Van Gogh's Yellow - Perspectives No. 150

Van Gogh's Yellow
Perspectives from The Artist's Road

View of Arles with Irises by van Gogh
View of Arles with Irises                           Vincent van Gogh

   The rise of Impressionism was due in part to new developments in paint chemistry which created brighter, more stable colors previously unavailable. Today, it is hard for us to imagine a world without the beautiful bright reds, blues, mauves and yellows to which every artist has access. However, look in any museum, and you will see a change in the range and brightness of colors in paintings beginning in 1701 with the invention of Prussian Blue, followed by Cobalt Blue and Cadmium Yellow in 1817. By the middle of the 19th century, a great revolution in paint color really got under way, and by 1880, many of the younger artists of the time had fully embraced and were experimenting with the new color technology.
   One of those artists was Vincent van Gogh. The brilliance of some of van Gogh's most famous paintings is due to his use of these newly available vivid industrial pigments. These pigments begin to show up in his work after his move from Holland to France. Unfortunately, the chemists of the time did not have the tools to perform accelerated aging tests to determine the lightfastness over time of their new creations. One of the colors, Chrome Yellow, is not only toxic, but is now also known to darken under exposure to the ultraviolet rays in sunlight. As less toxic alternatives to Chrome Yellow were finally developed in the mid-1900s, artists tended to switch to them. But, for a critical period of time, the brilliant color that Chrome Yellow provided was an important tool in van Gogh's and other artists' palettes. It was perhaps most famously used in some of van Gogh's Sunflower paintings. Researchers have found that some, but not all, paintings containing chrome yellow suffer from the severe browning that exposure to sunlight can cause.

   To understand how paintings age and how best to preserve them for the future, researchers conducted an in-depth study of the browning seen in some of Van Gogh's work painted with Chrome Yellow. Scientists from four countries performed the study. They began by collecting samples from three historic chrome yellow paint tubes and artificially aging the paint for 500 hours using an ultraviolet lamp. They also took samples from two van Gogh paintings, View of Arles with Irises and Bank of the Seine. The paint from the tubes darkened to a chocolate brown after exposure to the UV light. Using an X-ray beam that is one hundred times thinner than a human hair, the scientists were able to analyze the darkened Chrome Yellow at the very surface of the two paintings as well, just below the varnish. Their analyses discovered that the chromium in the pigment gained electrons from the UV light, effectively reducing Chromium (VI) to Chromium (III), turning bright yellow to brown.

   Of great interest was the finding from the microscopic X-ray beam that the darkening was most prominent where chemical compounds containing barium and sulphur were. This may prove why some of Van Gogh's paintings seem to be especially susceptible to the darkening, as it is speculated that he sometimes blended white (containing barium and sulphur) with his yellow paint. The next phase of the research will be the most important of all in trying to understand if there is any hope to revert pigments to the original state in paintings where the darkening is already taking place.

   In yet another blending of science and art, we are able to look backwards to understand more about the lives and the works of the great masters. "I am not aware of a similarly big effort ever having been made for the chemistry of an oil painting." - Joris Dik, Professor at Delft Technical University.

   More information is available from the Journal of Analytical Chemistry.

Copyright Hulsey Trusty Designs, L.L.C. (except where noted). All rights reserved.
Become an Artist's Road Member Today!

The Artist's Road LogoClick here to become a Member and enjoy access to all the in-depth painting and travel articles, videos and tutorials. Guaranteed!

Search the Site

Not ready to become a Member yet? Subscribe to our free email postcards, "Perspectives". Enter your email address here.

The Artist's Road Store
A Primer on Night Painting - Nocturnes

Nocturnes - A Primer on Night Painting

Filled with inspirational examples by the masters of nightime painting, this little book is sure to fire up your creative energies. Never tried painting at night? We show you how it's done with a step-by-step-oil demo and a tale of night painting in the wilds of Rocky Mountain National Park. The Primer on Night Painting - Nocturnes is a 7 x 7" PDF download with 40 pages of text and images. It includes a gallery of paintings by masters of the nocturne, information to inspire and encourage you in your plein air nocturne painting, an illustrated step-by-step demo and tips for working in pastel and oil. Also available in a softcover edition. Check out the tools and other products that we use in our own art and travels in The Artist's Road Store. We only offer things for sale that we enthusiastically believe in.







About Us

Photograph of John Hulsey and Ann Trusty in Glacier National Park
We are artists, authors and teachers with over 40 years of experience in painting the world's beautiful places. We created The Artist's Road in order to share our knowledge and experiences with you, and create a community of like-minded individuals.  You can learn more about us and see our original paintings by clicking on the links below.
About Ann
     About John
 Hulsey Trusty Studios