On the play of complementary colours: cool and warm, primary and secondary
The clash of the primary colours
In its current restored state, Van Gogh’s The bedroom is a clean, crisp, vivid painting. Yet its cool atmosphere and lively colours are only part of the story. The bright blue walls suggest a spaciousness that turns out, on closer scrutiny, to be at odds with the relative proportions of the floor and the bed and with the painter’s description of the room in his letters. Currently, the three primary colours are in conflict, with blue predominating. From a painter’s point of view, the work is fraught with tension.
Colour and tone
‘I had wished to express utter repose with all these very different tones,’ Van Gogh wrote to Gauguin. After staying indoors for two full days to rest his strained eyes, the first thing he had painted was the interior of his small bedroom.
Calm, or ‘repose’, is suggested in a painting by avoiding contrasts. This means using colours that are equally light or dark – in other words, equivalent tones. The quickest way to determine whether you’ve actually created a calm atmosphere is by squinting at the painting through your eyelashes, so that the details fade and only the main forms and contours remain. If we look at The bedroom this way, we immediately see what is wrong with it: namely, the walls and the blanket. The walls are too light in tone, and the blanket too dark. The digital impression restores the lavender colour of the walls (by removing the white) and brightens the red of the blanket, bringing the tonal values into balance and restoring the sense of repose.
Vincent writes that the only white he wanted in the painting was the reflection in the mirror. As he puts it, the fourth pair of complementary colours, white and black, is represented by the mirror and its frame. At present, this effect is cancelled out by the abundance of white in the walls.
Impression of the original colours
Impression of the original colours of The Bedroom.
Cool and warm colours
The reconstruction shows the logic of the original colour scheme, based on a single, dominant primary colour and the interplay of mutually reinforcing, complementary secondary colours, both warm and cool.
The cool colours:
Purple (violet) – walls
Terracotta – floor
Lime green – sheets and pillow
Emerald green – window frame
The warm colours:
Scarlet – blanket
Chrome yellow – bed
Ultramarine – door frames
Van Gogh also uses a range of blues, such as cool Prussian blue, tending towards green, and warm cobalt blue, inclining towards red. Combined with white and the warm but unstable pigment known as geranium lake, which was a favourite of Van Gogh’s, cobalt blue gives a beautiful violet-purple hue.
Leading part for the blanket and the bed
The central colour in the painting is red, which Van Gogh applied quite thickly. Around this primary colour revolve several others, most of them complementary and secondary: cool purple (composed of red, white and blue), warm yellow and various warm and cool hues of green (composed of blue and yellow).
The eye is first drawn to the red blanket – which is currently a cool, discoloured red, comparable to Cadmium Red Dark – embedded in the warm yellow of the bed frame. The floor and the furniture are linked by their yellow and red elements and form the warm part of the scene. The distinct benefit is that, as a group, these elements clearly project themselves into the foreground and form the basis of the composition.
The walls and doors are a cooler variation on the pink of the floor and seem to embrace the foreground. At this stage the function of the green window, ensconced in the violet, becomes apparent. Green is complementary to the primary colour red. Because green is composed of the other two primary colours, red and green reinforce each other and are often used in combination.
Against the faded blue-white of the walls in the painting in its present state, the green window frame is much too heavy and isolated. It seems to float free of the wall, drawn to the red blanket and the green lines at the foot of the bed. The violet of the walls in the reconstruction reveals the warm light entering the room from outdoors, softened by the shutters. This effect is currently overpowered by the bright bluish-white in the walls, which resembles a primary colour. The reconstruction restores Van Gogh’s small, warm room in an old house with thick walls in the sun-drenched south of France.
Thanks to the latest technology and, even more importantly, to collaboration between the various disciplines that study art and colour, we can now see and understand the artist’s work in the way he most probably intended. For me as a painter, knowledge of the original materials is an absolute necessity before I can form an opinion about a painting or offer an art-historical interpretation. Vincent would be greatly relieved to know that his intentions are now visible once again.