Industrial Revolution, artists had to make their own paint by grinding pigment into oil.

From exposure to air, the paint would harden in a chemical reaction and would have to be made fresh each day. Different colors set and hardened, drying over time at different rates: Charcoal black takes longer, but ochre is a quick-drying paint. Paint in tubes not only lent consistency to color, but ended some of that repetitive toil that stole time from painting.

Van Gogh was one of the first artists to use commercially manufactured paints – available for the first time in tubes rather than paints he made himself. He used the traditional yellow ochre, but also chrome yellow, and cadmium yellow. Still and all, Van Gogh enjoyed mixing pigments to get those rich, striking colors he truly wanted, like those in his iconic Sunflowers.

Vincent lamented as he painted sunflowers, ‘I am working at it every morning from sunrise on, for the flowers fade so quickly’. Ironically like the actual flowers he painted, today the artist’s famous, once vivid flowers, are turning from bright yellow to duller olive-brown.

fading sunflower painting
Vincent van Gogh (1853 - 1890), Arles, September 1888 Credits (obliged to state): Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation) {{PD-US}}

After two years of innovative research and analysis commissioned by The Van Gogh Museum it was discovered Van Gogh used two different types of chrome yellow paint, one of them has more sulfate and is more liable to be affected and degrade under light. By using a pioneering new technique –chemical mapping— macroscopic x-rays—Belgian and Dutch scientists discovered more than half of one of Van Gogh’s Sunflower paintings (1889) contained some of the pigment more sensitive to light. Van Gogh favored that sulfate-rich dye –a mix of yellow lead chromate and white lead sulfate – and he used it widely in his art!

It’s not known how long it will take for our eyes to see this change, but over time the 1889 painting is set to lose some of that pale yellow background, and the bright yellow of the sunflower petals, and color in the stems where he mixed the light sensitive pigment in to achieve the right green hue.

That sensitive pigment had been used a lot by Van Gogh. He himself spotted that the yellow pigments he used lost their bright colors rapidly and gradually turned greenish-brown when exposed to sunlight. (Credit: © Courtesy of the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam) If only he had known why back then.

The Van Gogh Museum Amsterdam has the largest collection of Van Gogh paintings in the world. Five years ago as a result of the research they lowered the lighting level in the galleries in an attempt to conserve the over 200 Van Gogh paintings and 400 drawings. And the research lent itself as a heads-up to the art world and a tool for analysis of other artist’s paintings.
Of course, yellow was not exclusive to Van Gogh. But Vincent’s transformation of light into pure color reflected the color of the sun of the South of France he loved, and a lightness of spirit and friendship… not to mention the creative energy within the artist himself.

Wheatfield with Crows 1890
One of Van Gogh’s most famous paintings. Wheatfield with Crows 1890. The Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam. {{PD-US}}

Immerse yourself in iconic paintings by Vincent van Gogh

Play ArtMASTERS—the GameTM . Re-create Vincent’s bold work one tile at a time to win. Relate to how he felt as pigment was laid on canvas. Feel a personal connection with the artist himself.

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