I am in Arles France, and today I had the pleasure of visiting the local museum dedicated to one of the city’s most famous artist’s- Fondation Vincent Van Gogh. Here are a few tidbits I learned about Vincent Van Gogh that you may not know.
- Van Gogh came to Arles in search of color and a relief from the drab palette of the Dutch painters (think Rembrandt). However, instead of painting, he began with drawing. He drew and drew for 8 years before he resolved to becoming an artist in August/1880. Using ink and other mixed drawing media, Van Gogh did over 1200 recorded drawings. Register that fact for a moment. That’s a LOT of drawings! How many have you done? I love to draw, and came to painting via the drawing path, however I have NOT done 1200 drawings. (I’ll tell you what though…I went out and did a lot of drawing today after leaving the museum!)
- Did you know that Van Gogh only sold 1 painting to someone other than his brother Theo? If you haven’t sold much, take some heat off yourself. You are in good company!
- While here in Arles he was drawing and painting (and off and on going crazy). The poor guy suffered from some sort of mental problems with occasional hospitalization ending in his early death. I’ve researched this a little bit and no formal diagnosis of his mental illness seems to float around with any consensus. It seems well known that he had daddy issues (hated him) and had a hero worship (or possible obsession) with Paul Gaugin.
- I’ve always told my kids that the best way to ruin a good friendship is to become roommates. That’s what happened with Van Gogh and Gaugin. Vincent asked Gaugin to move in, and the unfortunate end of that brief arrangement cost Vincent his ear and also the friendship.
- Interestingly, there is a lot of evidence from letters that the loss of his ear was not necessarily self-mutilation. That surprised me! Gaugin was an avid fencer, and many believe that in a conspiracy of silence, Gaugin and Vincent kept quiet about the fact that Gaugin actually was the one who cut off his ear. It’s speculated that Vincent possibly kept quiet to try and salvage some vestige of their ruined friendship. If that was his intent, it didn’t work. They never again were friendly, but Gaugin praised Van Gogh’s ability to “keep quiet” in later letters and didn’t openly criticize him after leaving Arles. There is evidence to suggest that Van Gogh may have prompted the episode by threatening Gaugin with a razor prior to the “ear event”. Perhaps it got weird in the house with Vincent after that, and Gaugin armed and defended himself in response. Mental illness is scary sometimes. Who knows the truth? At this point we never will really know, but I thought it was juicy backstory I had not heard before.
Beyond the story of Van Gogh and Gaugin, the other big revelation for me today was the influence of Vincent’s prolific study of drawing upon his paintings. I told you earlier that he did a ton of drawings before he ever began to paint.
So many of us come to painting in mid-life and skip over the basic study of drawing. I never insist on a students prerequisite study of drawing, but I always say that at some point, every serious painter needs to take time to draw. Unfamiliarity with drawing will eventually hold you back. If you’ve never spent time drawing, or keeping a sketchbook, it may be time to get going! (Check my supply list if you want some suggestions of great sketchbooks.)
As I digested the sketches of Van Gogh, I was able to see the visual shorthand he developed while drawing. Over time, this became more and more personalized…even stylized. He usually used ink and pens to draw. In order to shade with ink, he often used hatch marks. The technique known as “hatching” is a way of making linear marks that create shadows. You’ve seen it, even if you’ve never registered the fact. Take a look at this drawing by Vincent Van Gogh and note the hatch marks.
When I looked at those hatch marks, I recognized something Van Gosh-ish there. The hatch marks are so reminiscent of his brush strokes! Those unique marks that we associate with the starry skies, the cypress trees and the wheat fields all have their foundations in those hatched drawings. Register that for a moment.
It comes down to a personal visual shorthand. This is much of what we love about Van Gogh. He had style. He depicted things his way. Of course it was not photorealistic or the normal academically accepted way, but then he was a little crazy right? Do you see the relationship to the hatching with his brush strokes in the painting below?
So what’s to be taken away from the lessons of today’s brush with Van Gogh? (pardon the pun…I couldn’t resist 😉 The lesson is: DRAW and DRAW SOME MORE.
Develop Your Own Unique Personal Visual Shorthand!
Do it with joy. Do it because it’s fun. Do it because it will help your painting. Do it to reinforce your experience of a place or of something that moves you….just DO IT.
That’s the lesson I felt moved to act upon, and promptly went out and sketched my way around town. What caught my attention were some of the interesting people I encountered. Here are a few excerpts from my sketchbook today…
Below are my initial notes from the Fondation Van Gogh’s exhibit on his drawings. I tried to simply write down all the thoughts I had, along with some of the quotes that struck me. (It’s a good thing because I think it was the last day of this particular exhibit.):
All in all, it was a great day spent contemplating the methods and madness of a master. I am definitely more enlightened as a result of my time here so far.
I hope today’s blog post may give you some food for thought as well…
I have a day in the car tomorrow, heading for Nice and hopefully a visit to the studio of Renoir once I get there. All the great emails and comments are so appreciated. Thanks for taking the time to check in while I’m away. Hearing from home is so comforting and encouraging!
Stay in touch and stay tuned…