lessons from Van Gogh

I think all artists can learn something from other artists, even if their medium isn’t the same. For example, though I’m on a writing quest in my own life, a painter like Van Gogh still holds a lot of education and inspiration for me.

[Full confession first, of course: I spent some time last week re-watching some of my favorite Doctor Who episodes, one of which is “Vincent and the Doctor.” So I got kicked into an “awww, I love Vincey” mood and got curious about what his lesser-known paintings looked like, and that’s how this post got started…]

At this marvelous website, a huge list of Van Gogh paintings can be viewed in chronological order of creation. Remember, Van Gogh* was an artist who never got to experience fame in his lifetime; in fact, he only sold one of his hundreds of paintings. He had no idea how famous and influential his work would later become. Yet he persevered through such discouragement, and we are all grateful for it.

Guess what? He’s actually a great example of the importance of practice and persistence. I say that because I spent time clicking through every single picture at that website, in chronological order, and…

I kind of thought his early stuff stunk.

Not all of it… here are a few that I enjoyed:

"Edge of a Wood," 1882

“Edge of a Wood,” 1882

"Bulb Fields," 1883

“Bulb Fields,” 1883

"Autumn Landscape," 1885

“Autumn Landscape,” 1885

However, many of his paintings are strangely dark–not like “morbid” or “scary” but like “dude, won’t you light your candlleees“–as seen in this one:

"Footbridge Across a Ditch," 1883

“Footbridge Across a Ditch,” 1883

And then he wasted a lot of time painting various “peasant women.” I’ll save you the struggle of clicking through all the links; anything that has “peasant woman” in the title is basically a sliiiiight variation of this:

"Head of an Old Peasant Woman with White Cap," 1884

“Head of an Old Peasant Woman with White Cap,” 1884

But many of his landscapes are beautiful. You can start to see him playing here with the swirling motions that would end up in Starry Night, which I believe is considered the most famous of his paintings:

"Landscape at Sunset," 1885

“Landscape at Sunset,” 1885

He also drew a skull smoking, which, come on… kind of awesome before his time, eh? You can’t go anywhere without seeing skull motifs anymore:

"Skull with Burning Cigarette," 1885

“Skull with Burning Cigarette,” 1885

As the years went on, Van Gogh kept experimenting, developing, and improving:

"Bridge Across the Seine at Asnieres," 1887

“Bridge Across the Seine at Asnieres,” 1887

"Fritillaries in a Copper Vase," 1887

“Fritillaries in a Copper Vase,” 1887

"Fishing Boats on the Beach at Saintes Maries," 1888

“Fishing Boats on the Beach at Saintes Maries,” 1888

"Wheat Field with Cypresses," 1889

“Wheat Field with Cypresses,” 1889

I think one of the reasons I like him so much is his frequent use of bright blues and yellows (my wedding colors) and, of course, his interest in sunflowers (my wedding flowers)… good taste, Vincent ;)

"Two Cut Sunflowers," 1887

“Two Cut Sunflowers,” 1887

"Cafe Terrace on the Place du Forum Arles at Night," 1888

“Cafe Terrace on the Place du Forum Arles at Night,” 1888

"Starry Night over the Rhone," 1888

“Starry Night over the Rhone,” 1888

"Still Life: Vase with Twelve Sunflowers," 1889

“Still Life: Vase with Twelve Sunflowers,” 1889

"Blossoming Almond Tree," 1890

“Blossoming Almond Tree,” 1890

Van Gogh, despite being unloved, unsuccessful, and unsupported overall, kept painting. He followed his passion and practiced it in the hope that he would improve and finally find success. Look how much more advanced he gets from one of his earliest paintings (1882):

"Man Stooping with Stick or Spade," 1882

“Man Stooping with Stick or Spade,” 1882

to his most famous painting, done in 1889:

"Starry Night," 1889

“Starry Night,” 1889

“Try to see what I see. We’re so lucky we’re still alive to see this beautiful world. Look at the sky. It’s not dark and black and without character. The black is in fact deep blue. And over there! Lights are blue. And blue in through the blueness, and the blackness, the winds swirling through the air… and then shining. Burning, bursting through! The stars, can you see how they roll their light? Everywhere we look, complex magic of nature blazes before our eyes.”
~ Vincent Van Gogh as portrayed in the Doctor Who episode, “Vincent and the Doctor.”

