Tag Archives: van gogh

The secret to van Gogh’s success and other hot streaks? Creative exploration

This saliency map visualizes the important pixels that the model used to predict Van Gogh’s post-impressionism art style. Credit: Northwestern University.

Vincent van Gogh lived a short, frantic, and at times tortured life. He apprenticed for an art dealer, pursued a career as a traveling missionary and evangelist, was nearly admitted to a mental asylum, and only became an artist at the tail of his life, a career that lasted for only ten years.

However, despite his short career as a painter, van Gogh had a hot streak between 1888 and 1890, during which he painted some of the most famous works in modern art history, including The Starry Night, Sunflowers, and Bedroom in Arles.

During a visit to the van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, Dashun Wang, professor of management at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, was intrigued by this creative fury and wondered what triggered it. He knew of other examples not just in the art world, but also in scientific and cultural fields.

Years later, Wang and colleagues analyzed the career histories of thousands of personalities and uncovered a common pattern: the most successful completed their most cherished works immediately after going through a period of creative experimentation and exploration.

Creative success may have a ‘magic’ formula

Using artificial intelligence, the Northwestern researchers combed through and analyzed a massive dataset comprising over 800,000 paintings collected from museums and galleries, covering the careers of 2,128 artists. They also mined a dataset from the Internet Movie Database (IMDB), which included 79,000 films by 4,337 directors, as well as datasets from the Web of Science and Google Scholar to analyze the careers of 20,400 scientists.

The algorithms were tuned to find hot streaks, measured by auction price of sold paintings, IMDB ratings, and academic paper citations. The timing of these streaks was then analyzed in order to uncover any patterns in the individuals’ career trajectories four years before and after their most creative periods.

Across the board, an overarching pattern emerged whereby the most successful artists, film directors, and scientists engaged in episodes of exploration, straying out from the beaten path, followed by a lucrative period of exploitation. On average, a hot streak lasted only five years.

Those who only experimented and didn’t buckle up to exploit a single creative thread had a significantly lower chance of entering a hot streak. Similarly, those who only stayed in the trenches and solely employed exploitation had lower odds of achieving a hot streak.

“Neither exploration nor exploitation alone in isolation is associated with a hot streak. It’s the sequence of them together,” said Wang, who led the study. “Although exploration is considered a risk because it might not lead anywhere, it increases the likelihood of stumbling upon a great idea. By contrast, exploitation is typically viewed as a conservative strategy. If you exploit the same type of work over and over for a long period of time, it might stifle creativity. But, interestingly, exploration followed by exploitation appears to show consistent associations with the onset of hot streaks.”

Van Gogh, for example, experimented a lot during the years leading up to his 1888 hot streak. Prior to this period, the Dutch painter produced a myriad of drawings, portraits, and still-life paintings that were quite different from one another, and which were very different in particular from his works produced during the hot streak.

“We were able to identify among the first regularities underlying the onset of hot streaks, which appears universal across diverse creative domains,” Wang said. “Our findings suggest that creative strategies that balance experimentation with implementation may be especially powerful.”

“This knowledge can help individuals and organizations understand the different types of activities to engage in — such as exploring new domains or exploiting existing knowledge and competencies — and the optimal sequence to use in order to achieve the most significant impact,” added study co-author Jillian Chown, an assistant professor of management and organizations at Kellogg School.

The findings appeared in the journal Nature Communications.

Wilting away: Van Gogh’s legendary sunflowers are turning brown

Some of the world’s most famous and cherished photos might be losing their colors: due to Van Gogh’s light-sensitive paint, his famous sunflowers might fade to brown.

After 150 years of blossoming, Van Gogh’s flowers might be wilting away.

The Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam has some bad news: Van Gogh’s most famous paintings may be losing some of their color. Using a newly pioneered technique, they found that the sunflowers’ trademark yellow is slowly turning brown. The reason for this is because Van Gogh used a light-sensitive yellow paint.

So far, the change isn’t visible to the naked eye, but the customized X-ray showed that the yellow used in many of the sunflower paintings is set to lose its remarkable vibrancy.

“It is very difficult to say how long it would take for the change to be obvious and it would depend a lot on the external factors,” said Frederik Vanmeert, a materials science expert at the University of Antwerp, who was part of the research team.

“We were able to see where Van Gogh used the more light-sensitive chrome yellow, the areas that the restorers should look out for over time for discolouration … We were also able to see that he used emerald green and a red lead paint in very small areas of the painting which will become more white, more light, over time.”

