During this period Van Gogh mastered the use of light by subjugating shadows and painting the trees as if they are the source of light – almost in a sacred manner.[252] Early the following year he painted another smaller group of orchards, including View of Arles, Flowering Orchards.[254] Van Gogh was enthralled by the landscape and vegetation of the south of France, and often visited the farm gardens near Arles. In the vivid light of the Mediterranean climate his palette significantly brightened.[255]
People in the UK love to rib me about my accent, I will never live it down. They ask what part of England I was meant to be from and I say it was a little shire in the north where most of the people were from Ohio. I was working with an entire English cast and nobody said a word, not Julie, not anybody said I needed to work on it so I thought I was alright.

Theo criticised The Potato Eaters for its dark palette, which he thought unsuitable for a modern style.[206] During Van Gogh's stay in Paris between 1886 and 1887, he tried to master a new, lighter palette. His Portrait of Père Tanguy (1887) shows his success with the brighter palette, and is evidence of an evolving personal style.[207] Charles Blanc's treatise on colour interested him greatly, and led him to work with complementary colours. Van Gogh came to believe that the effect of colour went beyond the descriptive; he said that "colour expresses something in itself".[208][209] According to Hughes, Van Gogh perceived colour as having a "psychological and moral weight", as exemplified in the garish reds and greens of The Night Cafe, a work he wanted to "express the terrible passions of humanity".[210] Yellow meant the most to him, because it symbolised emotional truth. He used yellow as a symbol for sunlight, life, and God.[211]

In these series, Van Gogh was not preoccupied by his usual interest in filling his paintings with subjectivity and emotion; rather the two series are intended to display his technical skill and working methods to Gauguin,[134] who was about to visit. The 1888 paintings were created during a rare period of optimism for the artist. Vincent wrote to Theo in August 1888, "I'm painting with the gusto of a Marseillais eating bouillabaisse, which won't surprise you when it's a question of painting large sunflowers ... If I carry out this plan there'll be a dozen or so panels. The whole thing will therefore be a symphony in blue and yellow. I work on it all these mornings, from sunrise. Because the flowers wilt quickly and it's a matter of doing the whole thing in one go."[243]

In 1892 Émile Bernard organised a small solo show of Van Gogh's paintings in Paris, and Julien Tanguy exhibited his Van Gogh paintings with several consigned from Johanna van Gogh-Bonger. In April 1894 the Durand-Rue Gallery in Paris agreed to take 10 paintings on consignment from Van Gogh's estate.[269] In 1896, the Fauvist painter Henri Matisse, then an unknown art student, visited John Peter Russell on Belle Île off Brittany.[270][271] Russell had been a close friend of Van Gogh; he introduced Matisse to the Dutchman's work, and gave him a Van Gogh drawing. Influenced by Van Gogh, Matisse abandoned his earth-coloured palette for bright colours.[271][272]