Color and Emotion — a Psychophysical Analysis of Van Gogh’s Work

by K. G. Bekker , A. Y. Bekker

December 15, 2009


A painting is a visual representation of the not only the artist’s external experience, but it is also a reflection of the artist’s inner life as well. Psychologically, the nature of this psychophysical relationship has frequently favored content interpretations more than form. A psychophysical analysis of the artist’s visual image suggests that an orderly correspondence does exist. In some instances, external stimuli may dominate, and in other circumstance, inner emotions may dominate. Synaesthesia is an example of one kind of sensory cross-modal experience. A cross-over between the visual perception and emotions would be an example of another cross-over response. Moreover, if then cross-modal comparisons can be made, then this would be a new point of view in the interpretation of an artist’s interaction of their emotions with the creative representation. An examination of form (color and intensity) could provide a quantifiable, objective psychological measure of the artist’s mental state. The present article examines the work of Vincent Van Gogh from this perspective. In Van Gogh’s case, the intensity of his color palette was one of the defining features of his work. As his work progressed and as his mental status deteriorated, the intensity of his palette seemed to echo the dramatic force of his inner experience.


At one point in his life Van Gogh described himself as a “musician of color” (Gayford, 2006, p.181). The cross-modal experiencing of one sensation in another sensory system characterizes an issue within the field of psychophysics as well as the concept of synesthesia (Harrison & Baron-Cohen, 1996). The association that mixed music and color can occur together may be applied to the expression of his emotions as well. Early on Van Gogh was trained to portray his visual environment accurately and naturally. He was, however, deeply affected and ultimately dominated by the intensity of his inner emotional experience. At some point, his canvases began to reflect that same inner intensity. Over the ten year period of his career, there was a change in his use of color, particularly with regard to the physical dimension of intensity. There were other markers as well, although the present paper will focus mainly on the dimension of intensity. For example, the intensity and frequency of his creative output was enormous. He painted seventy canvases in seventy days. So intense was his effort that many of his canvases were not totally filled in, leaving patches of bare canvas. The intent of the present paper is to show that the intensity of color used by Van Gogh may well be a major marker of his deterioration mentally.

According to a psychophysical approach (Stevens, 1971), all sensory systems show similar exponential gradients of perceived intensity. Similarly, Sullivan (1973) applied this principle to anxiety and showed that emotions follow a similar intensive psychophysical gradient. Using quantitative measures (magnitude estimation), the results showed that auditory stimuli could be cross-modally compared with anxiety and be used to estimate the magnitude of anxiety that the individual was experiencing. The results showed that anxiety follows the same power function as has already been found in other sensory systems. Thus, cross-modal associations can be drawn.

Traditionally, the links between an artists’ work and their mental state have been examined in terms of content (Trachtman, 2009). Art experts have examined the content of the artist’s work more than the form of the piece, looking for a link to the individual’s mental state. One example can be found in the examination of Caravaggio’s painting and a potential diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia (Mather, 2007). We are suggesting that form (which might be objective and quantifiable) can be an equally interpretive measure. Looking at form rather than content, would provide a very difference perspective, where we can look for evidence that shows that there is a correspondence between emotional intensity and the intensity of his visual representations. There have been a few studies which have aimed to correlate and quantify the paintings of psychiatric patients, by correlating color, intensity, quality of line, and space covered (Hacking,, 1996) with a patient’s psychiatric disability. Hacking (1996) has suggested that content measures such as bizarre imagery, disconnections, inappropriate or disordered color, perseveration, and subject matter all require subjective interpretation on the part of the examiner and therefore are limited in objectivity. If form can be quantified and correlated with a disorder, then a potentially quantifiable link between mental functioning and creative output might be established. It would then be possible to correlate the continuous, gradual changes in mental functioning and its relationship to mental illness by examining key form markers. In fact, D’Andrade & Egan (1974) found that there were diagnostic differences in psychiatric diagnoses based upon an examination of color and line.

According to basic color theory (Lefton, 2008), color has three physical dimensions (wavelength, intensity and purity) which correspond to 3 psychological elements: hue, brightness and saturation. Van Gogh’s work showed a distinctive change in all of these psychological features. Part of his interest in color and brightness is technical and reflects a direct focus on form, but the dynamic change in his use of color, particularly with regard to intensity, reflects a change in his emotional experience. We would suggest that as his emotional intensity increased, the intensity was reflected in his visual images as a similar exponential increase in intensity. Ultimately, his work is dominated by the intensity of his psychological experience and less by accuracy of his sensory experience.

