Colour Design for Public Spaces: Learning from Van Gogh

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buy more about Arles, order at Night resize” src=”” alt=”” width=”300″ height=”383″ />Above is one of the most inviting-looking streetscapes in European art. How did Van Gogh achieve this effect and how can we use it to make more inviting public spaces? Read on and I’ll let you in on a few of Vincent’s little secrets… 

The above painting relies on an optical illusion that occurs when warm-biased hues, such as reds oranges and yellows, are juxtaposed with cool-biased hues, such as blues, greens and violets. The illusion is that when warm and cool hues are juxtaposed, warm hues seem to advance towards the viewer whilst cool hues seem to recede into the distance. For example, in this image the warm orange seems much closer than the cool blue, despite both being at equal distances.

Perhaps this phenomenon originates in our experience of seeing distant objects. If we look at hills from far away then in good light they will appear to be somewhat bluish (and therefore cool) due to the effects of atmospheric haze. In the following photo each range of mountains looks progressively cooler the further away it is.

© Joaquim Alves Gaspar

Perhaps as a result, cool colours such as blue are associated with distance. Perhaps warm colours are associated with closeness due to the experience of huddling around a fire. Regardless of the reason for such a phenomenon, artists have long exploited it. This still life by Paul Cezanne, for example, uses warm oranges and reds for the foreground colours and cool greens and blues for the background.

The effect is of making the table appear to advance towards the viewer, making us feel part of the scene. It therefore feels more inviting. Rather more strikingly, we can compare two paintings by Vincent Van Gogh.

Both paintings were created in September 1888, both depict an Arles cafe at night, both include large areas of yellow ‘broken’ with green (the floor in one, the walls and awning in the other), both include a standing waiter dressed in white — and both use a contrast of warm and cool colours as a dominant aspect of the composition (red/green; yellow & orange/blue). Yet the two paintings have dramatically different characters. In a letter Van Gogh wrote to his brother Theo about the first painting, which he called ‘Night Cafe’, he declared the work “one of the ugliest [paintings] I have done… I have tried to express the terrible passions of humanity by means of red and green.” The second painting, named ‘Cafe Terrace at Night’, adorns the walls of countless homes due to its idealised portrayal of cafe culture and dream-like effect. How can two paintings so similar and created at the same time have such different characters?

I suggest that the answer lies in the way that the red and green work upsets the psychological link between the warmth of hues and their nearness, and the blue and orange/yellow work goes with the grain of this link, and therefore intensifies it. The next sections are devoted to showing just that.

The Night Cafe

The red and green work has strongly distorted perspective: the pool table seems to lean backwards whilst its shadow tapers to the right, producing a lurching impression. Meanwhile the room seems to narrow impossibly severely at the back; this, in tandem with the green streaks on the floor, gives the impression that the room’s back is further away than if seen with normal perspective. Look at how Van Gogh emphasises the perspective with his unusually thick brushstrokes at the join of walls and ceiling.

Turning our attention to the colour scheme we see that Van Gogh has placed the sickly and cool green of the pool table in the foreground and concentrated all the warm colours — the reds of the walls, the yellows of the lights — either in the narrow, tapering band of the walls that look so artificially far away or in the rear room. The warm colours that advance towards us are placed far away; the cold colours that recede from us are placed close by. And this, I suggest, is how Van Gogh has managed to make the painting so disorientating.

 The Cafe Terrace at Night

In the background of the outdoor cafe is a cool blue sky that connotes ultimate distance through its depiction of stars. In contrast to the indoor, red/green cafe, Van Gogh uses distorted perspective to intensify this feeling of distance — look at how vertiginously steeply the line of houses on the right recedes. It’s so close to being jarringly unnatural that Van Gogh has to compensate by introducing the tree to obscure just how tall the building with the shop is; by making the windows on the middle storeys the same size despite the buildings they’re on being of dramatically different sizes; and by blocking with people our view of the receding line of the street.

The right half of the painting therefore makes perspective, cool colours and stars work together to suggest a very distant background. The left half of the painting does something ingenious, I think.

I’ll divide the left half of the painting into two parts: the foreground before the cafe and the cafe itself, including the upper floor. The foreground does these four jobs:

  1. The cool-hued door frame at the left gives cues to the viewer that their position in the scene has more in common with the distance of the right-hand side of the painting than the warmth of the cafe.
  2. The ‘visual obstacles’ of the strong and repeated black horizontal rendering of the cobblestones increase the sense of our separation from the cafe.
  3. The ‘tramlines’ on the floor offer a path through this sea of horizontal visual obstacles, thus connecting the viewer with the cafe and offering the suggestion of easy entry.
  4. Lastly, the use of a fairly gentle perspective for both the tramlines and the doorframe lead the viewer to expect a similar usage of perspective in the golden cafe. Most specifically, the tramlines converge upon the standing waiter. The brilliant white of the black-haired waiter is intensified by his being surrounded by people dressed in black, and since the eye is naturally attracted to the points of maximum contrast there is little doubt that in colour terms the waiter is the intended focal point of the cafe.

