Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890) is perhaps the most well-known artist of the 19th century and his bold colour palette is instantly recognisable. Some colours he used are still staples in artist palettes today, however others have fallen out of use due to their toxity or impermanence. This article looks at three obsolete pigments in Van Gogh’s colour palette, and creates three palettes around their modern alternatives.
Van Gogh and the Post-Impressionist Palette
Vincent van Gogh only began painting in earnest during the last decade of his life. It was in Arles, in the south of France, between 1888 and 1889 that some of his most brilliant paintings were produced. In the orchards, wheat fields, and cypress trees of Arles, he found rich subjects through which he could explore light, colour, and form. Alongside Cezanne and Gauguin, Van Gogh is considered to be one of the foundational artists of Post-Impressionism, a movement that both built upon and broke away from the work of the Impressionists. Van Gogh’s colour palette is characteristic of the Post-Impressionists: his colour choices were informed by the natural world, but he was also concerned with the symbolism and emotional power of colour. These ideas were accompanied by exciting developments in artist colour taking place in the 19th century. Vibrant new pigments like Cobalt Blue, Viridian, and Cadmium Yellow, were introduced in quick succession, providing artists with more chromatic possibilities.
Van Gogh’s Colour Palette
Van Gogh’s choices of pigments have been well-studied through his surviving letters and through pigment analysis of his paintings. Some of the pigments that Van Gogh used are still commonly used today:
- French Ultramarine Blue (PB29) – A synthetic version of a historical mineral pigment made from lapis lazuli. French Ultramarine Blue had been invented in the 1820s and was an immediate success. It continues to be one of the most widely used artist pigments today.
- Cobalt Blue (PB28) – another relatively new pigment at the time. It is slightly more green and more opaque than Ultramarine Blue, and it was used by many of the Post-Impressionists and Fauvists.
- Prussian Blue (PB27) – A dark greenish blue invented in the 18th century. Much deeper and darker than any other blue pigments available at the time, and very useful for getting the darkest values.
- Viridian (PG18) – a blue-green pigment loved by the Impressionists. Instead of mixing natural greens, Van Gogh often applied Viridian and other bright green pigments directly, giving the landscape a hyper-vibrant vitality.
- Cadmium Yellow (PY35) – Cadmium Yellow was very new when Van Gogh painted with it. He used a early, cheap version of the pigment that slowly degraded in contact with oxygen. However, the forms of Cadmium pigments used in artist paints today are very lightfast and are no longer a concern.
- Earth Pigments (Pbr7, PR102, PY43) – Like most artists working during any time period, Van Gogh used a variety of earth pigments including red and yellow ochres and brown siennas and umbers. They were inexpensive and extremely lightfast and permanent.
Other pigments in Van Gogh’s colour palette are no longer in use due to their impermanent nature or toxicity:
First used in China as far back as 300 BC, Read Lead could be produced by grinding the mineral minium, or synthetically by roasting lead white pigment. It was a bright, opaque red that was actually closer to orange than red. Red Lead was an extremely toxic pigment, but it was used during a time when many pigments were potentially harmful so this fact didn’t stop artists from using it. What did put artists off was Red Lead’s impermenance- it can degrade in many different ways depending on the environmental conditions. In some cases it turns black, and in others it turns white. This is what happened in Van Gogh’s Wheat Stack Under a Cloudy Sky, where areas of Red Lead have become completely white. This can be hard for conservators to detect, because chemical analysis does not easily distinguish between degraded Red Lead and Lead White pigment.
Cadmium Red Light (PR108) seems like a natural modern replacement of Red Lead because it hovers between red and orange, and also shares Red Lead’s high opacity. Van Gogh died around 30 years before the introduction of Cadmium Red, but if this pigment had been available during his lifetime he certainly would have loved using it. However, a more modern pigment could make an even better replacement. Benzymidazolone Orange (PO36) is one pigment in a large family of Benzymidazolone pigments that were introduced in the 1960s and 70s. Like Red Lead, it is technically an orange pigment, but it is so close to red (especially when used straight from the tube) that it can play the role of both. In the following palette I’ve mixed it with Prussian Blue, Viridian, two varieties of Cadmium Yellow, Yellow Ochre, and Zinc White:
The mixtures with Zinc White reveal Benzymidazolone Orange’s extremely warm undertone, and it proves itself to be a perfect companion to the Cadmium Yellows. It needs just a touch of yellow to make some beautifully rich oranges that seem characteristic of Van Gogh’s colour palette.
