Five things that Vincent van Gogh can teach us about falling in love with the process - Part 2

Benjamin Stevens

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Welcome to Part 2! Let's continue where we left off, beginning with the importance of purpose and intent and how each interacts with the process in an endless, continuous fashion.

2) Process gives purpose and intent

The process-oriented photographer is not concerned with crossing the finish line first. To win would be to deviate from their purpose. It would be an admission that they had perfected their craft and had nothing left to learn.

The process-oriented photographer does not wait for the stars to align before they feel creative. Since they delight in the process, they are only too willing to roll up their sleeves and get to work.

Of course, they are not immune to fear or a perceived lack of creativity. It’s just that they meet these obstacles head-on, avoiding quick wins and instant gratification.

Van Gogh was also well acquainted with the fear of creating art and the internal dialogue that goes with it:

Just slap anything on when you see a blank canvas staring you in the face like some imbecile. You don’t know how paralyzing that is, that stare of a blank canvas is, which says to the painter, “You can’t do a thing.”
The canvas has an idiotic stare and mesmerizes some painters so much that they turn into idiots themselves. Many painters are afraid in front of the blank canvas, but the blank canvas is afraid of the real, passionate painter who dares and who has broken the spell of ‘you can’t’ once and for all.

In the late 19th century, he never had to worry about smartphones or 24-hour news. But he did have distractions, nonetheless. He was paralysed by anxiety and episodic severe depression. He also faced periods of scrutiny and rejection, often by members of his own family.

How did van Gogh move through these obstacles without the aid of modern medicine and therapy?

How did he tame the blank canvas?

Drawing.

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Worn Out (1882)

He produced over 1,000 drawings during his decade-long career, with more likely lost to history.

Drawing was his way of fleshing out an idea before committing to painting it. Drawing was a way to become a better artist by learning about perspective. It was a way to capture fleeting light and shadow where painting would have been too slow.

He also used drawing to move out of analysis paralysis. To pick up a pencil and create art.

What is drawing? It is working oneself through an invisible iron wall that seems to stand between what one feels and one what can do.

Drawings accompanied many of van Gogh’s letters to his brother Theo — many of which have become works of art in their own right.

These particular drawings helped van Gogh clarify his artistic direction. It also helped him communicate his worldview to others.

Drawing is the root of everything, and the time spent on that is actually all profit.

Drawing also helped him deal with his life as an isolated, mentally ill artist.

It is only too true that a lot of artists are mentally ill — it’s a life which, to put it mildly, makes one an outsider. I’m all right when I completely immerse myself in work, but I’ll always remain half crazy.

In the final two years of his life, van Gogh continued to draw at an astonishing rate.

It remained a source of focused study and comfort. He drew scenes repeatedly to find the most effective way of painting them. He continued to draw reproductions of works he enjoyed to see if there was a fresh take on them.

In 1886, van Gogh cut off his own ear and then admitted himself to an asylum.

His famous Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear speaks of a humble and forlorn man who is at his wit's end with mental illness. There is a look of dejection on his face and a tacit admission of a battle almost lost.

But amidst the utter despair enveloping his life, van Gogh continued to create. A blank easel sits behind his right shoulder, suggesting his story had more time to run. A favorite Japanese print sits behind his left shoulder — no doubt reproduced and adapted to suit his style at the time.

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Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear (1889)

During his stay at the asylum, his health continued to deteriorate. He tried to poison himself on several occasions by ingesting turpentine, paraffin, and his own paints. Despite this, van Gogh remained faithful to process and produced many of his most famous works.

The Starry Night (1889) is one such example. It was inspired by his admiring of the stars from his bedroom in the middle of the night.

In visualising this work, he remained committed to his process of repetitions. He relished the opportunity to paint a difficult night scene, a fact further complicated by not being allowed to paint from his bedroom at night.

As such, the night sky is painted from memory. It is expressive and energetic, portraying celestial objects with exaggerated form and colour.

In total, van Gogh made 21 repetitions of this scene. Some were painted and others were drawn. They were captured at different times of the day and under various weather conditions.

His process gave him the intent to see The Starry Night through to completion. And while he was ambivalent about the finished work, it is today one of his most admired.

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The Starry Night (1889)

Self-Portrait without Beard (1889) depicts van Gogh after he fell out with fellow artist Paul Gauguin. In this self-portrait, he cuts a lonely and melancholic figure. His angular facial features seem to channel the peasants from his first masterpiece The Potato Eaters.

But instead of the hard physical labor of toil, it is the burden of mental illness that has left van Gogh exhausted.

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Self-Portrait without Beard (1889)

Amongst the chaos of his own life and his “companions in misfortune” at the asylum in Saint-Rémy, van Gogh remained committed to drawing and indeed to process.

We have now reached the end of Part 2! In Part 3 of this extended series, I want to touch on van Gogh's resourcefulness - a character trait that was by design and also by accident Then, I take a look at van Gogh's passion and love for artmaking, something that ultimately served him well during his frequent bouts of mental illness.

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

Seattle, WA
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