Monday, October 11, 2010

The Tonal Van Gogh

Autumn Landscape with Four Trees, Vincent van Gogh, 1885

Earlier in his career, Vincent van Gogh experimented with the styles of his time, including Impressionism, capturing light and movement with swift, unfussy brushstrokes, and a kind of tonalism, perhaps based on the earth-tone palette of his homeland's "old masters," restricting his colors to just a few related hues and exploring a range of midtones, lights, and darks within them.

Autumn Landscape allowed van Gogh to explore dynamic rhythms not only at the level of the image but on the surface of the painting. The bold, directional way he laid strokes of tone-related color on the sky creates a horizontal rolling "s" motion that hints at the future dynamism in Starry Night.

Just considering the use of line, the sky's undulations are gently counterpointed by the hilly ground. But the vital energy in this painting comes from the contrary directions that the paint takes throughout the whole.

Van Gogh juxtaposes horizontal brushstrokes in the foreground and vertical strokes in the vegetation around the tree trunks and background trees. He mixes the two in the dominant tree's foliage at the composition's center to create a vivid burst of leaves and branches that supports a strong sense of motion in the curvature of the trees toward the left.

In the landscape below, van Gogh uses the same techniques in a more modest application while brightening the intensity ("chroma") of the colors.

Although he's often associated in the public mind with wild, bright colors, he primarily used color expressively - to create emotion-charged visions of his world.

Shoes, Vincent van Gogh, 1888

In the process, he often used what I would consider a tonal approach to convey a subtle, muted complexity and a somber, poetic mood.


  1. Thank you for posting the Van Gogh works. I have never seen them before. Painting fall scenes always come out too garish for me and these are great examples of a tonal approach.

  2. I've tried to deal with the same problem, Sharon. I like to use a real limited palette - white, ivory black, gold ochre, and burnt sienna (no green! no blue! no CADS!) You might want to check out Stapleton Kearns's Eagle Cliff if you haven't already, and his current post on painting fall colors over at his blog. Cheers!

  3. A very interesting and insightful blog Christopher. I visited your website to see your beautiful paintings. Interesting to read about the limited palette that you are using. No blue, green or CADS I did look at the cool tones in some of your landscapes, there were also some very warm early evening paintings too. It would be interesting to read about the colours you used to create some of your paintings.