Geranium Lake was a favourite pigment of Van Gogh’s. It is a red lake pigment derived from eosin, a fluorescent red dye, and like other historical lake pigments it has very poor lightfastness and rapidly fades to grey. As a result, many areas of Geranium Lake in Van Gogh’s work have lost their chroma. A dramatic example of this is in Field with Irises near Arles. The irises at the bottom of the composition were painted with a mixture of Geranium Lake, Cochineal (another red lake pigment with poor lightfastness) and a blue, so they would have originally been bright purple. In the original work the bright purple would have made the yellow wheatfields sing, as purple is complementary to yellow.
It’s hard not to turn to the Quinacridone family of pigments when looking for a lightfast replacement for historic red lake pigments. Their transparency makes them perfect for glazing techniques, a role which the red lakes have historically played. Any of the Quinacridone pigments would have been at home in Van Gogh’s palette. Quinacridone Magenta (PR122) and even the redder varieties of Quinacridone Violet (PV19) lean too far towards blue to be an accurate replacement for Geranium Lake, but Quinacridone Red (PR209) would make a good match and it is one of the pigments used to make Geranium Lake hues.
For the following palette, however, I wanted to try something a bit different. Napthol Red (PR122) is a synthetic organic monoazo pigment that is primarily used for plastics and cosmetics. In artist paints it is a bright red that can have either pink or yellow undertones. For the following palette I used one that has a distinctly pink undertone, so it would be naturally suited to making the purples and violets that have faded in Van Gogh’s work. In masstone, Napthol Red is very similar to the Benzymidazolone Orange in the previous palette, but in the mixture with Zinc White you can see how pink it actually is. I also combined it with Cadmium Yellow Deep, Viridian, Prussian Blue, Cobalt Blue, and Ultramarine Blue:
The darkness of the full-strength mixtures of Napthol Red and Ultramarine Blue make it difficult to see, but they make some brilliant purples that become clear in tints with Zinc White:
Emerald Green was an extremely poisonous, but vibrant, blue-green pigment that was extremely popular in the 19th century. A key ingredient in Emerald Green was arsenic and it earned a deadly reputation, especially when the pigment was used in domestic interiors. For artists, Emerald Green’s brilliance and opacity made it a valuable pigment- it is easy to see why Van Gogh liked using it. It takes centre-stage in his painting A Walk at Twilight, where it is used in the sky and the landscape:
Genuine Emerald Green was phased out of the artist palette from the beginning of the 20th century when the dangers of using it became well-known. It is no longer available to artists today, and there aren’t any modern single-pigments that really fill the gap it left. Perhaps the closest is certain varieties of Cobalt Green (PG50), like this one from Michael Harding, but the tinting strength of Cobalt Green is relatively low. Instead, I’ve used a mixed-pigment Emerald Green hue. There are quite a few of these in oil, acrylic, and watercolour ranges, and each one uses a different blend of modern pigments to recreate the original colour. Here I’ve mixed the Jackson’s Emerald Green Hue Professional Oil Paint with Zinc White, Cadmium Yellow, Cadmium Orange, Raw Umber, Prussian Blue, and Viridian, inspired by A Walk at Twilight:
Usually, I would prefer to use a single-pigment colour as a modern replacement for a historical colour, but this mixed pigment works quite well. It is quite a dominating colour, and makes some lovely acidic greens when mixed with Cadmium Lemon Yellow, as well as an enigmatic warm brown when combined with Cadmium Orange. It has a kind of punchy, ‘synthetic’ quality that will not be useful for all artists, but which feels very much in the spirit of the Post-Impressionist colour palette.