Thursday, July 05, 2007

Flowers in Art - and Van Gogh #1

A copy of Van Gogh's Almond Blossom 1890 (in the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam)
9" x 12", coloured pencils on hot press paper
copyright Katherine Tyrrell

Copying the paintings of other artists in order to learn new skills is an age old tradition and one in which Van Gogh himself followed at the beginning of his artistic career. One of my favourite Van Gogh paintings is his portrayal of branches of Almond Blossom agaist the sky. I've taken quite a few photos of flowering trees set against the sky - but I haven't as yet been brave enough to start painting them. This seemed a good one to start with to see what I could learn.

First of all I learned how Van Gogh came to paint "Almond Blosson".
On January 31, 1890, Theo wrote to Vincent of the birth of his son, whom he had named Vincent Willem. Van Gogh, who was extremely close to his younger brother, immediately set about making him a painting of his favorite subject: blossoming branches against a blue sky. The gift was meant to hang over the couple’s bed. As a symbol of this new life, Vincent chose an almond tree, which blooms early in southern regions, announcing the coming spring as early as February. Van Gogh Museum
I'm so glad I found that out - it feels like a really special painting now.

I've also been trawling through my Taschen copy Van Gogh - The Complete Paintings by Ingo F Walther and Rainer Metzger which is a complete survey of all the paintings. See this post for more details). I'm going to split my conclusions into more than one post. This post relates more towards to the early development in painting flowers.

Subject matter
  • flowers start as a 'means to an end' - the development of his skills in colour but become subjects in their own right in Provence.
    • there seem to be very few paintings with flowers as a subject while he lives in the north - in Holland
    • he begins to paint flowers around 1886 when he gets to Paris - see quote from Theo. These are typically treated as still life in vases.
"He has acquaintances who send him a fine bunch of flowers ever week. His main reason for painting is that he wants to freshen his colours for later work" Theo Van Gogh (Van Gogh - the Complete Paintings page 260)
    • In 1888, his paintings of flowers and blossom really 'take off' in Provence when he sees the impact of the southern light on flowers and blossom. He starts to paint much more 'in situ' eg blossom on the trees, plants with flowers growing in the ground.
  • flowers are a feature of some his more popular and valuable paintings (eg sunflowers and irises) but this may be more a comment on how popular flowers are as subject matter with the general public and buyers
Between 24 March and 21 April 1888 he made no fewer than fourteen paintings of fruit trees in blossom. He hoped they would sell well: they were, he wrote, ‘motifs which everyone enjoys.’ Van Gogh Museum
Preparation and Drawing
  • he seems to have painted flowers (in oil) more often than he has drawn them. However he does draw them in gardens and parks.
  • his arrangements of flowers in the early Paris paintings are often quite clumsy.
  • his drawing of the structures in early paintings is quite crude - but becomes more sophisticated later.
  • early paintings of flowers are, in my opinion, very boring. Vase tends to take centre stage and there are some very odd flower combinations and arrangements. However, these make sense if the purpose of painting flowers at this stage is to train his eye to see and paint colour. (The Taschen book is rather irritating insofar as there are endless paintings of flowers from the years in paris but these are accompanied by a lengthy discourse on 'The Potato Eaters'! The Van Gogh Museum was more helpful.)
  • the influence of Japan on his drawing and design considerations seem to become more apparent once he gets to Provence. He went to Arles in Provence hoping to find the light and colour that he found in Japanese prints - and was not disappointed.
Van Gogh found the “Japanese atmosphere” he had been seeking in the blooming orchards and sun-drenched landscapes of Arles, and captured it in works like the Field with Flowers near Arles. On May 12th, he sent his brother Theo a colorful description of this new painting: “[…] a vast field of bright yellow buttercups, a ditch full of irises with green leaves and purple flowers, in the background a town, a few greyish willows, a strip of blue sky. […] A little town surrounded by a field of yellow and purple flowers – you know, it’s just like a Japanese dream.”
Oil painting
  • His oil painting palette of colours changes while he is Paris. He met the Impressionist painters and saw their work and their handling of light and colour and realised that his palette needed to change. Initially he used flowers to practice seeing and painting colour. Early paintings in Paris initially tend towards literal copies of local colours. He then practised using different colour combinations eg the use of complementaries. (see Still Life in Paris for further explanation)
  • Van Gogh begins to demonstrate more sophisticated handling of colour and optical mixing when he starts to paint in Provence.
Learning Points from "Almond Blossom"
Already in Arles, Van Gogh had been fascinated by the orchards, filled with apricot, peach and plum trees and in full bloom at the time of his arrival in March 1888.

The composition of Almond Blossom is, however, both unusual and unique in Vincent’s oeuvre. The branches seem to float against the blue sky, and it is unclear if they are still part of the tree or set in a vase, as in one of his earlier works.

