Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Color Theory for The Essayist


“In my painting of the night café I’ve tried to express the idea that the café is a place where you can ruin yourself, go mad, commit crimes,” wrote Vincent van Gogh, in a letter to his younger brother Theo, on September 9th, 1888. Theo was in Paris, and Vincent, in Arles, where he has been making good use of the light of Provence since February, painting a masterpiece a day at the height of his love affair with color. This was his second letter in two days about the night café. He continued, “Anyway, I tried with contrasts of delicate pink and blood-red and wine-red. Soft Louis XV and Veronese green contrasting with yellow greens and hard blue greens.” Van Gogh has included a watercolor sketch of his painting, which Theo did not need in order to see the night café in reality or on the canvas or as a sentiment after reading the two letters.

The letters of September 8th and 9th form an essay in which Van Gogh explores, through the night café, the process of painting and the relationship between color and psychology, as his endeavor had always been to paint pictures that moved people because they “contained something straight from [his] own feelings.” His unremitting yearning to connect even with the lowliest of souls gives the essay direction, and the need to find salvation both for his fellow humans and for himself gives it hope.

“I’ve tried to express the terrible human passions with the red and the green,” he has written in the first letter, establishing emotion in contrasting colors from the very beginning. “Everywhere it’s a battle and an antithesis of the most different greens and reds.”

In Aix-en-Provence, not quite an hour east of Arles, I learned about contrasting colors. After a couple weeks of figure drawing at the Atelier Marchutz, Alan gave his traditional color theory talk, sitting on the long wooden bench with a large palette balanced on his knee. On it, he had squeezed each of the eight colors we were allowed to use at the studio, which included white, but excluded black. Alan started with the cadmium red, ultramarine blue, and lemon yellow, and explained to us that mixing two primary colors, say yellow and blue, would result in a secondary color, green, which would be the opposite of the one primary we did not use, red. The primary color and its contrast made a complementary couple, and if we were to mix equal parts of the two, we would end up with a dark grey.

The temptation was to use this grey in shadows as we painted, but if we did, and I had, John, who was co-teaching the class, would materialize behind us, and, very gently, tell us to look harder. The more I looked, the more I noticed the complimentary colors abounding in the shadows.

Van Gogh has written, “The white clothes of the owner, watching over things from a corner in this furnace, become lemon yellow, pale luminous green.” With this sentence the letters start to take shape as a personal essay, where the narrator is not only describing his surroundings but also reflecting on them. Van Gogh is speaking directly to his brother, but he also, always, has an ongoing conversation with himself. The owner’s clothes do not change color in reality, but they do on Van Gogh’s canvas, as he heard the unspoken dialogue between the owner and the customers. The once-white-now-green clothes set off the other colors at the café, the pinks and blood-reds. Van Gogh painted the owner standing next to the billiard table, surrounded with the regulars slumped at the tables as if they were extensions of the chairs they sat on. The lack of ownership in the lives of the customers, the hopeless fact that they have nowhere else they’d rather be, the heavy metaphor of their homelessness, became visible in Van Gogh’s painting. By establishing a contrasting relationship in color, he was able to convey what he really saw.

A few paragraphs later he wrote, “It’s a colour, then, that isn’t locally true from the realist point of view of tromple l’eoil, but a colour suggesting some emotions, an ardent temperament.” As he considered, in writing, the act of translating life into art without forswearing truth, Van Gogh was a narrator who was in full command not only of his brush but also of his philosophy.

Art historians have suggested that the colors in the Night Café shout at each other like drunks, a fitting simile. Just like the drunks need one another even if it is only to pick a fight, the contrasting colors need each other for their effect to find meaning. Over the years, Van Gogh has intently observed nature and knew that there was an inherent balance beneath all contrasts, that it meant hope and salvation, that it meant love, it meant homecoming.

It is not surprising, then, that in his letters in which he talks about painting an abstract homelessness, Van Gogh also talks about furnishing his own place, turning it into An Artist’s House, where “everything from the chair to the painting [has] character,” in other words, creating a space where he can belong and can have company. The meaning of homelessness can only be grasped fully when the idea of homecoming stands next to it, and even though it always does, we cannot see it, because our sight is crippled with our worries. One has to paint homelessness to find home. And you do not have to be Vincent van Gogh to do that. When I painted regularly, I was surprised again and again that I always ran out of yellow paint first. There was more light in life than I could see with my intellectually impaired eyes.

The company Van Gogh expected in Arles was Paul Gaugin, a fellow misfit. In his second letter, he wrote to Theo that he bought twelve chairs, a mirror, and two beds, one in walnut that would be Gaugin’s, and one in deal that he would paint for himself. He wrote, “From the start, I wanted to arrange the house not just for myself but in such a way as to be able to put somebody up.” Van Gogh, a lonely genius who understood the homelessness of the night café people, if not better, more eloquently then they themselves did, was going to do for himself in real life what he did for the café regulars in his painting.

I have often turned to art to understand writing better, and Van Gogh, with his hundreds of paintings, was always there to instruct me on color, on the infinite variations of gold in wheat fields, on the contrasts that spoke quietly of the meaning that I, as a product of the 21st century urban life, had given up on. I had started reading Van Gogh’s letters in order to get to know him better, but ended up having a deeper understanding of my own psyche. As he wrote about color theory with a decisive casualness, I gained the courage to go deeper in my writing. It is as much in his paintings as in his letters that Vincent van Gogh taught me to trust the complexities of contrasting emotions, that even if hope was not readily present, balance was to be found, that all I had to do was to follow the creative urge to its limits, because the yellow light was complemented and made complete only with its purple shadow.


(All quotations are taken from Vincent van Gogh: The Letters: The Complete Illustrated and Annotated Edition (Vol. 1-6) Edited by Leo Jansen, Hans Luijten and Nienke Bakker; available online at http://vangoghletters.org/vg/) 

Nazlı İnal is an MFA student at the University of Iowa. She blogs sporadically at The Ways of Black Ink.

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