Vincent Van Gogh is famous for his sunflower paintings, many versions of which he began painting after 1887. In fact, he painted several versions of Vase with Fifteen Sunflowers (1889). Done primarily in yellow, these paintings carry a warm, sunny connotation.
However, I’ve always felt like a depressing subtext runs under surface. In these paintings the sunflowers exist in a variety of stages from lively full bloom toward withering death. I chose to explore this morbid undercurrent in a color theory assignment for intro to design. The assignment was to take a famous painting and reproduce it with a different color scheme than the original while preserving the values of the original by tinting and shading hues. The new color scheme could be complimentary, analogous, monochromatic, achromatic, triad, tetrad, warm or cool.
I decided to use cool colors, known for their connotations of night, sadness, and depression. We say “feeling blue” for a reason. I wanted to highlight the droopy-ness of the dying sunflowers through the use of cool colors. (Don’t worry, I’m not depressed. I just wanted to explore an idea opposite to popular “sunny” opinion on this painting.) Furthermore, purple is the complimentary (opposite) color of yellow, and happens to fall within the cool tones. So I used blue-violet paint for most of my interpretation.
The challenge I faced was in interpreting the value of the original and maximizing contrast while staying true to the inspiration. Because Vase with Fifteen Sunflowers is primarily monochromatic, it actually lacks contrast. From a distance its easy for the flowers to blend into the background. I experienced this problem in my blue interpretation, especially since my colors are darker. If I could do this again I would add more white to the background color and perhaps paint the petals in a slightly darker blue-violet. Additionally, due to time constrictions I was working in acrylic. It was harder to get the thickly textured petals and flower centers with acrylic paint when Van Gogh’s originals were done in oil paint. A third struggle I experienced was with the slight shine on the vase. In the yellow version this shine is mostly white, but because yellow is such a bright color it doesn’t stand out too much. In my version the shine maintains its high value, but against the blue it was glaringly obvious. I felt it was distracting, and lacked subtlety. It also looked more like a mistake to me than a shine, so I deepened the value a bit to correct this.
I’m pleased with the final result because I feel it captures the mood I was shooting for. My classmates agreed that the cool colors really exaggerate the mourning transience of the dying flowers. In fact, they honored me a spectacular compliment: they felt my version better explored the mood than the original! Quite a compliment, though I’m sure plenty would be willing to disagree. Nevertheless, it was a fun exploration of an alternate interpretation through the use of color theory.