The Infinite Variety of Tones: Van Gogh on Color

by Sister Hilda Kleiman, OSB

In his letters to his brother Theo, Vincent van Gogh often discussed color, its analysis, and his use of it in his work.  I share several passages from Van Gogh's letters with my History of Art students on the day we discuss the Post-Impressionists. The letters offer the students some insight into Van Gogh's life, as well introduce basic color theory before we begin our work with iconography in the second half of the semester.

The page numbers with the passages below are from a one-volume edition of Van Gogh's lettered edited by Mark Roskill.

Self Portrait with Grey Felt Hat, located in the Van Gogh Museum

In a letter from 1882, Van Gogh outlines some basic color theory and then reflects on its usefulness:

As far as I understand it, we of course agree perfectly about black in nature.  Absolute black does not really exist.  But like white, it is present in almost every colour, and forms the endless variety of greys, - different in tone and strength.  So that in nature one really sees nothing else but those tones or shades.
There are but three fundamental colours - red, yellow, and blue; "composites" are orange, green, and purple.
By adding some black and some white one gets the endless varieties of greys - red-grey, yellow-grey, blue-grey, green-grey, orange-grey, and violet-grey.  To say, for instance, how many green-greys there are is impossible, there are endless varieties.
But the whole chemistry of colours is no more complicated than those few simple rules.  And to have a clear notion of this is worth more than seventy different colours of paint, - one can make more than seventy-tones and varieties.  The colourist is he who sees colour in nature and knows at once how to analyze it, and can say for instance: that green-grey is yellow with black and blue, etc. (158).

Sunflowers, located in the Van Gogh Museum

Several other letters also reflect on the color yellow.  From Nuenen, Holland, in June/July of 1884, he brings together yellow and blue:

The half-ripe cornfields are at present of a dark golden tone, ruddy or gold bronze.  This is  raised to maximum effect by opposition to the broken cobalt tone of the sky (217).

Later in October of 1885 he looks for a whole range of yellows:

Here is another example: suppose I have to paint an autumn landscape, trees with yellow leaves.  All right - when I conceive it as a symphony of yellow, what does it matter whether the fundamental color of yellow is the same as that of the leaves or not?  It matters very little.
Much, everything depends on my perception of the infinite variety of tones of one and the same family (241). 

As I continue with History of Art at Mount Angel Seminary, I may ask the students to consider in their final reflection which colors they are attracted to the most and whether that attraction changed as we moved through the semester.  As an example, I can use my own recent conversion to yellow.