Welcome to the fourth and final part of this short series.
Let's pick up where we left off in Part 3.
5) Process borrows but never imitates
The results-oriented photographer defaults to copying others very early on. Whether through laziness, ignorance, or disinterest, they rarely graduate from this point.
The process-oriented photographer borrows freely from other artists. They allow their inspiration to take them where it may without crossing the line into plagiarism.
Van Gogh began his career with the intense study of books on technique, perspective, and anatomy.
He learned to draw by imitating the work of others. Early in his career, French artist Jean-François Millet was a major influence. So too was Rembrandt, who inspired van Gogh to paint in dark, earthly colors.
In 1886, he moved to Paris and became immersed in new ways of thinking.
There were Impressionists such as Monet, who painted outdoors using bright colors.
There were Pointillists, who used small, distinct dots of color to form an overall image. Self-Portrait with Grey Felt Hat is a tribute to the Pointillism of Seurat and Signac. But the directional, energetic brushstrokes and complementary color use are uniquely van Gogh.
Self-Portrait with Grey Felt Hat (1887)
There was also the French painter Adolphe Monticelli, whose impasto brushstrokes were a precursor to much of van Gogh’s work.
There were the Cloisonnists, who liked to paint bold, flat forms separated by dark contours. The Cloisonnists, in turn, drew inspiration from Japanese art and its similar use of strong outlines and flat panes of color.
In fact, van Gogh developed a love affair with Japanese prints. He enjoyed their simple yet powerful compositions. He also enjoyed the ability of Japanese artists to draw accurately yet spontaneously. He was so infatuated with Japanese art that he bought over 600 such prints during his life.
If you study Japanese art, you see a man who is undoubtedly wise, philosophic, and intelligent who spends his time how? In studying the distance between the earth and the moon? No. In studying the policy of Bismarck? No. He studies a single blade of grass. But this blade of grass leads him to draw every plant and then the seasons, the wide aspect of the countryside, then animals, then the human figure. So he passes his life, and life is too short to do the whole.
He later traveled to the south of France in search of the right conditions to bring his Japanese obsession to life. Ostensibly, to find a little piece of Japan and make it his own.
Of course, it wasn’t possible to actually find Japan in the south of France. But van Gogh was after what he called the “Japanese dream”. He believed in the rather utopian depiction of nature by Japanese artists, uncorrupted by Western industrialization. He was also, as the above quote suggests, borrowing the Japanese artist’s way of life and applying it to his own creative process.
Almond Blossoms (1890)
In his final years in the French countryside, van Gogh was an artist at the height of his powers. But he never forgot where he came from.
In 1880, he was a rank amateur who imitated Millet to learn the disciplines of drawing. Nine years later and emotionally tortured, we learned that he turned to Millet for a different reason. He was a borrower, not an imitator, and sought comfort and solace in the process.
Anyway, especially now I am ill, I am trying to create something to comfort me, for my own pleasure. I put the black and white by or after Delacroix or Millet in front of me to use as a motif. And then I improvise in colour […] seeking reminiscences of their paintings; but the memory, the vague consonance of colours while are at least correct in spirit, that is my interpretation.
Some final thoughts
Some photographers start down the paths of others and wonder why they feel unfulfilled. Many more skip the path entirely in their dogged pursuit of the end result. Each approach is a short-term solution and like a cheap thrill, leaves the photographer craving more.
Why not try process instead?
To love the process, you have to love what you do. Find out what you love to do and then become really good at loving it. But by all means, try something new if you’re not sure what lights you up.
Give photography your all and be the best you can be. Don’t worry about having all your ducks in a row. Be resourceful. Start from scratch with purpose and intent. Learn the ropes and borrow from others without imitating. Read widely, and expose yourself to other photographers who are further along the path than you.
Landscape with Carriage and Train in the Background (1890)
Van Gogh’s devotion to process elevated him from a no-name amateur to a master painter in under a decade. But he was hampered by his mental health and it remained a constant thorn in his side.
It was art (and indeed the process of making art) that afforded him some degree of stability. That he became one of the most celebrated artists of all time is a byproduct of his persistence and grit.
His love of the working class and the natural world was the backbone of his work.
But he did not immediately associate these passions with art. It was only after several false starts that he closed in on discovering his true purpose. His loves were his passions, and he persisted long enough to find them a meaningful outlet.
As a burgeoning artist, he admired the greats who had gone before him. He drew inspiration from a wide range of styles, subjects, and methods. He was not afraid to experiment with new ideas and incorporate them into his work. Accepting and open to new influences, he had the confidence to stand behind his process.
After years of intense study, he had developed a deliberate and systematic way of working. It was also highly individual. Even when incorporating a new influence into his work, his rock-solid process and style were always apparent.
The process-oriented artist, as Guy Tal states, does not “let their pursuit of results distract them from appreciating the magic, the nature, and the humanity of their unfolding journeys.”
I like to think that van Gogh derived at least some satisfaction from the best parts of his journey — even if it wasn’t always smooth sailing.
Some believe that the great travesty of his life was that he was on the cusp of fame and fortune before he died. I wonder if the greater travesty lies elsewhere. That his zest for art and life was not enough to overcome the immense sadness which ultimately consumed him.