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Vincent van Gogh at work

Vincent van Gogh at work
A look over the artist's shoulder

Identifying the paint on the stained palette. Photo: Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

Identifying the paint on the stained palette. Photo: Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation).

In a major exhibition the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam presents all one would want to know about Vincent van Gogh's work method. This was preceded by a comprehensive study of his paint, ink, paper, and canvas. Take a look over Van Gogh's shoulder!

How did the painter actually go about his work? What did his drawing box contain and which paint lay on his palette? Were these expensive or cheap materials? And was he aware of the short durability of some of the paints and inks he used?

More than 230 works examined

Research in recent years has answered these questions and more about one of the most admired Dutch artists. A team of art historians, conservators and scientists systematically investigated over a hundred paintings, about one hundred drawings and thirty letters by Vincent van Gogh, all under the heading of Van Gogh's studio practice. The Van Gogh Museum worked in close collaboration with other museums, the research department of Shell and the Netherlands Cultural Heritage Agency (RCE). The RCE has expertise in the field of art technology research and has advanced techniques at their disposal. In addition, the department possesses historical literature and reference materials, which were essential to this study.

Artist materials in the exhibition 'Van Gogh at work'.

Artist materials in the exhibition 'Van Gogh at work'.


The fascinating making process of Van Gogh's paintings and drawings is currently featured in the exhibition Van Gogh at work in the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. More than two hundred paintings, works on paper, sketchbooks and letters are supplemented with painting materials and art manuals from the 19th century. A fine example is Self-portrait as an artist, the last work that Van Gogh made in Paris in 1888. In a letter to his sister Willemien he described his palette (in the painting), "with lemon-yellow, vermilion, Veronese green, cobalt blue". These paints amongst others he indeed depicted on the painted palette. Unfortunately, as the investigation revealed, not all are of the best quality. The red cochineal paint for example contains starch, which the manufacturer had probably added as cheap filler. The cobalt blue contains much contamination from raw cobalt ore, which has a detrimental effect on the colour.

Vincent van Gogh, 'Self-portrait as an Artist', 1888

Vincent van Gogh, 'Self-portrait as an Artist', 1888

Red and blue

Van Gogh probably purchased the tubes of cochineal red and cobalt blue from the Parisian paint dealer Julien 'Père' Tanguy. In his letters he frequently complained about the poor quality of Tanguy's paints. As he wrote on June 28, 1888, "His cobalt blue is too bad to order any more of it". Thanks to research is it now known how much and which paints Van Gogh used in each period. In some cases it is even certain where he bought them and by what method they were produced. This information provides insight into Van Gogh's preferences, making it more possible to place his paintings chronologically in his oeuvre.

Life and soul

Van Gogh was also quite discriminating in the choice of his drawing materials: 'double' Ingres paper with the colour of unbleached linen and a grain as raw as possible, natural chalk with 'life and soul' as an alternative to 'dead' black conté crayon and a solid wooden carpenters' pencil instead of fragile charcoal sticks. The study also made it clear that Van Gogh was one of the first artists to draw with wax crayons that had just appeared on the market.

Waskrijtjes maken op basis van historische recepten

Alexandra Nederlof (UvA student) making wax crayons based on historical recipes.


When in 1888 Vincent van Gogh travelled from Paris to the southern French town of Arles, he had developed into a modern artist. Not only was he in the vanguard of style and colour use, but he also worked with colourful paints and inks based on organic-synthetic dyes that were only just commercially available. For example, purple aniline ink, with which he drew the ruined abbey on the Montmajour in May 1888, and the bright red paint geranium red lake that he often used after his arrival in Arles. Geranium red lake contains eosin, a dye that was discovered in 1873, and which appeared as an oil paint for the first time in 1886 on paint suppliers' price lists.

Vincent Van Gogh, 'The ruins of the abbey on the Montmajour', 1888.

Vincent Van Gogh, 'The ruins of the abbey on the Montmajour', 1888.


The major drawback of the 'modern' materials at that time is visible on the drawing of the ruins of the Montmajour: they quickly fade by exposure to light. The former deep purple ink colour is still visible only at the edges of the drawing. Whether Van Gogh knew that the aniline purple ink would fade quickly is unknown. He did know that geranium red lake was unstable. To counteract the consequences - as he wrote to his brother Theo - the colour had to be more firmly applied. However this did not always help. Colours in many of his paintings have changed or even disappeared.

Detail of the drawing showing the original aniline ink colour.

Detail of the drawing showing the original aniline ink colour.


Vincent complained regularly in his letters to Theo about his financial constraints. He was forced to re-use canvasses a second or even third time. Sometimes he made a new painting on the reverse but, as X-ray photos reveal, he also painted over earlier works. Research shows that Van Gogh made over-paintings in different ways. Sometimes he first scraped paint away as much as possible. In other cases, he painted a new picture directly over the old, but then usually first applied one or two covering layers. In some paintings the composition of these layers is the same so Van Gogh must have over-painted them around the same time. This information helps in the dating of the underlying pictures.

Vincent van Gogh, 'Seated naked girl', 1886.

Vincent van Gogh, 'Seated naked girl', 1886.

Hidden colours

By scanning a painted work with so-called X-ray fluorescence spectrometry (see glossary) the underlying picture is even more visible than with an X-ray photo. This method provides information on the pigments and thus gives an impression of the hidden colours. Under Seated naked girl a still life was found of a bowl and a vase filled with blue and purple flowers and green leaves. Thus, after almost 130 years we have the unique chance to look over Van Gogh's shoulder.

An XRF scan showing that Van Gogh painted 'Seated naked girl'.

An XRF scan showing that Van Gogh painted 'Seated naked girl' over a still life with purple and blue flowers, after turning the canvas 90 degrees.

See and find out more?

The exhibition Van Gogh at work can be seen in the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam until 12 January 2014. The catalogue of the same name written by Marije Vellekoop is also available there (Mercator Fund, Brussels 2013, 298 p., € 34.95 (ISBN 978 90 7931 0 38 8). In Amsterdam, the international symposium Van Gogh's studio practice took place on 24, 25 and 26 June. The English scientific publication on the research, Van Gogh's studio practice, edited by Muriel Geldof, Ella Hendriks et. al, is published by the Mercator Fund, Brussels (2013), 496 p., hardback, €100. (ISBN 978 94 6230 0 02 6).