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Painting in the Key of Vincent

By Jane Tomlinson

Being an artist, a life-drawing teacher and an van Gogh enthusiast, frequently I am asked by amateur painters and students alike "so how do I learn to paint like Vincent van Gogh?"

It's a complex question to which the answer is "you shouldn't" and "you should", and here's why.

You may start by reading a book such as "Van Gogh: The History and Techniques of the Great Masters" by William Hardy (ISBN: 0-7858-0796-9) which is pretty basic. Many others are of a far more technical/curatorial/scientific nature (the exact pigment/chemical structure used in Van Gogh's paintings). You can read books and study all you like, but the ONLY way to learn to paint is by DOING it yourself. You will be your harshest critic and you should heartily ignore the opinions of others (as Vincent did), because ONLY YOU know precisely if what you have in mind is what you have put down on paper/canvas. Let your painting talk back to you as you progress it, don't force it into positions it doesn't want to be in. Let me try to explain: in graphic art you must plan and have a clear vision of what you expect to see at the end. In fine art, the artist should enter a conversation with his creation as it is being created and learn to react to its changing surface. Here's how to learn to paint, the way Vincent did... the hard way! I can offer you no magic wand or secret formula, because there isn't one. Buy yourself a stack of paper or cheap canvas substitute that you will be happy to chuck away and then *get painting*. After you have completed 50 images you might have one, maybe two if you're lucky, that satisfy you. It's good for the soul to chuck away at least half of the ones that didn't make it, because it forces you not to be PRECIOUS about everything you do. This is important! If, every time you pick up your brushes, you think you're going to produce a prize-winning, saleable image then you're living in cloud cuckoo land and setting yourself up for crushing disappointment every time. But if you approach it will reckless joy, spontaneity and complete abandon, you are likely to produce something noteworthy. It is worth remembering that most of the works Vincent produced, he himself referred to as "studies", not finished paintings.

But there is so much to be learned from Vincent that doesn't involve copying his style or motifs but does involve his use of about colour, methods of composition, practicing his grim determination and how to put expression and emotion in with every brushstroke. But insofar as you might want to learn to paint like Vincent, I ask you this difficult question.... Why? And why don't you want to paint like YOU? I think that you will far more successful if you try to paint like YOU.

For example, everyone has a distinct style of handwriting. If a friend writes you a letter, you will know whom it is from even before you have seen the signature. In addition to the shape and size of the letterforms, they may have a characteristic turn of phrase, like to always use brown ink, or consistently make the same spelling errors. It's the same with brushstrokes and paint application. Every artist has his or her own "handwriting." The trick is not to copy someone else's but develop and nurture your own. Only then can your paintings truly reflect your unique visual statement. But, of course, it is very useful to study how the great masters do this. So feel free to study Vincent's techniques. Here are just a few ideas about how you might do this on a very practical basis.

  1. Look hard at everything.

  2. *Create a still life* - don't copy Vincent's motifs and compositions! - create your own using some fruit, a teacup and coffee jug, some flowers, an old boot, whatever, but something you like

  3. Spend half an hour *just looking* at your subject before you make a single mark, and try to think about how Vincent might have tackled this subject- would he have raised the eye level? or looked down on it? How would he have cropped it? Which bits would he have concentrated on and why? Which bits interest you?

  4. Whatever medium you are using, draw it out with paint. (Don't use a pencil or charcoal first!)

  5. Make some images of your still life adopting Vincent's palette and *colour theory*.

  6. Look again!

  7. Practice making the kinds of *marks* which Vincent did, (why not use the same still life as you set up for the previous exercise, by which time you will familiar with the motif and better able to concentrate on the exercise and not the composition), and see if you are comfortable making marks this way - you may not be. So what marks do you like to use? If you know, why not develop and nurture these? I can't paint Vincent's way because it looks utterly contrived, very weak and just not "me". My best painting happens when I try to make the marks which feel the most appropriate to me according to my mood, what I am feeling about the subject, what medium I am using, etc.

  8. Look some more!!

  9. See if you can make a *self portrait* using only Vincent-like brushstrokes - and try to complete it at one sitting! (I have tried this, it's bloody hard, but a FANTASTICALLY revealing exercise, especially if you DON'T try to get a likeness - concentrate on the FEELING.)
And actually this is the key: the FEELING. Because that is the power of Vincent's works - we feel the heat and hear the cicadas singing in"Harvest Landscape", we hear the summer breezes blowing over the rustling, restless cornfields of Auvers sur Oise, and we know the anguish and pain of the old man in "Sorrow".

So good luck, get painting and most of all HAVE FUN!

All the best,

Jane Tomlinson

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