However, not all of the paintings will degrade equally — Van Gogh used two different yellow chrome pains, and only one of them is particularly sensitive to light. In order to determine this, researchers carried out a painstakingly detailed X-ray mapping. The technique is so detailed that researchers were able to obtain a level of resolution that allowed them to see how the paint crystallites aligned along the direction of Van Gogh’s brush strokes

It’s not the first time something like this has been reported. Just last year, a different study found that LED lights may be accelerating decoloration in Van Gogh’s paintings. However, Soraa, an LED manufacturer in California, contends that Xenon lamps, not LED lamps, were used in the research, and that “Xenon lamp spectra are vastly different than those of white-emitting LEDs for illumination.”

The museum in Amsterdam, like many other art museums, has already taken steps to prevent degradation of its paintings: five years ago, they significantly reduced the lighting in the presentation rooms, but even so, some paintings (like Van Gogh’s) seem to be affected. The head of collection and research at the museum, Marije Vellekoop, said they are closely following the results of the study and will decide on necessary measures.

“At the moment, we are processing all the research results of this iconic painting, after which we determine how we will pay further attention to discolouration in our museum. We know that the discoloured pigment chrome yellow has been used a lot by Van Gogh, we assume that this has also been discoloured in other paintings.”

Left: Van Gogh painting “Wheat Stack under a Cloudy Sky” (Kröller-Müller Museum, Netherlands). The paint sample area is indicated by a white circle. Upper right: Detail of the painting in the sample area, lower right: Detail of the paint sample (picture: Wiley-VCH Verlag GmbH & Co. KGaA, Weinheim)

Why Van Gogh’s paintings are fading to white

Belgian scientists have revealed a refined explanation for the chemical process that’s currently degrading Vincent van Gogh’s famous paintings, which are losing their bright red. Like other old paintings, van Gogh’s works are losing their saturated hue because of the interaction between red led and light. Using sophisticated  X-ray crystallographic methods, the researchers identified a key carbon mineral called plumbonacrite in one of his paintings, which explains the process even better.

Left: Van Gogh painting “Wheat Stack under a Cloudy Sky” (Kröller-Müller Museum, Netherlands). The paint sample area is indicated by a white circle. Upper right: Detail of the painting in the sample area, lower right: Detail of the paint sample (picture: Wiley-VCH Verlag GmbH & Co. KGaA, Weinheim)

Left: Van Gogh painting “Wheat Stack under a Cloudy Sky” (Kröller-Müller Museum, Netherlands). The paint sample area is indicated by a white circle. Upper right: Detail of the painting in the sample area, lower right: Detail of the paint sample (picture: Wiley-VCH Verlag GmbH & Co. KGaA, Weinheim)

All paints are made up of three key parts: the vehicle (usually water), the pigment (the stuff that gives matter color – usually mined from the earth in the form of clay or mineral or even plants, but also synthetic form), and a binder (otherwise you’d just have colored water – typically chalk is used). Red lead (minium, or lead (II,IV) oxide) is a lead oxide whose composition is Pb3O4 and whose color varies over time. It’s been a favorite pigment for thousands of years. In fact, it can still be found in the old cave paintings some 40,000 years old. Of course, it degrades over time darkening as the red lead pigment is converted to plattnerite (beta-lead dioxide) or galena (lead sulfide). At other times, the color will lighten or bleach due to the conversion of red lead to lead sulfate or lead carbonate.

A team led by Koen Janssens at the University of Antwerp investigated what makes van Gogh’s paintings turn white by taking a microscopic sample from “Wheat Stack under a Cloudy Sky”, one of his famous work, and subjecting it to crystallographic analysis. X-ray powder diffraction mapping and tomography techniques were employed to determine the spatial distribution of the various crystalline compounds found throughout the sample. They eventually found an unexpected compound, the very rare lead carbonate mineral called plumbonacrite (3 PbCO3·Pb(OH)2·PbO).

“This is the first time that this substance has been found in a painting from before the mid twentieth century,” reports Frederik Vanmeert, first author of the paper. “Our discovery sheds new light on the bleaching process of red lead.”

Considering this latest finding, the Belgian researchers proposed a chemical reaction pathway of the red lead under the influence of light and CO2, which ultimately altered the pigment and caused a color change in the painting. As light hits the paint (red lead and other pigments), the incoming energy causes electrons to move from the valance band to the conducting band in red lead, which is a semi-conductor. This reduces the red lead to PbO, which reacts with other products formed by the reaction of CO2 from the air with the degrading binding medium. Ultimately, this forms plumbonacrite  as an intermediate that is converted to hydrocerussite and then to cerussite (lead carbonate). All these products are white, hence the lower saturation. The findings were reported in  Angewandte Chemie.

Art aficionados shouldn’t fret too hard, though. Van Gogh’s paintings are still marvelous, despite more than a hundred years since the Dutch painter made his first stroke on the canvas. Museums give great care and employ special conservation methods to keep the old masters’ work bright and vibrant for hundreds of years to come.