The eyes have a goal: to get to the waiter. And the eyes have a route: just follow the tramlines. However, having set us up, Van Gogh proceeds to play with our expectations.

The eye’s path along the tramlines is stopped by a table and left-angled chair. Just behind these items is a step onto the platform that forms a strong visual obstacle due to the contrasty vertical lines. The vigour of the brown horizontal of the step of the whole encourages the eye to move either left or right; if we choose rightwards then we very quickly come up against the other chair which is also angled left. By these means Van Gogh encourages our eyes to move left until it comes across the thin table to the left of the left-hand tramline. From here we pick up the line of white circular table tops that lead us straight to the waiter and which acts as a replacement line of perspective.

‘How satisfying’, we might think, ‘that the perspectival vanishing point and the colour focal point are one and the same!’ Yet our attempt to confirm that the waiter is indeed the perspectival vanishing point quickly runs into trouble. The obvious place to look for another such line is starting from the table to the right of the waiter. Van Gogh makes it the obvious place by placing someone dressed in the colour opposites of red and green at that table, and by placing this person’s face precisely at one of the most geometrically significant square inches on the canvas. Van Gogh is certainly using a centuries-old compositional technique known as rabatment, which seeks to generate balance on a canvas of unequal sides through dividing the rectangle into two overlapping squares and (often) placing significant compositional elements on the intersections of the diagonals of those squares or derivations from the intersections of such lines. The woman’s head is exactly at this intersection in the lower square. For these reasons this table seems the obvious place to look for another line converging on the waiter to balance the left-hand line of tables. However, we cannot find a suitable continuation of the line from the waiter to this table and so the attempt breaks down.

We quickly spot the straight line of tables to the right of the platform, and, aided by this line’s continuation in the foreground cobbles, want to adopt this as the second perspectival line. Having been primed by the foreground tramlines to expect converging perspectival lines and then thwarted in this wish, we naturally seek to find replacements.

The problem is, of course, that the line of tables to the right of the platform recedes to a place far behind the waiter. This makes it very difficult to get a coherent grasp on how perspective is working within the cafe, which, as a by-product, makes it difficult to understand the depth of the cafe or the size of objects within it. Yet without being able to understand the depth or position of the cafe then we are likely to be somewhat confused, since the warmth of the cafe’s hues will make it seem to advance towards us, relative to the cool background, and without perspective it is difficult to fix the cafe’s location to compensate for this perceptual effect.

We may try to work out the depth of the cafe through other cues, but Van Gogh puts impediments in our way elsewhere too. If, for example, we draw a line along the top of the receding cafe doors then we end up at the waiter’s chest, but to take this as a line of perspective would mean that the waiter is unimaginably tall. We’re also confused by the mysterious black figure in the doorway who both looks rather taller than patrons seated beside him and also a third of the height of the door; and further confused by the way that neither the two horizontally-jutting pieces of ornamental metalwork nor the cool foreground doorway recede in the same way as the cafe doors.

We may try to follow the join between platform and wall, but this line is swiftly disguised by people. We may look at the join between wall and awning, but the attempt is hindered by the hooks that stop getting smaller half-way along, and the strange curve at the end of this line. We may try to find depth cues in the cafe’s upper storey, but fail due to us viewing it at a right-angle.

It seems safe to conclude that Van Gogh wants the viewer to fail to find depth cues within the cafe, and therefore be unable to pin down perspective.

Why the Paintings have such Dissimilar Characters

I think we can now say precisely why the two depictions of cafes have such dissimilar characters. Whereas in the red and green work Van Gogh distorts perspective to make the warm hues seem far away and the cool hues seem close by, in the blue and yellow/orange work he distorts perspective to make the cool-hued background seem very distant and also obscures depth cues within the cafe so that the natural tendency for warm hues to ‘advance towards us’ goes unchecked by considerations of perspective. The outdoor cafe becomes a floating world.

The stroke of genius in the composition of the outdoor cafe is that Van Gogh locates the viewer in a cool-hued and distant part of the painting, deliberately separates us from the cafe and yet, through the lack of perspective cues and strong warm colour, makes the cafe appear to be unmoored from its surroundings, and coming closer. We cannot fix it in its proper, perspectival place, and therefore check the warm hues’ perceptual advance; yet no matter how strong or how rich the warm hues of the cafe are they can never ‘leap over’ the cold band of foreground that separates us from the cafe. We are out in the emotionally-distant cool, looking on at the warmth and conviviality of the cafe, yearning to be part of it yet forever separated from it. And this, I think, explains the painting’s appeal.

