“Starry Night” is probably Van Gogh’s most famous painting. It’s known for the vibrant swirls of light dancing across its painted sky. Painted by memory from a view in his mental rehabilitation center, the unique use of patterns and light is too captivating and mesmerizing to overlook. The intensity of color in the stars and the quick brushstrokes of the clouds creates a sense of energy and movement in the sky above the dark, sleepy town. The radiating patterns of light depicted have been studied by scientists and mathematicians because they reflect the patterns of turbulent fluid structures found in wind, water, and even space. Surely Van Gogh was not the only one to paint these turbulent patterns of light. What about “The Scream” by Edvard Munch? No, Van Gogh seems to be the first artist to capture turbulence to the point that his strokes match equations he could not possibly have studied. This turbulence is associated specifically with his hardest years when he lived in a small mental facility with little space to paint. “In a period of intense suffering, Van Gogh was somehow able to perceive and represent one of the most supremely difficult concepts . . . to unite his unique mind’s eye with the deepest mysteries of movement, fluid, and light”. If your mind has not been blown already by Van Gogh’s genius, get this: he was probably color blind. Scientists viewed his paintings through color-blindness simulators and determined that Van Gogh likely saw his paintings in an entirely different way than we do. Van Gogh’s possible color blindness means that he used color in such a striking way because he saw less range. In the end, “his limitations themselves freed him to create beauty”. It is the very harshness between light and dark that we love so much about “Starry Night.” The color contrast between the dark village and the bright night sky makes the sky look like bright hope in the midst of Van Gogh’s great sorrow.
Now it is our turn to take what we have learned about light and movement and apply it to our own work. I encourage you to take your paints and try to paint your own “Starry Night.” Fill it with light, deep contrasts, and swirling turbulence, just as Van Gogh did.
1. Add adhesive tape to the edges of your paper to create a clear border. Sketch out a landscape, making sure to have plenty of room for the sky. Try not to simply copy “Starry Night,” but create your own story.
2. Paint your sky. I recommend using acrylic or oil because you want to move the paint around the page and have plenty of time to manipulate it.
3. As you start to get used to playing with the colors and textures, keep looking back at Van Gogh’s piece to get a deeper understanding of his techniques. It looks effortless, but this study showed me how difficult it must have been to achieve his effect. Use small amounts of paint with a dry brush to create the rough texture in the grassy hills and continue to add bright colors until you are satisfied with the contrasting colors.
4. Finally, paint your town, add some trees, and peel off the adhesive tape!
Schultz, Colin. “Was Vincent Van Gogh Color Blind? It Sure Looks Like It.” Smithsonian.com, Smithsonian Institution, 20 Aug.
St. Clair, Natalya. The Unexpected Math Behind Van Gough’s “Starry Night” – Natalya St. Clair. YouTube, TED-Ed, 30 Oct. 2014,
The Cogito. Starry Night analysis What makes Van Gough unique? (video Essay). YouTube, 30 July 2017, www.youtube.com/watch?
“The Starry Night – Vincent Van Gogh – Google Arts & Culture.” Google, Google, artsandculture.google.com/asset/the-starry-