Amsterdam through British eyes

Behind the Scenes at the Van Gogh Atelier


Since opening the Van Gogh at work exhibition in May, the Van Gogh museum has received over 155,000 visitors in its first month alone. The exhibition was formulated after over 8 years of research into how Van Gogh worked. This research set out to find out more about the painting, techniques and materials that Van Gogh used and to compare it with his contemporaries. I gained exclusive behind the scenes access to find out how the research into Van Gogh’s work was carried out. 

The painting we were looking at was the Bloeiende Boomgaard by Van Gogh, a painting dating from 1889, which was painted in Haarlem. It was stunning, and very exciting to be able to get this close to a Van Gogh painting.

There are several different ways that one painting can tell you about the work of an artist. The different methods that the researchers use include raking light (a light source almost parrallel to the painting) so they have a better idea of brushstrokes, U.V light so that they can see any old retouching which will appear black on the surface, X-Rays to see the painting techniques and if there is a painting underneath, and infra-red light which makes under-drawings visible (if they are done in charcoal).

Restaurator and conservator Kathrin Pilz said ‘We know that Van Gogh used a lot of red lakes in his paintings. Some of these organic red lake pigments are not stable to light. So what we see is, if he used a red organic lake it would fade in the course of the years, sometimes very quickly, very rapidly, and you would be able to see changes already at the beginning at the 20th century. Sometmes you don’t even know it was there originally so then we use his letters. Sometimes he describes in his letters what the colours of certin paintings were’ 

‘If we unframe some things, sometimes there is a small area along the edge which is usually covered by the frame which doesn’t have access to light and the original colours are much better preserved in that spot.’ 

As it turns out, Van Gogh was quite meticulous with this painting. There is a charcoal drawing underneath,  that is visible through a microscope on some areas of this painting. The ground layer of the painting is quite broken up, and on the top of the canvas has cracked and fallen off. There is also a layer of thick varnish, which was applied as a treatment a number of years ago. This is now being taken off using solvents to soften it, and special tools to remove the layer.

 Kathrin Pilz getting the Van Gogh painting out from the drawer


 The painting on the desk

Up close with the microscope

Kathrin Pilz adjusting the microscope

Up close and personal with Van Gogh’s Bloeiende Boomgaard using raking light.

Colours that Van Gogh used to paint the red lakes.

Items used to make paint

Another look at the beautiful detail of the painting.

A very special thankyou to Amsterdam Marketing for making this visit possible.


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