Courage in colour


Dear Artist,

At the National Gallery of Victoria here in Melbourne, throngs of sticky beaks move in mobs to inspect the largest collection of van Goghs to ever travel to Australia. The Seasons presents a four-sectioned survey of Vincent’s landscapes from the perspective of time of year — a pillar in his paintings and explored in his ebullient letters to his brother and best friend, Theo. Caressed by the Melbourne Symphony’s on-site Vivaldi and audio guide recordings of Vincent’s recited letters, visitors clog the galleries from open to close to channel his myth and scale, catching the Rhone breezes of Arles and taking selfies with a pair of satisfyingly on-style Cypresses.


“Wheat Fields at Auvers Under Clouded Sky”
1890 oil on canvas
by Vincent van Gogh (1843-1890)

In his letters, Vincent seems to begin his paintings first in words, describing his summer in Arles as “the opposition of blues against an element of orange in the golden bronze of the wheat.” Colours and their adjectives, settings and conditions tumble with affection and define the allegories of Vincent’s imagination. As if to make it tangible for Theo and for himself, he ordered his new, sun-baked world by life cycle and crop cycle, his letters as much his painted language as the daubs and scumbles that, 130 years later, still invite the long stare.



“Red Vineyards near Arles”
1888 oil on primed burlap
by Vincent van Gogh

Historians uphold that Vincent sold but one painting in his lifetime; The Red Vinyards at Arles, an oil on primed burlap that he painted in the Fall of 1888 and sent to Brussels for exhibition in 1890. Anna Boch, a Belgian impressionist and art collector, bought it for a respectable 400 francs. Anna’s brother, Eugène was a friend of Vincent’s, having sat for him for the portrait, Le Peintre aux Étoiles. Eventually, Vinyards landed in the collection of a famous Russian and was later nationalized by the Bolsheviks along with other treasures. Today, it hangs in the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow.


“Pollard Willows and Setting Sun”
1888 oil on cardboard
by Vincent van Gogh



PS: “It is something to be deep in the snow in winter, to be deep in the yellow leaves in the autumn, to be deep in the ripe wheat in the summer, to be deep in the grass in the spring. It is something to always be with the mowers and the peasant girls, in summer with the big sky above, in the winter by the black fireplace. And to feel — this has always been so and always will be.” (Vincent van Gogh, 1885)

Esoterica: Vincent van Gogh was born in Zundert, Netherlands on March 30, 1853 to an upper middle class family and from a long line of theologians and art dealers. After failing as an art dealer and minister, Vincent went to Brussels at Theo’s prodding to study life drawing and watercolour and then roamed, painting for periods in Etten, Renthe, The Hague, Nuenen, Antwerp and eventually Paris. After discovering Japanese woodblocks and collecting and cataloguing thousands of prints from art magazines, Vincent moved out of the Montmartre studio he shared with Theo and went south, first to Arles and later to Saint-Rémy and Auvers-sur-Oise. There, in fragile mental health, in poverty and suffering from malnutrition, insomnia, alcoholism and with bouts in an asylum, Vincent set into motion the most prolific and intense period of painting of his life, before ending it with a revolver in 1890 at the age of 37. In a little more than a decade, he’d produced an estimated 2,100 works including 860 oil paintings, most of them in the last two years. His works are now considered to be part of the foundations of modern art. “What would life be if we had no courage to attempt anything?” he wrote. “I am seeking. I am striving, I am in it with all my heart.”


Download the new audio book, The Letters: Vol. 1 and 2, narrated by Dave Genn, here. Proceeds of sales contribute to the production of The Painter’s Keys.

“The fisherman knows that the sea is dangerous and the storm terrible, but they have never found these dangers sufficient reasons for staying ashore.” (Vincent van Gogh)



  1. I recently re-read Vincent’s letters – they encourage me to strive for more. I am now reading ” The Art Spirit” by Robert Henri and his words on colour are especially inspiring to me. In keeping with Vincent’s quote above, Henri said ” All manifestations of art are but landmarks in the progress of the human spirit toward a thing but as yet sensed and far from being possessed” . These could also have been Emily Carr’s words in her constant striving toward the spiritual in painting her trees . [ Read especially ” Hundreds and Thousands ” by Emily Carr]……

    I have not seen “Red Vineyards near Arles” up close and personal. Wish I could have been in Melbourne to see it. Moscow may not be within my reach but maybe one day. Thanks for sharing.

