Modern colours on the palette

Selfportrait as a Painter

‘All the colours on the palette’

This brightly-coloured self-portrait is poles apart from its dark predecessor. Approximately one year separated the two paintings. Together they demonstrate the enormous development that Van Gogh went through in a brief space of time in Paris.

With his colourful self-portrait, Van Gogh presented himself as a contemporary artist. The primary indicator of this was his modern use of colours, but he also used a new painting technique that had become popular among the Impressionists and Pointillists: painting in dots and dashes.

Here’s an impression of mine, which is the result of a portrait that I painted in the mirror, and which Theo has: a pink-grey face with green eyes, ash-coloured hair, wrinkles in forehead and around the mouth, stiffly wooden, a very red beard, quite unkempt and sad, but the lips are full, a blue smock of coarse linen, and a palette with lemon yellow, vermilion, Veronese green, cobalt blue, in short all the colours, except of the orange beard, on the palette, the only whole colours, though.

Letter to Willemien van Gogh. Arles, between Saturday, 16 and Wednesday, 20 June 1888

Detail of the hair, which is composed of red and green brushstrokes.


The palette seems to testify to Van Gogh’s modern ideas about colour and occupies a prominent place in the painting. It shows the primary and secondary pairs of colours that the artist used to paint himself, such as red and green for his hair and orange and blue for the beard and artist's smock.

Van Gogh liked to use these complementary colours because they enhanced each other's effect. The Academy prescribed a more traditional palette, with mixed, natural colours.

Detail of the beard and painter's smock for which Van Gogh used the complementary pair of colours orange and blue.

Detail of the palette of the older Self-Portrait as a Painter (1886). The paint on this palette is still arranged in a fairly traditional way, as recommended by the art academy.