With an unusual regularity, the entire pictorial surface has been filled with branches, which are further accented by the use of dark contours. Both this sharp outlining and the placement of the tree were certainly inspired by Japanese prints, which Van Gogh had seen for the first time in Paris. This influence can also be seen in a number of other paintings. (Van Gogh Museum)
  • the design reminds me of Japanese prints generally and the notan concept in particular - albeit in more than two colours and values. It is not a painting which relies heavily on value to denote shape - except in very simple terms.
  • In my opinion, the colours VG used in this 1890 painting are associated with a more sophisticated handling of colour. Colours I found myself using included blue'green (background and branches); yellow/green (in various tints - branches and blossom); red violet (branches) and very pale red/orange (blossom) - plus the very dark colour. They appear to suggest the delberate use of a tetrad - a pair of complementaries. (Click on the image to see a larger image and then 'go back' to get back to the post or open the image in a new tab)
  • the blue green is very similar to the blue green used by Holbein for his portraits. It's very rich and provides a good contrast for light colours. The colour of almond blossom is not unlike pale flesh colours.
  • VG uses a very dark colour (black?) to 'draw' some of the outline, contours and areas of emphasis in terms of the overall shape of the branches.
  • The drawing of shapes and growth of both branches and blossom is very careful - this was a painting which in my opinion was not executed quickly. This might reflect the fact that it was a gift and its intended use and symbolic importance. [Update: I've found a letter from Vincent to Theo his brother which confirms how slowly he worked on this painting - see quotation which follows and then refer to the rest of the letter to see the context of the painting process. Also one from Theo to Vincent about how much his new son liked the painting]
My work was going well, the last canvas of branches in blossom - you will see that it was perhaps the best, the most patiently worked thing I had done, painted with calm and with a greater firmness of touch. (Vincent Van Gogh - letter dated c. 15th March 1890, St Remy)
There's one more very important learning point - can you guess what it is?



Casey Klahn said...

I don't have a guess for the missing learning point. Darn!
A complete guess may be the use of the whole canvas for the subject (pre-saging the Cubist tenant) or perhaps that here you are doing an image that isn't a "macro" or close-up, which you usually do.
Anyway, I comment to say how much I enjoyed the VVG revisit. I'll have to bust out that Taschen VG book, as well.
His roommate at the yellow house in Arles, Gauguin, thought so highly of the sunflower paintings that he paid Vincent very kind compliments about them. I think they have much more than a decorative or popular appeal. They offer a more abstracted content than other works of his, and he really gets to use his beloved yellow in intense ways.

Making A Mark said...

Thnaks for the comment Casey.

I'm hoping to do a post later in the month on the sunflowers. I've got one growing on kitchen windowsill - it needs drawing!

Jan Blencowe said...

Hi Katherine,

Wonderful post! Van Gogh's orchard and blooming branch paintings are among my favorites although they seem to be less well known than his sunflowers and iris.
On Monday I bought a copy of the Walther-Metzger book for a mere $20 at the book outlet, funny you should reference it. I've promised myself that I will read the whole thing over the summer. I currently have a painting in a "Faux Show" where artists put their own twist on masterworks. I chose to do Van Gogh's Iris (the ones in the white pitcher) and substituted an oriental vase for the pitcher to give a nod to the enormous influence Japanese prints and motifs had on him. Looking forward to reading more here about Van Gogh.

Jan Blencowe

Jana Bouc said...

This is a beautiful drawing. Even if it is a copy it has it's own beauty too. I have several photos I've taken of budding branches against the sky that I've wanted to paint and this gives me some ideas. I've been watching a series on PBS TV that I think you mentioned once: Simon Shama's Power of Art and the first in the series is on Van Gogh which I recorded and have watched half of. It was fascinating learning that he started out painting as part of his religious missionary work.

Robyn Sinclair said...

I've spent a considerable amount of time examining your almond blossom, Katherine, and I can't spot the final learning point. Lovely effort. My goodness, it must have taken a while in coloured pencil! Add me to the list of people who have a collection of almond blossom photos waiting to be painted!

Adam Cope said...


complete your almond happiness with a visit to LA MAISON DE L'AMANDIER in St Rémy itself!

Making A Mark said...

When I visited St. Remy (some years back) I actually paid a visit to the asylum where Van Gogh was a patient. They had a walk which leads you to all the places where painted - I don't know whether it's still there - must go back and see!

Making A Mark said...

I've updated the original post to include a couple of letters between Vincent and Theo which refer to the painting in question.

Anonymous said...

This is a gorgeous piece. He is an endlessly fascinating artist, isn't he. The colour of the background is lovely. I've no idea what the mystery learning point is, though.

Making A Mark said...

You'll all kick yourselves when I tell you what the mystery learning point is!

I'll post it on Sunday morning at the same time as I post the weekly round-up.

Making A Mark said...

OK - so here's the answer to the mystery learning point.

This work very neatly demonstrated the notion that in order to see light you need dark. I pencilled in the background. Then realised it needed to be darker as I couldn't see the contrast with the blooms. So I did it again - and again - and again - and again. I lost count in the end but safe to say it's a LOT darker now then my first stab at the right colour and value - which was so wrong!

In "Almond Blossom", although there are some black lines, the 'dark' value, in a notan sense, is the sky. We automatically think of spring skies as being light and it was with the greatest difficulty that I got my brain out of 'reality' mode and into aesthetic mode. The 'light' blue sky in fact needed to be dark. Next time you look at a Van Gogh painting, check the value of the sky!

When drawing a light coloured bloom, setting it against a darker value background helps to highlight the ligher value of the bloom. However do not underestimate how dark the background needs to be to be really effective!

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