  2. We need to update this biographical paragraph. Van Gogh DID NOT KILL HIMSELF. He was shot by accident by a peasants 12 year old son. Who confessed to the crime on his deathbed at 89 years old. Smithsonian Forensics followed up with work in @2013? that proves via the path of the bullet in VG’s belly. That path shows conclusively that VG COULD NOT HAVE DISCHARGED THE GUN HIMSELF. I read an article about it in the Smithsonian Magazine several years ago. I am sure they have it archived.

    • I was about to write the same thing. There is at least some serious evidence that Vincent did not shoot himself. Long after that event, whatever happened, it remains an awful thing that Vincent’s life was so short and tragic in many ways. What absolutely great art might we have missed?

      • Catherine McLay, Cochrane AB on

        See “Van Gogh’s Death” by the Van Gogh Museum. It gives a detailed account of the
        events surrounding his death, as recounted by his landlord & the landlord’s daughter.

    • There was an exclusive exhibit in 2010 “Becoming Van Gogh” which included many works by the artist and by others through the years. Having the good fortune to attend, I was very encouraged by the audio guide, which also stated that Vincent died from a gunshot wound not intended or acted on by him.
      It rings true to me that V.G. would not end his life.
      Just reading his letters and looking at his work is proof for me that he was still going onward.

  3. No need to go to St. Remy or Arles. Standing close behind as the evening sun is setting and darkness steals the light while frustration overtakes, colors are turning to mud and brushes becoming nubs. Smiling broadly and shouting “keep working!” Yesterdays and tomorrows of painting honored by a death that became an emotional whisper. Giving all of us watchers an honored flight of growth with no need for reparation. Blessed to be a part of that journey.

    • At age 16 I read Van Gogh’s letters to his brother Theo. My world shifted. I knew I had to paint and have continued to do so for now over 50 years. I still have the book, my name and address written in my 16 year old handwriting inside the back cover.
      One of my favorite Van Gogh insights: “As to doubting whether one is an artist or not–that question is too much of an abstraction. I confess, however, that I don’t object to thinking it over, provided I can draw and paint at the same time.”

  4. Courage in Color hit home with me. I would love to boldly use color, but you see I’m slightly colorblind. I started commercial art school at Auburn U. After a year and a half I was encouraged to give it up. I did great in drawing, but when I started into painting and graphic design, well I became a business major. That was 1965. A year ago I decided to pursue my art interest again. I am blogging about it.

    I had a colorblind mishap just recently. While painting Plein Air I spilled my little travel kit of half pans. I was lost. Eight of the twelve colors were dark. I hadn’t a clue how to place them back.

    Any other colorblind artist out there?

    • Paco Serrano on

      Keep painting, you might be onto something unique within your color blindness. Best wishes my amigo.

  5. Hi James – even though I have acute sense of colour, I did exactly same thing – flipped out prob same number of pans out of my new palette – mostly reds – gaaaaa! had no idea what the colours were (had ripped off the labels) – so did washes of each one, hoping to match to other samples of similar colour that I had name attached to… don’t know if that would help you… I still feel rather odd about it…. (like should I label bottom of each pan in future?) anyway, also maybe some friend can help you sort the colours if you do sample wash of each – Oh – go to art supply store, I am sure they would be thrilled to help you xo :)

  6. Why do I SO OFTEN SEE people using the singular word ” artist” as a PLURAL? The plural is ARTISTS!
    I see this everywhere and it drives me nuts.

  7. I know of a colour blind artist who lives in British Columbia. Unfortunately I read the article a few years ago and cannot remember his name. He did have a colour code. His system allowed him to use colour with success and when he tried new combinations his asked his wife. I suspect one could get some interesting accidents happening with mixing. In the end it is the value that counts.

Leave A Reply

Featured Workshop

to Joy
11 x 14

Featured Artist

I am a self taught artist, I work in oil, Acrylic and watercolour also in Pastels. Started painting In Ashcroft with Mr. Campbell. I taught my self how to paint by studying professional artists’ work through reading, TV programs, educational DVD and work shops.