Van Gogh produced a remarkable body of work, over 700 pieces, over the course of 10 years. He also repeated the same images over and over, so that the opportunity to longitudinally examine the change in color over time exists. One example of a concurrent change that occurs in his use of color with a significant deterioration in his mental state is reflected in The Sower. He was tremendously impressed by Millet’s painting of The Sower, and during his early years he made many reproductions. His initial work tended to attempt meticulous fidelity to the original, both in form and style (Metzger, & Walther , 1996) [Insert Figure 1]. A pencil and ink drawing of The Sower done in 1882 in The Hague, is an example of his attempt to imbue his figures with an energy that is later conveyed through color. During this earlier period, he tended to adhere realistically to what he saw in nature, but as he developed, he began to use “color according to its visual impact…rather than its fidelity to nature. (Metzger & Walther, 1996, 58). Emotionally, although depressed and devastated by a series of failures both in work and in love, he tends to maintain a sober, containment of his feelings. This may be a reflection of the fact that he has just begun to work in art after failing at his other potential career in the ministry, which had similarly followed a failed career as an art dealer.

Over the next 3 years (from approximately 1882 until 1885), Van Gogh became obsessively concerned with the adaptation of color to his work. His letters attest to his meticulous discriminations in terms of the shades, tones, brightness and hues. Over time, he began use complementary colors because they “heighten their mutual effects most intensively” (Metzger & Walther, 1996, p.58). Finally, he directs his greatest efforts to try to get more and more depth and firmness into his paintings through the basic use of color, contrasting hues, intensities and saturations. The following excerpt from one of Van Gogh’s letters shows the increasing role of color in his work:

“These things that are relevant to complementary colors, to the simultaneous contrasting and the mutual devaluation of complementary colors, are the first and most important issue: the second is the mutual influence of two similar colors, such as carmine and vermilion, or a pink-lilac and a blue-lilac….

(Van Gogh Letter # 428, dated Oct. 1885. (Suh, 2006)

During a brief sojourn in Paris in 1886, Van Gogh began his most intense discovery of the power of color, and his work increasingly moved away from its Dutch origins, to the brighter hues and tones of impressionist color. According to Gayford (2006), he became fascinated by the possibility of color as a “symbolic language”. It was an instinctive form of communication for him; although no such symbolic language, which could allow him to express his feelings, existed at the time. At some point, he even attributed his excessive drinking and smoking to the “mental exhaustion of devising complex harmonies of notes or colors” (Gayford, 2006, p.191). Similarly, the most common form of synesthesia appears to be in “colored hearing” which would be sounds (like music, voices) that are experienced as colors (Carpenter, 2001). For the synesthete, this is a form of sensory overstimulation, and the result is physical exhaustion from the experience.

By June of 1888, while he is living in Arles, Van Gogh use of color as a language and symbol became even stronger. He came to see Millet’s Sower as “a colorless gray”, and asks the question of whether it would be “possible to paint The Sower with color, with a simultaneous contrast of yellow and violet…” [Insert Figure 2]Van Gogh has great doubts as to whether it is possible: “you set about it and end up tumbling into a….metaphysics of color, a mess it’s cursedly awkward to get out of with any credit” (Van Gogh Letter #503, June, 1888). But clearly he is impelled to try not once, but twice.

At the same time that his color palette is exploding, the intensity of his psychological and emotional life becomes increasingly difficult for him to keep in check. When Van Gogh produces his first color “The Sower”, he is optimistically waiting for the arrival of Gauguin and the beginning of their artistic collaboration. Van Gogh goes on to paint The Sower in color in June of that year and it was “gloriously filled with hope — expressed by the yellow and violet” (Gayford, 2006, p.183). But during the nine weeks that Gauguin spent in Arles, the relationship and Van Gogh’s mental condition went through remarkable changes. Gauguin wrote of Van Gogh when he first saw him in the Yellow House in Arles:

“Between the two beings, he and I, the one entirely a volcano and the other, boiling as well, but inside. Some sort of struggle was bound to occur…first of all, I was shocked to find a disorder everywhere and in every respect. His box of colors barely sufficed to contain all those squeezed tubes, which were never closed up, and despite all this disorder, all this mess, everything glowed on the canvas…..with all these yellows on violets, all this work in complementary colors—disordered work on his part—he only arrived at subdued, incomplete and monotonous harmonies; the sound of the clarion was missing”.

(Gauguin, Oct, 1903, Letter to the Mercure De France, from Stein, 1986, p.124)

Gauguin may have been a clarion. By November of 1888, the relationship between Gauguin and Van Gogh had become intolerable. Van Gogh deteriorated mentally as Gauguin grew more frustrated and impatient. By December, Van Gogh threatened Gauguin with a razor, and instead sliced his own earlobe off. After that incident, Gauguin left Arles and they never saw each other again.

