The Van Gogh style is just as unique as the artist himself. Known for his choppy brush strokes, expressive lines and wavey directions, Van Gogh’s style wasn’t popular at the time, but today it’s one of the most sought-after styles from the Post Impressionism era.
We’ve dug deep into the history books and rounded up 10 tips for painting Van Gogh style. So, grab the paints and let’s get to it.
1. Tint your canvas
Before starting, Van Gogh tinted his canvas, using an underpainting technique, opting to dip into yellow ochres or blues. Underpainting is important if you’re planning to work in layers like he did, because it’ll give you a nice foundation to work with. It’s also a little less intimidating because you’re not faced with a stark white canvas either. Van Gogh mainly used a matte canvas which he stretched himself, but he also experimented with unprimed surfaces, like hessian to paint on. So, whether you try a textured surface or choose matte, just be sure to tint it first.
2. Use a limited palette
Because oil paints were expensive in those days, Van Gogh used a limited colour palette and used minimal colours to the best of his ability. In his later years, he turned to using reds, blues and greens along with some whites. Although oil paints are more affordable today, you still don’t need every colour under the sun to create. Van Gogh’s palette was mainly made up using: Red Lake, Vermillion, Cadmium Yellow, Ultramarine, Cobalt Blue, Cobalt Violet, Emerald Green and Viridian. By limiting your colours, you can also focus more on the painting and less on deciding which colour to reach for.
3. Resist the urge to blend
For some, not blending your paints was pretty cool back then. In fact, one of the largest Post Impressionism characteristics was to not blend the paint, but to let the eye optically blend them from far away. Van Gogh would paint quickly, without cleaning the brush in between picking up his colours. Because the paint hadn’t dried, the artist was slurring the paints together when he applied it to the canvas. Although it might seem tricky to start with, resisting the urge to blend and laying the paint on quickly, is one of the key traits of the Van Gogh style.
4. Use short, strokes with a filbert
Van Gogh mostly used a flat, filbert brush, loading the brush with paint then using short, angular brush strokes. If we look at Road with Cypress and Star, you’ll notice the brush strokes all lead the eye upwards and outwards. The brush strokes in the tree carry the eye upwards and the path carries the eye in an outward direction. So, to paint like this, try experimenting with angular directional lines. Go vertically, diagonally and try quick flicks of the brush at right angles.
5. Add texture with crosshatching
Van Gogh used a cross hatching style to add texture to his backgrounds. By painting short, quick, vertical, and horizontal lines with different colours, this helped add texture to his artworks. So, take a leaf out of Van Gogh’s book and try adding texture by crosshatching in backgrounds or for textured details in landscapes.
6. Use outlines
Another one of Van Gogh’s tricks of the trade was to use dark outlines. Take a look at the artist’s coat in Self-portrait with bandaged ear and you’ll see dark, black outlines. Or if you see Van Gogh’s Bedroom at Arles, you’ll see a fair bit of outlining here. From the two chairs, the picture frames and the table, these all have darker outlines.
To stop the work looking flat or two dimensional, this is where the thickness of the paint and directional brush strokes come into play. Don’t be afraid to use outlines to block your colours in or use outlines to carve out focus areas in your artworks.
7. Exaggerate colours
Post impressionism was a small step away from the next art movement, fauvism (where grass wasn’t green, it was red, and oceans weren’t blue, they could be green). So, we can expect a little bit of exaggeration here. Have a play with exaggerating colours and look more towards the shadows than the colours themselves. In the Olive trees, we see Vincent Van Gogh painted his trees blue and Starry night realistically would look like a midnight blue or a black sky, not a bright blue and yellow sky. Have a play with colours and their meanings and dial up the contrast and harmony in your paintings.
8. Use the fat over lean rule and try a palette knife
Don’t forget the “fat over lean” rule when painting with oils, especially if you’re layering and working quickly like Van Gogh. Use your thinnest layer first and then work up to your thickest. Once each layer is dry, you can then add the next layer, adding more oil each time.
Van Gogh used lots of thick impasto brush strokes. Impasto means “risen paint” and here, he used his thick oil paints and loaded it onto a flat brush, mostly working dark to light to block in the colours. You could take this a step further and try using a palette knife to add layers of thick paint. However, by using a brush, you can achieve a Van Gogh look with choppy strokes to create dimension and still maintain control over where the paint is placed, as opposed to applying it with a knife.
9. Grab a sun hat and get inspired by your surroundings
Van Gogh painted realistic, everyday things. From his bedroom to cafes and even a self-portrait with a bandaged ear. Van Gogh and many of the Post Impressionists turned to their own emotions and memories to create and connect with their art. The way Van Gogh painted and the subjects he chose to paint were all very personal to him and you certainly don’t need extravagant views or a fancy home to paint in. Find inspiration in your surroundings and don’t be afraid to capture the “every day.” Or grab a sun hat, venture outdoors and try plein air painting.
10. Practise as much as you can
Van Gogh painted almost every day. Inspired by Japanese printmakers like Hokusai, Van Gogh also drew his directional lines with a reed pen and experimented a lot to find his unique style. If something’s not working with your painting, try another approach and keep practicing until you find what works well for you. Don’t be afraid to try new things, all good things take time.
If you’re not ready to pick up the oil paints but still feeling inspired, follow along and create this Van Gogh inspired landscape using acrylics. Or roll some clay out and create a Van Gogh inspired landscape with polymer clay.
We hope that you feel inspired to pick up the paints and create a Van Gogh inspired artwork too. Be sure to tag us #montmarteart or @montmarteart on Instagram or Facebook, we’d love to see what you create.