Van Gogh’s Lesson, and a Cautionary Example from Edward Hopper

The lesson of these paintings, then, is that putting cool hues in the foreground and warm hues in the background is disorientating, whereas warm hues in the foreground and cool hues in the background match our natural assumptions and therefore is more pleasurable. The link is real; the link is powerful; and the link is the common secret of one of Van Gogh’s most attractive works and one of his ugliest.

There seems to be little reason why we cannot adopt this link to make more inviting public spaces by trying to use warm hues in the foreground at strategic points and cool hues in the background.

As we have seen, putting a band of cool hues before a warm-hued area that (crucially) is itself before a dramatically cool and distant background may strongly encourage people to cross over to the wam-hued area, which may be useful. However, if this precise technique is applied it should be done with care and sensitivity, not least because in real life we cannot, of course, manipulate perspective as Van Gogh did and it is therefore more likely to backfire. Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks makes a similar use of warm and cool colours to Van Gogh’s Cafe Terrace at Night, but, largely through his use of perspective, creates an isolated, lonely effect rather than Van Gogh’s enticing floating world.

In Hopper’s night cafe the customers are also bathed in yellow light between a cool foreground and a cool background. Hopper uses several techniques to intensify the warmth of the cafe’s insides compared to the cool exterior, such as the harsh lighting, the rich brown of the bartop, the intense yellow of the door with the contrasting square of green, the blond hair of the barman and, of course, the bright dress of the redhead. The only person showing any kind of animation is the barman, who is also the only one before a warm-coloured background, and his animation heightens the contrast between him and his customers, producing a lonely sense of unreciprocated social contact. This sense of loneliness is intensified by Hopper’s use of space…

The customers are sat in the narrow end of the wedge cafe that has no entrance or exit, and the cramped character of the space is intensified by the row of barstools too close to the window to suggest ease of access. The warm cafe is therefore presented as cut off from the street and cramped.

Meanwhile the cool background is deliberately made to seem close to the customers, in contrast to the infinite distance of Van Gogh’s cool starry sky. The shadow cast across most of the street behind the cafe makes that street seem very narrow, and therefore the background shopfronts seem very close to the customers. In addition the other side of the street is made to seem almost like a continuation of the cafe through the use of colours. The background street is also composed of a cool lower section and a warm upper section and the transition between these sections happens at almost exactly the same level of the painting, so that the bottom of the ‘Phillies’ sign and the top of the lower storey in the back street can be almost ‘read’ as one continuous line. This encourages reading both cafe front and back street shops as one plane, making the cool background seem very close indeed to the customers.

This technique of encouraging the reading the cafe as a single plane is intensified by three techniques. Firstly, the thin triangle of light that extends across the cafe is echoed by the triangle of light on the upper storey of the back street shops. Secondly, directly behind the redhead the background transitions from yellow to green-yellow to green, and the green-yellow section is both physically close to the redhead and similar in colour to the background. Thirdly the size of the foreground is emphasised by the use of ‘starburst’ triangles on the floor; this provides an expansive feeling that contrasts strongly with the cramped nature of both the cafe and the back street.

The most important differences between the Van Gogh Cafe Terrace At Night and Hopper’s Nighthawks for the purposes of this post are, firstly, that Hopper cuts us off from his glass-walled, entrance-less cafe whilst Van Gogh leads us towards his cafe through the ‘tram lines’ and lines of tables; and secondly that Hopper brings the cool background seem close, whereas Van Gogh makes his cool background seem extremely distant.

In urban settings, I suggest, dramatically distant backgrounds are in short supply, whereas relatively cramped and close backgrounds are plentiful. For that reason there are relatively few urban settings where a cool foreground, warm middleground and cool background will produce an inviting effect, and it is usually better to just use the warm foreground, cool background technique.

Application of the Warm Foreground, Cool Background Technique in London’s Covent Garden

The above technique is used in this photo of the main entrance to Covent Garden’s Apple Market. The red of the sign and stalls contrast with the cool greens of the architecture. Due to the perceptual advance of the warm hue and the perceptual retreat of the cool the colour design makes the Market seem a more inviting place to enter.

©Thomas Euler @
Or at least it would were the sign and stall still painted red. For once again I must admit that, although the memory of the scene above was the inspiration for this post, the market has been repainted and currently the sign and stalls are black. This, in my view, is a poor decision, although hardly a disastrous one. Nevertheless, I hope to have demonstrated that there is a psychological link between warm hues and close distances, and that this could potentially be used to give places a more inviting character. 
[Thanks to Paul Bailey of the East-West cultural exchange social network for his suggestion of using the work of Edward Hopper.]

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