Five things that Vincent van Gogh can teach us about falling in love with the process - Part 3

Benjamin Stevens

Welcome to Part 3! Let's begin!

3) Process encourages resourcefulness, resourcefulness encourages process

The process-oriented photographer makes use of what they have.

They don’t consider an expensive workshop the epitome of creative photography. They don’t waste vast sums of money on equipment in the vain hope it will improve their work.

Resourceful photographers realise they are in control of their destiny. And with this realisation, that worthwhile images are not tied to location or equipment but come from within.

Van Gogh was adept at working with what he had.

He drew with pencil, chalk, charcoal and a pen he fashioned from reeds growing behind his house. He also recycled his materials and canvases. Modern analysis has found several paintings under van Gogh originals — he simply painted over works he wasn’t happy with to save money.

His choice of subject matter was also resourceful. If he couldn’t afford a model, he would paint himself. And paint himself he did, making at least 30 self-portraits in the last 3 years of his life.

He painted flowers to practice using bright colours. But when he couldn’t find fresh flowers during winter, he bought old shoes instead. One particular pair he wore through the mud after buying to make them as dishevelled and characterful as possible.

A Pair of Shoes (1886)

Starved of subject matter during his stay at the asylum, van Gogh returned to interpretations of other artist’s paintings. He also made variations on his own works. When permitted to venture outdoors, he would paint whatever he saw in the asylum gardens.

Whether through necessity or artistic direction, he made use of what was available to him.

On the road that I’m on I must continue; if I do nothing, if I don’t study, if I don’t keep on trying, then I’m lost, then woe betide me. That’s how I see this, to keep on, keep on, that’s what’s needed.

He was also a resourceful artist. He did not need all of his ducks to be in a row to paint.

In modern pop psychology, we now understand this concept well.

Action comes before inspiration, instead of the reverse. To suggest van Gogh’s lack of wealth meant he used whatever he could get his hands would be too convenient.

Even as a man of limited means, he realised the importance of consistency. Of getting started and pushing through obstacles.

Had he waited for inspiration or to come into riches, many of his most prized works would never have been created.

4) Process comes from love and passion

Everyone who works with love and with intelligence finds in the very sincerity of his love for nature and art a kind of armor against the opinions of other people.

The process-oriented photographer is a photographer who enjoys the journey. Who enjoys taking the time to understand something so well that it shines through in their work.

In modern terms, the things we understand well are often our passions. We love our passions to such an extent that we persist long enough to have something to say about them.

Van Gogh believed that love was essential to the creative process:

In order to work and to become an artist one needs love. At least, one who wants sentiment in his work must in the first place feel it himself, and live with his heart.

Although he uses the term love, we can use passion and love interchangeably. Both must be felt before any art with feeling can be made.

While van Gogh never considered himself a landscape painter, he had a passionate understanding of nature and how people interacted with the land.

The son of a protestant pastor, he was a shy child who spent his free time observing nature in the Dutch countryside.

After short stints as an art dealer, language teacher and lay preacher, he felt a longing to serve humanity.

He studied theology, and then took a 3-month trial in evangelism. But after a sub-standard performance, he was not told he would not be admitted to the course.

In the winter of 1879–80, he left the Netherlands to perform missionary work in the Borinage — a disadvantaged coal-mining region of Belgium.

But conflict would follow him there, too.

Although kind and empathic, church authorities believed he lacked the communication skills to become a preacher. Dismissed from his post, a destitute and religiously lost van Gogh returned home.

Soon after, he decided to make a serious go of being an artist and dedicate his life to shining a light on the poor.

I want to give the wretched a brotherly message. When I sign [my paintings] ‘Vincent,’ it is as one of them.

Head of a Young Peasant with a Peaked Cap (1885)

Back in the Netherlands, the poor were not coal miners but peasants who laboured in the fields.

Van Gogh became attuned to peasant life and the almost rhythmic cycles it followed. The sowing and reaping of crops, for example, was a subject he returned to again and again.

He had a similar love of nature. He loved it to the extent that he missed it when it was gone.

After spending 2 years in Paris enduring the ‘filthy Paris wine and the filthy fat of the steaks’, he moved to Arles.

In the south of France, he was rejuvenated:

I’m in a fury of work as the trees are in blossom and I wanted to do a Provence orchard of tremendous gaiety.

In the latter stages of his career, van Gogh painted nature heavy with symbolism. In Arles, he completed his Butterflies series, using them as a metaphor for the transformational nature of life and artistic progression. He reasoned that caterpillars were not as beautiful as butterflies, but that all butterflies had to first be caterpillars before they were appreciated.

One particular painting he made in the gardens at Saint-Paul Asylum is particularly striking.

It was of a giant peacock moth which he later admitted he would have had to kill to paint accurately. Of course, the nature-loving van Gogh could never do such a thing. He instead returned to process, quickly sketching the specimen so that it could be painted in more detail later.

In the finished work Great Peacock Moth, his love of nature and expressive use of verdant, lush colour are apparent. This expressiveness is more pronounced in the foliage behind the moth, which he had to paint from memory.

Great Peacock Moth (1889)

While held up in the asylum shortly thereafter, he wrote letters to Theo listing in detail the flowers he’d seen in the walled gardens.

He continued to draw nature in all its glory, noting to Theo that despite his condition, “I still have work to do”.

He drew whatever he came across. Dandelions, daisies and violets. Pines, cypresses and olive trees. The changing seasons, which had so delighted him during his formative years in the Netherlands.

In most of van Gogh’s work from this time, he continued to find inspiration in his love of natural rhythms.

His work Wheat Field with Cypresses portrays a field of wheat in exquisite detail. The wheat is ripe and appears to huddle together against the intense sun as it waits to be harvested.

I have a canvas of cypresses with some ears of wheat, some poppies, a blue sky like a piece of Scotch plaid; the former painted with a thick impasto like the Monticelli’s, and the wheat field in the sun, which represents the extreme heat, very thick too.

Wheat Field with Cypresses (September 1889)

Van Gogh would paint wheat in all its forms many times over his life. He loved wheat because it cycled between life and death. He loved it because it could be destroyed at any moment by the forces of nature. He appreciated the peasants who tended to the wheat and the lives of toil they lead in doing so.

In another 1889 work, he painted Peasant Woman Bruising Flax (after Millet). As the name suggests, this is a reproduction of a black and white original made by Millet around 1850. But in van Gogh’s interpretation, he painted the woman in colour using his signature impasto brushstrokes.

Peasant Woman Bruising Flax (after Millet) (September 1889)

Of course, this was not imitation for imitation’s sake. Van Gogh’s confidence had been shattered by his continual setbacks and he attempted to rebuild it by studying the work of artists he adored.

Even at this late stage, his love of the peasant life and commitment to process shone brightly.

We have now reached the end of Part 3! In the fourth and final part of this series, I want to talk about process in the context of imitation and inspiration.

Until next time!

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

Seattle, WA

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