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Reconstructing Van Gogh's Palette to Determine the Optical Characteristics of his Paints


Muriel Geldof, Art Ness Proaño Gaibor, Frank Ligterink, (Cultural Heritage Agency of the Netherlands), Ella Hendriks (University of Amsterdam) and Eric Kirchner (Akzo Nobel).


The colors of 'Field with Irises near Arles', painted by Van Gogh in Arles in 1888, have changed considerably. To get an idea of how this painting, as well as other works by Van Gogh, looked shortly after their production, the Revigo (Re-assessing Vincent van Gogh’s colors) research project was initiated. The aim of this project was to digitally visualize the original colors of paintings and drawings by Vincent van Gogh, using scientific methods backed by expert judgement where required. We adopted an experimental art technological approach and physically reconstructed Van Gogh’s full palette of oil paints, closely matching those he used to paint Field with Irises near Arles. Sixteen different paints were reconstructed, among which the most light-sensitive pigments and linseed oil, which is prone to yellowing, were produced according to 19th century practice. The resulting pigments and oils were chemically analyzed and compared to those used by Van Gogh. The ones that resembled his paints the most were used in the paint reconstructions. Other pigments were either obtained from the Cultural Heritage Agency’s collection of historical pigments, or purchased from Kremer Pigmente. The reconstructed paints were subsequently used to calculate the absorption K and scattering S parameters of the individual paints. Using Kubelka–Munk theory, these optical parameters could in turn be used to determine the color of paint mixtures. We applied this method successfully to digitally visualize the original colors of Field with Irises near Arles. Moreover, the set of optical parameters presented here can similarly beapplied to calculate digital visualizations of other paintings by Van Gogh and his contemporaries.

Keywords: Vincent Van Gogh, Pigments, Oil paints, Color, Kubelka–Munk theory

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Reconstructing van Gogh’s Field with Irises near Arles