Perhaps prescient of what was impending, in November of 1888 Van Gogh produced a second canvas of The Sower which showed an even more dramatic use of color [Insert Figure 3]. But in this image, an enormous sun is setting in “a very low yellow-green sky-- just as Vincent had described it---with a few streaks of pink cloud...” (Gayford, 2006, p.186). Gayford goes on to describe this second portrait as melancholic. In both instances, the color and mood that Van Gogh was personally experiencing came to dominate the painting.

In 1889, Van Gogh writes on Millet’s work, once again seeing color as a form of language. He writes: “painting from Millet’s drawings is more like translating them into another language than copying them. It is a year after his completion of second The Sower (Metzger & Walther, 1996, p. 272). The colors that he used became the language of his experience and adherence to the physical stimuli of his environment became subordinate to this reflection of his own inner feelings.

A second example of the progressive change in Gogh’s color palette was marked by an increasing interest in brightness and the subtle variation of the intensity of light. During the early years of his work, particularly by 1885 when he accomplishes the great masterpiece, The Potato-eaters, he focuses on changes in light and dark more than hue. He creates the tone and mood by altering the brightness and saturation of the darker hues [Insert Figure 4].

“The general effect of beauty of color in nature may be lost in painfully literal imitation; it may be maintained by recreating a parallel spectrum of colors…..much, everything, depends on my feeling for the infinite variety of tones of the same family….”

Van Gogh Letter #429, Oct. 1885, (Suh, 2006, p.155)

When he moves from Nuenen to Antwerp (1885), Metzger & Walther (1996, p.62) note that his work becomes increasingly violent and aggressive, particularly in the clashes of color and tone, and the impulsive, careless application of paint directly from the tube. This dominates the canvas and replaces the motifs of nature that had been characteristic of his earlier work. The change showed that Van Gogh now had to reconcile his own private, subjective perceptions of the world with the objective phenomenological reality.

From 1885 until his death in 1890, his letters document the obsessive detail with which he describes the colors of his canvases. Each description explains the hue, the intensity and the saturation of his palette. The raw symbolism of his color is reflected in a letter to his brother, Theo, describing the Night Café [Insert Figure 5]:

“I’ve tried to express the terrible passions of humanity with red and green. The room is blood red and dull yellow, with a green billiard table in the middle; there are four lemon yellow lamps casting an orange and green glow. Everywhere there’s a struggle and a clash between the very different greens and reds-in the small figures of the sleeping good-for-nothings, in the sad and empty room in violet and blue. The blood red and the green-yellow of the billiard table, for example, contrast with the delicate little Louis XV green of the counter with its bunch of pink flowers…And amid this furnace, the white clothes of the landlord, who is watching from a corner, become yellow and pale, luminous green….

In my picture of the night café, I’ve tried to convey the sense that the café is a place where one goes to ruin goes mad, commits crimes. I’ve tried to express the powers of darkness, in a way, in this dive of a bar, through contrasts of delicate pink, blood red, wine red, and soft Louis XV green and Veronese green, in contrast with hard green-yellows and blue-greens---all this amid an infernal furnace of pale sulphur…” (Letter#533, Suh, p.224)

The disorder and chaos that are reflected in his letters signal the intense emotional pressure that he was experiencing. This intensity, like the experience described by synesthetes, translates the experience from one modality into another. The contradiction in his choice of colors, and the oppositions that his colors engender, mirror the distress and confusion of his life:

“When I was writing this letter, I got up to put a few brushstrokes on a canvas I’m working on—in fact, it’s the one with the battered pine trees against a red, orange and yellow sky—yesterday it was very fresh—the tones pure and bright---well, I don’t know what came into my head while I was writing and looking at the canvas, but I told myself that it wasn’t right. So I took a color that appeared on the palette, a dirty, matte white that you get by mixing white, green, and a little carmine. And I plastered this green tone all over the sky, and at a distance it does indeed soften the tones by breaking them up; and yet it would seem as if one was spoiling the canvas and making it dirty. Isn’t this exactly what misfortune and illness do to us and to our health, and are we not better off like this, with the fate that destiny ordains, than serene and in good health by the lights of our own vague ideas and desires of possible happiness? I cannot tell…”

(Letter #W16, Suh, p. 281)

By 1888, the episodes of uncontrolled anger/anxiety that Van Gogh experienced were so extreme and sustained for so long that they were physically debilitating. He had reached the upper ranges of “tolerance” in psychophysical terms. His perceptions of his interactions and of situations were often inaccurate (as described in his letters and in the descriptions of others); his responses were extreme and he would perseverate on an issue, which escalated in magnitude until an intolerable level of intensity of anxiety or anger was reached. And the character, color and form of his canvases were rapidly changing as well.

