Five things that Vincent van Gogh can teach us about falling in love with the process - Part 1

Benjamin Stevens

A pragmatic approach to creativity and the creative process

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In 2005, staff from The Phillips Collection and The Cleveland Museum of Art began an eight-year journey studying the creative process of Vincent van Gogh.

What they found contradicted popular opinion about van Gogh and the way in which he worked.

As early as 1883, van Gogh began recreating his own paintings. He would sketch a scene from life, and then reproduce it on a blank canvas in his studio. Through careful deliberation and thoughtfulness, he would paint the same subject several times over until he had captured its essence.

Van Gogh called these recreations repetitions. He painted many of his most famous works in this way. Many other repetitions reproduced the works of his favorite artists, such as Gauguin and Millet.

We will discover that repetitions were a significant part of van Gogh’s modus operandi. They allowed him to become a technically proficient artist. They also allowed him to creatively revisit familiar motifs or explore new ones.

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Composite detail of five paintings from The Postman series (1888–89). Courtesy of Cleveland Museum of Art.

The stereotypical view of van Gogh is of an artist whose creativity was fueled by intense mood swings and bursts of energy.

And while he could certainly paint with speed, his poor mental health was not some sort of fountain of creativity. It was in fact paralyzing:

I am so angry with myself because I cannot do what I should like to do, and at such a moment one feels as if one were lying bound hand and foot at the bottom of a deep dark well, utterly helpless.

Instead, it was his creative process that enabled him to churn out one masterpiece after the other.

Process gave him purpose during his darkest hours. Process strengthened his artistic voice and allowed him to produce meaningful work with limited resources.

But process was more than a way of working for van Gogh.

It was a way of life.

So what lessons can be learned?

What can photographers — indeed artists of all kinds — learn from van Gogh’s approach to creativity?

We will discover that it is a matter of choice.

We can choose to fall in love with the process — as van Gogh did — or we can choose to fall in love with the result.

In photography, the result we are after is, of course, a photograph. But when we become too focused on attaining a specific image, we can run into trouble.

From fellow photographer Guy Tal:

I watched a recent discussion among photographers sharing their experiences of the “one that got away.” Accounts ranged from sarcastic humor to profanity, always laced with a degree of anger and frustration. Behold, the results-oriented photographer: perpetually in a state of worry, stress, anger, and jitter, fighting a mighty battle against subjects, equipment, light, and time.

What causes this perpetual state of worry, stress, and anger in the results-oriented photographer?

Why do they battle against forces they have no control over?

The result-oriented photographer is some or all of the following:

Preoccupied

They possess a single-minded approach to their work, stopping at nothing to get the result they want. In striding toward what they think they want, they miss so much of what they actually need.

Dissatisfied

Those who concern themselves with results always revert to a baseline level of happiness — despite getting what they want. This is the hedonic treadmill, and like most treadmills, it is quite exhausting after a while.

Unfulfilled

Gazing at their photos of Mount Fitz Roy, they do not notice any piece of themselves gazing back. Uncomfortable with this realization, they search for the next high. Or in the case of the results-oriented photographer, the next landmark photography workshop.

Frustrated

Results-oriented thinking is black and white thinking. Bagging the keeper makes them feel like the best photographer in the world. But if they fail, they toy with giving their whole craft away. Perfectionism and disappointment go hand in hand since perfection is a false construct that the results-oriented photographer ceaselessly strives toward.

Distracted

The results-oriented photographer is desperate to cross the finish line first. But in doing so, they become ignorant of their surroundings. They cannot appreciate the world in any great depth. This closes off many creative avenues and stifles their artistic growth.

Unintentional

They are more concerned with following the crowd than they are their own intuition. They imitate the work of others with no thought of developing their own style. If the Wanaka Tree is the flavour of the month, then it is the Wanaka Tree they must shoot.

Process-orientation according to Vincent van Gogh

Preoccupation with the final result is a place we never want to be as photographers.

Process, as we will see, is much more rewarding in the long term.

But how do we become process-oriented exactly?

Let’s return to van Gogh and five characteristics of the process-oriented artist.

1) Process makes for unique work

When a photographer fixates on a particular image, it is not an image of their own conception. The image does not express their unique worldview or reflect their unique skillset.

The results-oriented photographer sacrifices process in favor of quick wins and known quantities. But what they have truly sacrificed is a chance to express themselves. To listen to their innermost desires and intuitions. To combine their experiences and interests in creative ways.

Van Gogh’s 1885 piece The Potato Eaters features peasants huddled around a dimly-lit table. Their faces haggard as they pour coffee and resign themselves to yet another meal of potato. Their gaunt expressions and bony hands portray souls hardened by years of manual labor. An oil lamp throws just enough light on their faces to depict how weary they are.

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The Potato Eaters (1885)

After release, The Potato Eaters suffered criticism for being technically imperfect. But today, it is considered van Gogh’s first masterpiece.

It is such considered because there is a piece of the artist in the painting.

Van Gogh was able to empathize with those who lived below the poverty line because he too was a man of limited means. But he also believed that subject knowledge was vital to artistic expression.

He lamented that art schools focused on technique and not on immersion. He would spend hours outdoors in all kinds of weather as his subjects labored in the potato fields.

In this way, he understood the psyche of peasants in a way few else could — save for the peasants themselves.

And it shone through in his work. The weary peasant faces in The Potato Eaters are the product of van Gogh’s intense portraiture studies. He drew peasants in profile hundreds of times over and painted them engaged in everyday chores.

He strove to paint their faces “the color of a good dusty potato, unpeeled naturally”. The faces are out of proportion, but this does not weaken the peasant condition and their connection to the land. Nor does it weaken van Gogh’s artistic purpose — these are real salt-of-the-earth people and he wants you to know it.

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Peasant and Peasant Woman Planting Potatoes (1885)

The Potato Eaters was many years in the making. It was the product of sketches, trial paintings, and immersion in working-class families.

It was a labor of love for van Gogh, later remarking that he was “plowing on my canvas as they do on their fields”.

This is now the end of Part 1! Good on you for reading this far. In Part 2, I want to talk about purpose and intent, among other things.

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Photographer and writer who is passionate about creativity, mindfulness and philosophy.

Seattle, WA
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