Van Gogh’s technique improved over time, within just ten years! He figured out what worked for him and evolved the unique style that we know him for–which, if I had any kind of art background beyond learning to use a color wheel in a 6th grade GATE event, I might be able to accurately describe. He was prolific and painted the messages and beauty that he wanted to paint in the short time that he had. He knew he loved to paint and had to keep painting, even if he wasn’t making money or becoming famous for it.

Hopefully, you see the applicable lessons to writing here.

It’s nice to look at his artistic path of growth because it’s so much more visual than mine. Clearly, he had talent early on, but it needed to be developed–and it was. His later art, 1887-1890, are all far better than his earlier paintings.

I need to remember to look at my old writings when I’m feeling down on myself to see that yes, I’ve made progress too! I no longer closely mimic other writers (seriously, when I was 12 I “created” this great world full of unicorns that 3 kids stumbled into and had adventures, aaaand basically it was Narnia) but have developed my own voice and style, understand characterization much more, and can vary my syntax and vocabulary much more now than in years before. I have many years of writing stretched before me to continue to grow, develop, learn, and improve.

And if nobody ever wants my stuff? Well, that’ll be okay. I write because I have stories inside of me, characters who need to get out and live their lives on the page. It is my passion and I would wither if I tried to ignore it. Quitting is not an option and beauty takes time: those are some things to take away from Van Gogh and his paintings today.

“He transformed the pain of his tormented life into ecstatic beauty. Pain is easy to portray, but to use your passion and pain to portray the ecstasy and joy and magnificence of our world; no one had ever done it before.”
~ The curator character discussing Van Gogh in the Doctor Who episode

* Also note that Van Gogh’s life was written about by none other than Christopher Moore, in another of his books, “Sacre Bleu.” I wrote about enjoying his fictitious portrayals of historical people in an earlier post (namely Jesus, in Lamb).


These two paintings made me laugh because the first “girl with ruffled hair” looks like David Bowie in Labyrinth and the “nude woman on bed” looks like Mr. Bean:

"Girl with Ruffled Hair," 1888... vs David Bowie in "Labyrinth," 1986

“Girl with Ruffled Hair,” 1888… vs David Bowie in “Labyrinth,” 1986

"Nude Woman on a Bed," 1887, is clearly Mr. Bean

“Nude Woman on a Bed,” 1887, is clearly Mr. Bean. I censored it because nobody needs to see Mr. Bean’s pubic hair today, okay??


Maybe Vincent really did travel in time with the Doctor!!

:) Anyway… be inspired by Vincent

"Self Portrait with Straw Hat," 1887

“Self Portrait with Straw Hat,” 1887

"Self Portrait," 1889

“Self Portrait,” 1889

and his beautiful paintings

"Enclosed Field with Rising Sun," 1889

“Enclosed Field with Rising Sun,” 1889

"Still Life: Vase with Irises," 1890

“Still Life: Vase with Irises,” 1890

to follow your dreams… like creating a pile of books all written by you!

"Still Life with French Novels and a Rose," 1887

“Still Life with French Novels and a Rose,” 1887

"Still Life: French Novels," 1888

“Still Life: French Novels,” 1888



Filed under Inspiration

7 responses to “lessons from Van Gogh

  1. Tim Barzyk

    I’ve heard more and more and MORE lit agents talk about the value of persistence and progress — you are absolutely right — it takes time and a certain degree of artistic stubbornness to continue to work on it and improve.

    Very nice post — Van Gogh, Doctor Who, writing…it’s got it ALL!!! :-)

    • Haha thank you, Tim! I figure any time I can bring in Doctor Who, it’s a good day.
      I’m glad to hear that lit agents are extolling the virtues of persistence and writing progress, too. My goal this year is to send out my first query letters ever, so I expect to be learning a lot of lessons about persistence in that situation…

  2. One can always learn from Van Gogh. Thanks for sharing this awesome blog! I look forward to more from you. http://www.segmation.wordpress.com

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