If Van Gogh’s experience of anxiety was extremely intense and could have been quantified, then the result would be a steep, exponential gradient of intensity. Translated into observable behavior, there would be a greater likelihood that the individual would have difficulty reading just noticeable differences in stimulation or have difficulty reading changes in his environment. “It is quite apparent that individuals differ with regard to the kind and number of stimuli which evoke anxiety” (Sullivan, 1973). Those misperceptions serve to create an even higher intensity of emotion. Rapidly escalating intense responses as well the misinterpretation of situations and people were strong, consistent patterns throughout Van Gogh’s life. There were a number of examples of the misperception of situations and a rapid escalation of his emotions, starting from his earliest experiences in London as an art dealer and his imagined love affair with the daughter of the landlady of the house where he was boarding. Van Gogh early on misread her feelings (as she was committed to marry another) and as became typical of his future response patterns, the intensity escalated quickly and became more and more intolerable, not only for Van Gogh, but for those around him.

This pattern of misreading a situation was repeated again with his widowed cousin. After obsessively pursuing her, and becoming more confrontational, he held his hand under a candle to convince her of the intensity of what he felt. Unfortunately, no quantitative measures are available to compare Van Gogh’s work with his emotional status and perceptions of his environment, but a review of his work and letters provides the basis for the suggestion that in both his life and in his work, there was a pattern of misreading cues and escalating emotions but none more intense, unpredictable and extreme than in his interactions with Gauguin. The result was that Van Gogh was constantly in an extremely high state of anxiety and anger throughout most of his life. This is compounded by the fact that Van Gogh was becoming physically weaker. As his physical and emotional difficulties advance, perhaps due to any number of suggested ailments (from constipation, sunstroke, an advancing tumor, depression, absinthe addiction, epilepsy or psychosis), he may have had to make many adjustment in his work. Although he seems to have simplified his elements of his form (as in the two stroke execution of the black crow), he intensifies his use of color. The self-inflicted gunshot wound to his stomach was that final aggressive act that ultimately reflected an overload of the intolerable intense internal stimulation that he was experiencing. His use of color may have been the single most important symbol of the unrelenting intensity of his experience.

There has been the alternative suggestion that the choice of yellow and the intensity of the colors that Van Gogh chose may have been affected by his use of absinthe and the subsequent treatment with digitalis. According to Wolff (2001), overmedication with digitalis may cause the individual to see the world with a yellow-green tint. Although his use of absinthe and the treatment with digitalis may have been a factor throughout his career, it is unlikely that the intensity of his use of yellow was organically based. His work is far from monochromatic, and instead tends to emphasize the harmonious use of all complementary colors.

In 1882, at the beginning of his career, Van Gogh wrote (Letter #225, Suh, 2006, p.55):

“ There is some sense of color emerging in me that I have never had before, something that is wide-ranging and powerful”.

Over the next 7 years, Van Gogh increasingly focuses on that sense of color, which becomes the language of his emotions. Finally, in June, 1890—just prior to his death-- he wrote:

“I should like to paint portraits that, a century later to the people living then, will seem like apparitions. So I’m not seeking to achieve this through photograph likeness but through the expression of emotions, using our modern knowledge and taste for color as a means of expression… (Letter #w22, Suh, p.298

In conclusion, our analysis suggests that throughout his life, Van Gogh’s use of color, with specific regard to intensity, in his paintings reflects his mental instability and progressive deterioration. We believe that an analysis of Van Gogh’s paintings as well as his own writing, support the application of the principles of psychophysics and the experience of synesthesia, and offer another explanation of the relationship of color perception and emotion.

Such an examination of the relationship between an artist’s life and their mental status is an important dimension of exploration in both psychology and art. In fact, a developmental approach to creativity underscores the dynamic influence of external and internal forces in creating change. It assumes that an individual’s development is fluid and can/does change over time, and becomes more complex over time. Moreover, an individual’s behaviors are the outcomes of interactions between intense internal and external variables that ultimately force adaptive, novel and creative solutions to occur. Clearly this intense interaction and creative result certainly applied to Vincent Van Gogh.

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Figure 1: The Sower (1881) after Millet.

Figure 2: The Sower (1888)

Figure 3: The Sower with Setting Sun (1888)

Figure 4: The Potato-Eaters (1885)

Figure 5: The Night Café (1888)

To cite this article, use this bibliographical entry: K. G. Bekker "Color and Emotion — a Psychophysical Analysis of Van Gogh’s Work". PSYART: A Hyperlink Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts. December 15, 2009. Available December 15, 2009 [or whatever date you accessed the article].
Received: January 1, 2009, Published: December 15, 2009. Copyright © 2009 K. G. Bekker