Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Flowers in Art: Van Gogh #2 - Sunflowers and the value of repetition

Study of Sunflowers
14" x 11", pen and ink and coloured pencil on Arches Hot Press

copyright Katherine Tyrrell

I said I would do a study of sunflowers for Flowers in Art month and here they are - more about these later. When I was younger it took me an awful long time to realise just how many sunflower paintings Van Gogh painted. This post is about that and the value of repetition.

Van Gogh painted a series of sunflowers. Initially four in Arles - two of which he hung in Gauguin's bedroom in the Yellow House in Arles and then subsequently another three which were copies. He had originally planned to do a series of 12 but illness intervened. One is painted against blue and others against yellow which makes them almost monochrome paintings. This one can be seen in the National Gallery in London and this one - one of the copies - in the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. It has a zoom facility for cloer inspection. (If I find the others I'll update this post.)

I am hard at it, painting with the enthusiasm of a Marseillais eating bouillabaisse, which won't surprise you when you know that what I'm at is the painting of some big sunflowers.

I have three canvases going - 1st, three huge flowers in a green vase, with a light background, a size 15 canvas; 2nd, three flowers, one gone to seed, having lost its petals, and one a bud against a royal-blue background, size 25 canvas; 3rd, twelve flowers and buds in a yellow vase (size 30 canvas). The last one is therefore light on light, and I hope it will be the best. Probably I shall not stop at that. Now that I hope to live with Gauguin in a studio of our own, I want to make decorations for the studio. Nothing but big flowers.
Letter from Vincent to Theo Van Gogh 21st August 1888
If you click the link to the letter you can see small reproductions of the flowers to which he refers.

Gauguin was very impressed by the paintings hung in his bedroom. My Van Gogh book tells me that the only picture he managed to paint during his stay in the Yellow House was "Vincent painting sunflowers".

Van Gogh also drew sunflowers. In this previous post - as part of Van Gogh month in February this year - shows a drawing of a garden and a profusion of sunflowers. Read Van Gogh's letter in which he makes reference to this drawing.

Sunflowers became a symbol of Van Gogh but also of the way he enjoyed to work. He started working every day at dawn because the flowers wilted quickly and he had to try and do the paintings in one go.

I am now on the fourth picture of sunflowers. This fourth one is a bunch of 14 flowers, against a yellow background, like a still life of quinces and lemons that I did some time ago.

Only as it is much bigger, it gives a rather singular effect, and I think that this one is painted with more simplicity than the quinces and lemons.

Do you remember that one day we saw a very extraordinary Manet at the Hotel Drouot, some huge pink peonies with their green leaves against a light background? As free in the open air and as much a flower as anything could be, and yet painted in a perfectly solid impasto, and not the way Jeannin does it.

That was a very sound piece of work.

Van Gogh letter 27 August 1888

The colours of the sunflowers also represented the colour of the south - and the colour of the house he lived in. Interestingly he sees the house as a work of art and the sunflowers very definitely as decorative art - and a way of creating a place where painters would come to paint. it was all part of his initiative to try and weld life and art together - a concept he derived from his studies of Japanese art.
However, I want to have the other room just as elegant with a walnut bedstead and a blue coverlet. And all the rest, the dressing table as well as the cupboard, in dull walnut. In this very tiny room I want to put, in the Japanese manner, at least 6 very large canvases, particularly the enormous bouquets of sunflowers. You know that the Japanese instinctively look for contrasts and eat sweet peppers, salted candy, fried ices and iced fried things. So it follows, according to the same system, that in a large room there should only be very small pictures and in a very small room one should hang very large ones.
Note on Chrome Yellow: Van Gogh used to use a lot chrome yellow pigment. This pigment has developed a poor reputation because it tends to deteriorate. The Van Gogh Museum has an item on The detrioration of Chrome Yellow pigments.

Note on Study of Sunflowers: My study of sunflowers is not a still life study in the conventional sense in that the flowers are not arranged like this. As with the dahlias earlier, I had four stems of sunflowers and I just kept revolving them until I got a pattern I was happy with. Each found its 'natural' position (interm of what was interesting about that stem) and then found its place on the paper. I completed the drawing in pen and ink (using my new Edding 1800 profipen 0.3 which is lightfast and has pigment ink) and then decided that it might look better with some yellow. I used the new lightfast Prismacolor 'Canary Yellow'. I also used Rembrandt Polycolour 'Lemon' and 'Light Chrome'(!) and a Faber Castell Polychromos 'Light Ochre' pencils. I must find out what pigments Lyra Rembrandt actually use for the Chrome Yellow pencil!

Drawing the same subject repeatedly creates a knowledge and an ability to draw more quickly the next time, sometimes to know when it is possible to leave things out - and when to heighten certain aspects which are intrinsic to the 'being' of the object in question. Repetition is a very valuable exercise in creating art.

I hope you enjoyed Flowers in Art Month. Tomorrow I start Gardens in Art month - and I'm now off to visit Sissinghurst!



  1. This was a most interesting read. You are so prolific in your writing and I love your muted sunflowers.

  2. Katherine, your own sunflowers are a beautiful image to sign off on your month of flowers. I'm sorry I didn't do more - but where you led us has so inspired me and I have enjoyed enormous benefit from all your research. I also discovered the value of repeating a subject!

  3. Katherine, If I'm being too nosy here, let me know. I love the sunflowers. Per your usual, they are gorgeously rendered and wonderfully placed. I'm curious about the background...did you leave it white to hint towards van Gogh's monochromes, was it a chiaroscuro leaning (per the fish market), or did you just like it that way? (I'm just trying to learn a bit about how other artists make these sorts of decisions - forgive me if this is an unwelcome intrusion.)

  4. Thanks Alison and Robin

    Rose - of course you can ask! To be honest, when I'm doing a pen and ink I like to keep it as simple as possible - hence no background. The experiment on this one is adding in some colour. We're having a debate behind the scenes as to whether this should include orange as well as yellow. I'm still inclined to keep it very very simple. Less is more?


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